Even so, no one can truly understand the land that inspired Dorothy Parker’s mordant one-liner “American as a sawed-off shotgun” unless he has held–ideally, fired–a gun, felt the perverse sensuality of the way it fits your grip, thrilled to the queasy buzz of knowing that a twitch of your finger can kill.
In a country where the gap between the power elite and the politically impotent million, frantically bailing out their underwater mortgages, yawns wider by the minute; a country where the consoling fiction of the level playing field and the aspirational fantasies fanned by celebrity culture parry any hint of class consciousness, owning a gun is the closest countless downwardly mobile Americans will ever come to any sense of immediate empowerment.
To be American is to feel that handgun ownership is your birthright; that you’re somehow incomplete, nagged by an itchy phantom limb, without a gun.
If you’re a boomer, growing up American meant growing up with the ricochet of gunshots–Dealey Plaza, the Audubon Ballroom, the Lorraine Motel, The Ambassador Hotel, My Lai, the Zodiac Killer, Kent State, the Freeway Killer, Son of Sam, the Dakota–as the soundtrack to your restless sleep.
Paradoxically, it also meant growing up in a country that embraces a perverse faith in “regeneration through violence” (Slotkin). In American myth, the act of pulling the trigger is reimagined as an exuberant, youthful nation’s verdict on the dead weight of the past, reinventing yourself and remaking the world in a split second. On the big screen of the American unconscious, guilt-free sociopaths like Charlie Starkweather merge with perpetual adolescents like Huckleberry Finn and Dean Moriarty, yielding the devil-may-care thrill killers of Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands, True Romance, and Natural Born Killers. Lighting out for the territories, they’re fired by a kind of joie de tuer that is a gunfighter nation’s idea of joie de vivre. “Sirhan Sirhan shot Robert F. Kennedy. And Ethel M. Kennedy shot Judith Birnbaum. And Judith Birnbaum shot Elizabeth Bochnak. And Elizabeth Bochnak shot Andrew Witwer,” writes J.G. Ballard, in the endless, lunatic genealogy of his “Generations of America,” a Swiftian satire of our pathological faith in the promise of violence to Make It New.
Growing up in ’60s America meant reliving the tragedy of the Native-American genocide as farce while shoveling in your Swanson Salisbury Steak TV dinner: Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Death Valley Days, The Rifleman, The Virginian, The Big Valley, Branded, Have Gun–Will Travel, The High Chaparral, Rawhide, Wagon Train–the list of prime-time westerns seems endless, in hindsight. These and dozens of shows popped out of the same mold schooled Americans in the lesson that there’s no problem so complex it can’t be resolved with violence. (A lesson taken to heart by cheerleaders for American exceptionalism and architects of imaginary empire like Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld and William Kristol, who wrote in their manifesto for a “new American century” that the United States must assume its rightful “constabulary” role in global affairs, capable of outgunning the best-armed posse in town.) PTSD’d by race riots and Vietnam war protests, the America of the ’60s rejuvenated its dream of itself by returning nightly to a Disneyfied version of its frontier youth.
For boys–even boys like this author, whose liberal-ish parents fulminated against the soul-scarring effects of “violent toys”–growing up in that America meant dreaming of guns. Cap guns, whose sweetly acrid smell is a grace note in memories of my boyhood summers. The impressively realistic toy Peacemaker in the Sears Roebuck catalog, with the tie that lashed its holster to your thigh for gunslinger cool and those little pellets that made smoke trail convincingly from the gun’s barrel when you fired it. The Johnny Seven One-Man Army, a super-gun whose sheer overkill–it rolled a grenade launcher, anti-tank rocket, anti-bunker missile, rifle, machine gun, and automatic pistol into one mega-weapon–launched a million power fantasies, making it the best-selling boys’ toy of 1964. Daisy BB rifles, like the one my friend came within a whisker of blinding his kid brother with one languid, directionless afternoon when his parents weren’t home (why weren’t the parents ever home, in ’60s Southern California?). And of course real guns, like the .22 my older buddies, longhaired brothers who embodied cool itself, used to obliterate beer cans. Later, when their father died by his own hand, I thought of the locked gun case in their family room, a shrine to quiet menace, and of cans lined up for execution in the summer sun, jumping to life at the instant of impact.
So constant a presence was the sound of gunplay in the dream life of that era that the image of rapt little faces, lit by the flicker of the cathode-ray tube and accompanied by the bang! zing! of gunplay, is now iconic, triggering boomer nostalgia for the days before social and technological change blew mass culture into a million little microniches– a time when America was One Nation Under Neilsen, tuning in for the same shows at the same time.
The media cut-up band Negativland captures–and critiques–the vibe of the times in its deadpan “Guns,” an eight-minute welter of dialogue and sound effects from ’60s toy-gun commercials and westerns, set against a darkly atmospheric backdrop of windswept synths and thudding electro beats. All-American tykes in wild-west outfits slap leather, fill their hands, draw a bead on outlaws. A scruffy cowpoke falls dead with his harmonica still in his mouth, a newscaster announces the death of Martin Luther King, Jack Ruby shoots Oswald live on TV. “Very good shooting,” a voice drawls, just before JFK crumples in the presidential limousine. Pennsylvania State Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer puts a pistol in his mouth and commits suicide on camera. A commercial voiceover chirps, “Quaker Puffed Rice Sparkys . . . and Quaker Puffed Wheat Sparkys! Those delicious, nutritious breakfast cereals . . . shot from guns!!!”