Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Me, Myself and Guns

A year or so ago, I was talking to someone about a fellow in a popular reality show about alligator hunters in Louisiana.  We share the same name, but  he lives in a homemade shack in the Bayou and lives by hunting and fishing.  Someone chimed in with "isn't it great that we live in a country where you have the freedom to live that way?"   In fact I think it is.  Looking at the success of the dozens of "off the grid" shows and books and movies, Others probably do too. Looking at the number of "survival" shows, I think many of us wish we had the skills and the opportunity -- and the nerve.

"I love the power of guns and the elegance and precision of the engineering, especially in the revolvers and side-by-side shotguns. The machining is so fine, the fit of the parts so precise, the movement of the parts so smooth. The gun itself can be a work of art, whatever you might think about its purpose, usefulness or danger. For an admirer of the mechanical craft, a well-made gun is a thing of beauty."
Juan F. Thompson: Stories I tell Myself

I really have no recollection of it as I was less than a year old in 1945 after the War ended,  but my Father, still a naval officer, and my young, city girl mother would take target pistols and go out to a creek and shoot at bottles in the water.  There apparently was little  else to do in that  remote area of Northern California and since my dad grew up in Wyoming, that's the sort of thing a boy and his girl did on a sunny weekend. If you've never done it, you'd be surprised at how relaxing it is.  But I was exposed to the sound of gunfire early in life and like an old  gun dog.  I've never been gun shy.

The quote is from Juan Thompson, the son of the famous and notorious Hunter S. Thompson; Gonzo journalist, Colorado ranch owner, Liberal Activist and aficionado of recreational shooting.  One of the few ways they could endure each other's presence was while shooting or cleaning firearms.

My dad collected antiques and antique firearms for many years.  He still has some of them, hanging on the wall of his den.  Few if any, are operable and those which are,  haven't been fired since he acquired them 50 years ago. They accompany an interest in 18th and 19th century American history which we have shared, but I'm interested in fine mechanisms in general, tools, cameras, knives. Vintage motor vehicles:  I have and have had a whole lot of those things as well as some firearms, most of which are historical items.

When I dare to mention that I have  perhaps 75 vintage cameras: finely made and finished metal objects by Leica, Minox, Hasselblad, Linhof, Nikon, Rollei, etc. most people think it's odd to cherish those obsolete things.  My hundred or so pocket knives make me only a little bit more so, but guns?  Face it, after years of demonization, after a long, steady and often virulent association with madmen and especially rampage shooters there's a stigma, attached not only to me, but to the objects themselves. I'm not a guy nostalgic about things, I'm a menace, a potential murderer and madman. It was not always so.

When I went off to summer camp and when I became a Boy Scout in the mid 1950's one of the primary lessons one was expected to learn was  how to shoot safely. It was one of those "pioneer skills" one was urged to acquire. Like making fires or shelters, it was a useful survival skill and a discipline akin to archery or fly fishing.  When I visited Colonial Williamsburg in those years I fell in love with the handmade flintlocks being made with antique tools and I never lost my affection.  I still have a couple which have,not been fired since we sold the farm 35 years ago.  It would be tough to part with them.

But the focus of life in this not-so-brave new world is Not the world where people live off the land and with nature, it's urban.  Our paradigm, our standard American is urban, works in an office. Perhaps he commutes, but he's far more Bourgeois than Bayou in fact if not in appearance.  He's more likely to be surrounded by huge numbers of people all the time.  When he thinks of something that shoots lead and goes bang, he thinks of bloody crime and wanton destruction.  He's been taught that association all his life despite endless TV and movies where guns are universally there. He has fear and all out of proportion to the risks, yet there's a titillating fascination. He's no longer the man of open spaces or endless forests and mountains for whom living as he pleases is a matter of pride and joy.  We're suspicious of such men these days. Suspicious and contemptuous of his unfamiliarity with the urban slang, the street culture, the popular fears and obsessions.  In the city, guns are sinister things.

Are we in greater danger of being shot in our daily lives than we once were?  Probably not.  But fear is in the air. Fear is in the marketing of everything from food to constitutional law.  It's not the Daniel Boons, the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark we Liberals admire, it's the deliberately helpless passive vegan gluten avoider who won't own a car, is terrified of "preservatives and cooked food and is made nervous by a Swiss Army knife..  It's the guy who thinks of cars not as liberators but polluters, it's the mother who thinks of cars only in terms of crashes and their survival and safety above liberty..

How much of our changing perception of safety and civilization are really changes in us, not in circumstances?   Is the fear that someone will shoot us today really on the same rational level as the fear that headache is brain cancer or that pain a heart attack or that we're likely to get diabetes or any of the things that are certain to kill us?  How more likely is it that Mom in her SUV will kill me than some crazed movie theater shootist?  A lot. Are we after Detroit to stop selling these things?   How much gun violence is alcohol violence?   I could go on, but not one person anywhere will consider his founding rears or attitudes and no one wants to leave the safety of his opinions and certainties and so we have more anger, more shouting, more malediction and denunciation  and more fear. Fear that makes us line up to buy more guns and fear that makes us terrified about other people who own them. Fear that makes us dress up the story, makes us frame, makes us present things tactically rather than objectively. It's fear that will end our idealism and our love of democracy and our passion for freedom and the ability to live the way we want rather than the way some corporation wants.

I have a dream.  No really I have it often and usually I'm walking on  a dirt path in what looks like my old farm or crossing that ruined stone bridge .  I'm always carrying a rifle, like the "boys" rifle I had a lifetime ago, or that 1873 Remington I never actually fired and I'm at peace with the world as I never am in reality.   I don't have the farm or those rifles any more or the dog who sometimes appears.  I'm afraid I don't have the country where those things still happen, but the dream never dies..

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