Gun Play: An American Tragedy, in Three Acts

Act II.

Vintage ad for Mattel’s M-16 Marauder

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 heldideally, fireda 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 gunshotsDealey Plaza, the Audubon Ballroom, the Lorraine Motel, The Ambassador Hotel, My Lai, the Zodiac Killer, Kent State, the Freeway Killer, Son of Sam, the Dakotaas 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 Trainthe 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.

Daisy BB Gun Ad

For boyseven 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 overkillit rolled a grenade launcher, anti-tank rocket, anti-bunker missile, rifle, machine gun, and automatic pistol into one mega-weaponlaunched 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 capturesand critiquesthe 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!!!”


More From Thought Catalog

  • Andrew Farr


  • Mark


  • Heather

    Whoa, this was really good.

  • Bruno Dion

    Damn, that was great.

  • Mark Dery

    Thanks, all.

  • Nikki


    • Mark Dery

      Kind of you to say, thanks.

  • Mike Baker

    Wow. Brilliant writing. Get ready. This is going to be referenced all over the internet and beyond.

    • Mark Dery

      Thanks, Mike. The comment-thread Mensans over at Boing Boing are busying themselves torching a straw man version of my argument. Of course, actually READING the essay you're lambasting takes so much time. Easier to squeeze off a load of snark and move on, secure in the knowledge that you've won some LULZ from the crowd.
      So: Thanks for taking the time to actually read me.

  • Grognard

    You lost all credibility the minute you said “Native-American genocide”. Atrocities were committed, no doubt, but by both sides. Whats more, there are more native Americans alive today then there ever were.

    This piece would be far more credible if you mentioned the number of crimes prevented by guns in the US. That is sort of required for context, it it not? You simply cant just present one side of the story and expect to be taken seriously.

    • Mark Dery

      I see. So if there are more, say, Armenians alive today than before the Turkish genocide of the Armenians, it would logically follow that the genocide never happened? Fascinating.
      As for the alleged parity between atrocities committed by Native Americans and U.S. citizens and their government, who said anything about atrocities? Apples and oranges.
      The government-sanctioned extermination campaign against the so-called Indian tribe is a matter of public record, as exhaustively evidenced as the Holocaust.
      Exhibit A:
      Exhibit B:
      Exhibit C:
      The list goes on. Endlessly.
      As for lives SAVED by guns, I presume you mean guns in law-enforcement hands? That would be the empirically sound point to make, and one I'd readily grant, since guns purchased for self-protection are statistically more likely to be used for suicide or homicide in the home, or to be involved in a deadly accident, than to be used successfully against intruders. Again, this is a matter of public record.
      But also again, apples and oranges.
      I never questioned whether guns are EVER used “for good” (however that might be defined).
      I argued, rather, that our unenviable position that the industrialized world's leader in gun-related violence correlates directly to our lax gun laws. I argued, as well, that constant bombardment, from an early age, by media narratives in which conflicts are frequently resolved with gunplay embeds in the American unconscious the idea of the gun as the final solution to life's more intractable problems. This fact of American life, taken together with the easy availability of guns, is surely a factor in our high rates of gun violence, from shooting sprees to suicides.

      • natasha667

        I do not believe they (the nebulous they) collect statistics on when guns were used to prevent crimes. If you know of such a statistic I would be happy if you would pass it along. For example, you can be arrested for assault with a deadly weapon, correlate that weapon to a firearm and make it a matter of public record (guns are bad). That in an easy statistic get. To go the other way, you actually have to tease the data out of a police report/court document in which, during the commission of an crime a weapon was present that then (may have, may not have, winds up being subjective) stopped the crime without, death or injury (guns are good). I know of no objective study that has looked at this in any statically meaningful way. Again, if you know of one, I would love to dig into it.

      • Mark Dery

        Okay, now I'm getting all crankypants. Read. My. Earlier. Comments. As I explained at great length elsewhere in this thread, the question isn't: Do we have any hard data on how many times the law-enforcement use of guns has PREVENTED CRIMES? No one's debating CRIME prevention, here. We're debating the root causes of gun violence, not whether the arming of U.S. law enforcement has been effective, historically, in preventing crimes, a point of debate too inane to dignify with, well, with debate. Granting the point that armed police more effectively prevent crime than do, say, bobbies with nightsticks, armed citizens are statistically more likely to commit suicide or homicide in their own homes, or to kill themselves or family members through gun-related accidents or negligence. As in that recent BOING BOING post about the Darwin Awards candidate who handed his loaded handgun to his toddler, who unsurprisingly…shot him. We're debating at crosspurposes. If you're batting for the team that believes a cop with a gun is more effective at combating crime than one without, I'm with you. But if your buried point is that armed citizens are stopping crimes all around us, acts of Silent Majority heroism that are simply going uncounted, the instances of this happening, dearly beloved of the orcs at the Fox News Channel, are vanishingly rare, while the instances of wifey squeezing off a few rounds at her drunken husband climbing in through the window entirely too common.

    • socrAtes

      you lost all credibility when you slaughtered your grammar.

    • MrJM

      Article 2 of theConvention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines “genocide” as:

      any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
      (a) Killing members of the group;
      (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
      (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
      (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
      (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

      I would hope that you are able to see how that internationally recognized definition of “genocide” is applicable to the U.S. government's programs and policies directed at this continent's aboriginal people.

      — MrJM

    • Alex

      For all the reasons that Mark brings up and more, I find gun violence and the lack of serious attempts to curb it abhorrent, but this comment offends me so much more. To say that what happened to the Native Americans was not a genocide is a crime against history, truth, and the sufferings of untold millions. I don't mean to imply that we (European-descended Americans) are somehow guilty of the crimes of our ancestors or that we should feel shame for what was done before us but how can expect to move forward as a people if we do not acknowledge the mistakes of our past.

  • Teemo

    Use cliche much? you lost me with all your “cleverness”.

    • Mark Dery

      “Cleverness” is even more “clever” without the illiterate use of “quotes.”

      • MrJM

        Isn't the sarcastic question, “____ much?” itself a rather loathsome cliché ?

        — MrJM

      • Mark Dery


  • NotTooSeriousEh?

    “Why Read Thought Catalog?

    4. We’re nobrow and nonpartisan. We don’t take any of this or ourselves too seriously. Culture is our politics.”


    • Mark Dery

      “The opinions expressed on this program are not those of the network or its corporate parent.”
      When I hear the word “culture,” I reach for my politics.
      Ha, ha.

  • Jim

    Why do you think Laughnor would have failed a background check? Is there any scientific evidence that fantasy gun-play increases the likelihood of gun violence? Other than increased regulations, what do you see as a solution to this perceived problem?

    • Mark Dery

      1. You're right: He didn't, because he was never legally declared insane. Thanks for pointing out that error of fact on my part. (…)

      2. Red herring. I never argued that fantasy gunplay leads to real-world gunplay. I speculated that exposure, virtually from infancy, to Hollywood and small-screen narratives in which gun violence is romanticized, time and again, as a foolproof solution to thorny problems that, in reality, are bedeviled by ambiguities and do not yield themselves to the black-and-white world of shoot or be shot, just might be one of the many factors implicated in our obscene gun-violence stats. Note I'm not saying that Jim Normal, having played with guns his whole life, will inevitably turn to real-world violence. Rather, I'm pointing out the harmonic convergence of a marketplace flooded with guns, lax gun laws, a culture whose fantasy narratives reinforce in us from birth the legitimacy and even the moral righteousness of gun violence (Dirty Harry, True Grit, “to live outside the law you must be honest,” etc., etc.), and, yes, crucially, a hairy-eyed lunatic whose head is buzzing with Bilderbergers and black helicopters, or whatever. When those stars align, bad things often happen. Not always, but too often.

    • Mark Dery

      Oh, and: Yes, increased regulation wouldn't be a bad idea.
      I detect the butcher's thumb on the scale, here. You bias the question by asking what solutions I'd propose OTHER than tightened regulations. Why take the obvious solution off the table?
      In a country where people can carry concealed firearms, and where some states are debating—in all seriousness, DEBATING—the legitimacy of allowing people to carry weapons into BARS, and where citizens can buy military-grade hardware legally, including firepower capable of bringing down commercial aircraft, yeah, I'm thinking tighter gun laws might go far in addressing our surreal levels of gun violence.
      That very solution seems to be working just fine in other industrialized nations whose gun-violence stats, when adjusted for population size, are vanishingly small in comparison to ours.

      • Jim

        I wasn't trying to tip the scale. I read the article, I already knew you would bring up increased regulations. I was just hoping you might have something new or insightful to say.

        I do not believe there is any evidence that we have surreal levels of gun violence in America.

      • Alex

        It's hard to believe that anyone would even doubt that we have surreal levels of gun violence. Not even the NRA argues otherwise. The data is everywhere and it is overwhelming. The 2000 UN Office of Drugs & Crime report our firearm homicides per 100k at 3.97, just below Zimbabwe (4.75), Guatemala (6.97), Paraguay (7.4), and Colombia (51.8). With the possible exception of Colombia, this study ignores active war zones, but I think that's a fair omission. For comparison's sake, that number for England & Wales was 0.12 and Canada was 0.54, or 14% of our rate.

  • Martin Boulter

    While I aggree with the numbers you put forth on gun related deaths and the need for more regulation, I feel we should also point out that of the industrialized nations of the world we are far more violent. If numbers were kept I am sure you would see that violence is much more prevalent in our schools than most if not all other countries. I firmly believe that the main issue is not guns themselves but as you mention yourself in the article, the violence we are exposed too throughout our early childhood. Guns are popular and in millions of media offerings but how much of the problem rests with the inattentive way we allow our children to consume violent imagery? And finally as a gun owner; at what point can we see the laws enacted by our own government actually applied? More and more people that should not have firearms are getting them too easily. More and more criminals when caught are not charged in fedral courts when they break fedral gun laws. I am resposible for the weapons in my charge and I accept that but can we get some enforcement of the rule of law. I mean what does it tell you when a thief who shot and wounded a store clerk gets out of jail faster than the guy down the street picked up with 3 ounces of pot?

    • Mark Dery

      Interesting points, thoughtfully argued. Thanks for adding the perspective of a gun owner who sees both sides of the issue.

  • Dagsteel

    You touched on the real issue here but it was buried in your hatred for guns and all things “American”. The real issue is how we treat out mentally ill in America. In the 70's and 80's the left decided that the mentally ill are capable of making their own decisions about medication and treatment. We are seeing the results of that ridiculous policy by the prevalence of mentally ill homeless and the unemployable that plague most cites. Also by the fact that even with Laughners erratic behavior there were no options for the school other than expelling him. The solution isn't more restrictions on law abiding citizens the real solution is to provide options for the police and other authorities when mental illness is suspected. we also need to treat these people and provide a safe place for them to live. Yes this might include institutions, some people need that kind of stability to function. Sadly there are people that cannot make wise decisions nor support themselves. Those are the ones that we need to help as a society. We need to dial back the “help” to those that can do and help the ones that truly can not do. There are already plenty of laws on the books to deal with guns. I live in Vermont, we have some of the most open gun laws in the nation, yet we have one of the lowest crime rates too. Yes per capita not just overall. In VT if you break into some one's house you never know what barrel you may be staring down.

  • Mark Dery

    The following might be of interest to some in this comment thread:

    SOURCE: Timothy Egan, “Myth of the Hero Gunslinger,” NYT, http://opinionator.blogs.nytim


    “At least two recent studies show that more guns equals more carnage to innocents. One survey by the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found that guns did not protect those who had them from being shot in an assault — just the opposite. Epidemiologists at Penn looked at hundreds of muggings and assaults. What they found was that those with guns were four times more likely to be shot when confronted by an armed assailant than those without guns. The unarmed person, in other words, is safer.

    Other studies have found that states with the highest rates of gun ownership have much greater gun death rates than those where only a small percentage of the population is armed. So, Hawaii, where only 9.7 percent of residents own guns, has the lowest gun death rate in the country, while Louisiana, where 45 percent of the public is armed, has the highest.

    Arizona, where people can carry guns into bars and almost anyone can get a concealed weapons permit, is one of the top 10 states for gun ownership and death rates by firearms.”

    • Dagsteel

      Vermont has one of the highest per capita gun ownership and some of the most liberal gun possession laws and also has one of the lowest deaths by firearms rate. So that pretty much proves that your last sentence is meaningless.

  • nephilim3

    In the wake of the recent mass murder in Colorado (not to be confused with the other mass murder tragedy in Colorado), I strongly recommend you check out “Going Postal” by Mark Ames.

    You said on your interview with Doug Henwood that you 1. Hate “Stoner-Noir” Southern Californian culture. 2. Think that a vulgar Marxist determinism can be helpful and 3. Love looking into the dark side of American Culture.

    Well, Going Postal has all three in spades, if you haven’t read it yet check it out. I can’t recommend that book strongly enough for anyone who wants to understand why people flip out and start murdering their peers.

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