Gun Play: An American Tragedy, in Three Acts

Act I.

Broadway and 103 rd Street. New York” (1955)
Copyright William Klein, all rights reserved.

A week after Jared Lee Loughneraccused multiple murderer and, in the words of The New York Times, “curious teenager and talented saxophonist”went on one of those shooting sprees that Americans seem to regard as the price we pay for our god-given right to an armamentarium straight out of the NRA-wet-dream gun showroom in The Matrix, it was business as usual at the Crossroads of the West gun show at the Pima County Fairgrounds.

The seat of Pima County, as irony would have it, is Tucson, where Loughner emptied 31 rounds from his Glock semiautomatic pistol into a crowd at a political event, wounding 14 and killing six, a nine-year-old girl among them. At Crossroads of the West, 40-round magazines for AK-47s could be had for the recession-friendly sum of $19.99, because…because why?

Because our founding myth of rugged individualism demands it. As does the rough-justice ethos of our frontier heritage. And the Don’t-Tread-on-Me anti-federalism of our racist past. And the deepening distrust of Big Government, ginned up by Reagan and taken to its logical extreme by the militia movement of the ’90s and today’s Tea Partiers.

What few mainstream pundits seem willing to discuss is the role, in America’s gun violence, of the radically deregulated capitalism championed for decades by neo-liberal economists and conservative ideologues. What Ayn Rand would call the “virtuous selfishness” of winner-take-all capitalism insists on profit maximization at any cost. What better explanation for the millions the gun industry spends in lobbying, campaign contributions, and issue ads to thwart gun control in any form, from the right to own assault weapons to background checks? Isn’t it all about selling more guns in a nation where the ratio of guns to people already stands at about 85 guns for every 100 Americans?

Of course, the paranoid style in American politics is part of the psychotic equation of gun culture, too: these days, too many Tea Partiers, Palinistas, and dug-in survivalists see themselves as Armies of Onelone-man militias standing between angry white Middle America and the zombie apocalypse of Obamaniac socialism. And as everyone in Palin’s “Real America” knows, “a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Did I mention that anti-Obama bumper stickers were on sale at Crossroads of the West?

Point taken that the coat-hanger antennae on Loughner’s tinfoil helmet were not, in all likelihood, receiving transmissions from some ideological NORAD in Roger Ailes’s basement. The accumulating evidence suggests the shooter was crazier than a pair of waltzing mice. A Crossroads of the West attendee was thoughtful on that point, citing scripturethe gun lobby’s bumper-sticker refrainto argue his case: “It’s not guns that kill people,” said a 58-year-old mental health worker, “People kill people.”

Which would explain why America leads the industrialized world in gun violence, and why American children are 11 times more likely than children in other developed countries to die in a gun accident. Only a card-carrying libtard would link such stats to the fact that our gun laws are obscenely lax, as opposed to, say, Japan, whose gun laws are among the world’s strictest and whose rate of gun-related fatalities, incalculably, is among the world’s lowest: one death for every two million people, versus our 14.24 gun deaths for every 100,000.

But if it’s people who kill people, not guns, then our off-the-charts gun violence would seem to indicate that a disproportionate percentage of the planet’s people-killing people are Americans. What to do about it? The spin-alley response, in some corners of our great republic, is to lay the blame for the Tucson bloodbath on our mental-healthcare industry. Curiously, some of those eager to deflect attention away from gun regulation and onto society’s neglect of the mentally ill were decrying, not long ago, universal healthcare as a budget-busting indulgence of the Nanny State or a federalist plot to Kevork the elderly (death panels!).

Some of their number continue to insist, in a nation whose citizens are the world’s most statistically likely people to kill people, that every American should nonetheless have the right to buy an AK-47 with a 40-round magazinepreferably, without that affront to personal liberty known as a background check. You know, the bureaucratic hoop that Loughner probably would’ve failed, if he’d had to jump through it.*

After all, the Tree of Insanity must must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of innocent bystanders.


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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    […] Use your Saturday morning to Learn Something. This is about guns. It will make you think. […]

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