On Fear and Firepower: A Close Reading

“Seven rounds is not gonna cut it if there’s ten people coming to your house.”

So said a man interviewed by Your News Now (YNN) at a pro-gun rally in Albany, NY. He was voicing his concern that the seven-round limit imposed by the recently passed NY SAFE Act would “hinder his ability to protect himself.”

Guns and the collective unconscious

There is genre for this quote, though it doesn’t have a name that I know of. I’ll call it the Palin rally quote. A whole clique of journalists and indy documentarians have been traveling the country, camping out with  tea-baggers and rural militias, to collect quotes about Obama’s terrorist connections and confused observations on liberal elites glutting themselves with foodstamps. Every now and then these journalists sneak a quote into a major news outlets for a jab of irony.

But consider this man’s statement seriously. You can feel his sincerity. He has anted-up his assertion of logic with confidence: He knows that gun control advocates have simply refused to face this reality, and are either out of touch with the real world, or hung up on some ulterior plot to gain power through government repression.

You have to admit: It’s logical. It really is common sense. If you have ten assailants “coming to your house,” if this is your situation, then ten rounds of ammunition leaves no room for error. It truly is “not enough.”

The statement is logical; but more so, it’s visual. When I read it to myself, I picture a suburban yard at midnight, a shadowy gang of figures crossing underneath a street lamp in a sort of rugby line, coming straight toward my window from where I look out in disbelief, signaling to my imagined wife and kids to go quietly to the pantry. And all ten guys, strangely, are wearing the exact same outfit—jeans, tee shirt, ski mask—and they are all bigger than me, and I thank God they all came unarmed.

In fact, the short quote could be a piece of flash fiction, like Hemingway’s fabled napkin story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” But while Hemingway’s is mournful and distant, we begin this one in medias res—suspenseful though perhaps equally tragic. The plot hinges on the crucial difference between a quantity of bullets and a quantity of evil. The mysterious men are left unexplained, undiluted in their evil, and they’re descending on the sanctuary of the protagonist’s home, which happens to be “your house,” making you the protagonist. The attack is direct, linear, imminent. There are ten of them and one of you, and seven bullets is not going to cut it. It is simply not enough.

Some may dismiss this as Hollywood fantasy. As if that were any dismissal, to write off the fanaticisms of a country because they resonate from the cultural myths that are the substance of films. Admittedly, Hollywood has a way of exploiting our stories, laying myth on thick or painting the thinnest coat, for one desired effect—profit.

Still, blaming Hollywood for a violent society is a damp squib. It fails as a call to action because cinema is not the root of the problem. The mysterious evil that has come to the house of our gun owner, though it may have entered his world through the silver screen, did not originate there.

Something else comes to my mind: the four horsemen, clansmen, who surround Sethe’s house in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. The first thing that readers of Morrison do when they meet with an image like this is to consult the Bible to find its parent. The surrounded house, many have noted, is a re-staging of Revelation 6: 1-8, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Without making a guess at the religion of our protester, I’m going to go ahead and suggest the Apocalypse is filed away in his personal library of images. As far as finding the origin of his nightmarish fantasy, I think this is at least something we can work with. Especially since no one—including our subject himself—actually counts ten guys. Go ahead and try it. One, two, three, even four are quantities of figures you can roughly visualize. Ten is more like a crowd, or a congregation, or a small phalanx. When I picture ten people in my front yard, they are singing Christmas carols. Or they are small children celebrating a birthday. Here is a series of ten zeros:

0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

You didn’t picture that many guys in jeans, did you? More like four plus an uncountable annex of shadows. T.S. Eliot found some poetry in this phenomenon of perceiving more people than you can count. In The Waste Land he references explorer Ernest Shackleton’s belief that, having perceived one more man hiking beside him than he had with him, his small expedition was being guided by a holy spirit. It was a hallucination of hope, but the “extra man” can also be a hallucination of fear. The uncountable annex to a vision of armed robbers—picturing four but perceiving ten—is the dark opposite to Shackleton’s vision.

The image does not get its total effect from numbers but more from shapes and colors, a primitive feeling of things in your front yard coming to your house. Sure, we could talk about racial fear and frontier mentality, but even that would not reach the root. The single-celled organism wriggling in the dark. That’s closer.

Solving a problem that originated before our species seems to be a pointless effort, and the pro-gun lobby would like to frame their position as realism. The real world is a dark place which one must confront on one’s own terms. And our terms are thirty-round clips. Preserve what is yours with force. It’s appealing.

The solution, however—gun control—is not some trendy contrivance needing support from endless legislation. It is not  founded in denial or destined to be fragile. Gun control legislation may very well be the most natural thing. It is a move toward a collective relief from centuries of insecurity, from fear of the dark, from isolation in private spaces we feel compelled to protect for the very reason that we have little faith in natural agreements between neighbors. The fear that kept Adam Lanza isolated in his basement in the company of only his computer and a stifled social instinct (I’m speculating of course) is similar to the fear that haunts so many gun owners.

Gun control shouldn’t feel like an authoritarian seizure but a citizen cease-fire in which gun owners voluntarily cede their arms, ammunition, and animus as a concession to a society that is attempting to renew itself. My response to the suspicion of a government grab-up may mark me as an owner of zero guns: I just don’t care if it is. I would be concerned on principle, but if I decide that it’s time to overthrow the state, I doubt that owning a gun would make much of a difference. The government will have its military and no militia’s arsenal will compete with what the president commands. So if Obama wants a monopoly on weapons, he can have it. We’ll have to use human dignity as our trumping resource.

I don’t mean I’m unfazed by the recent gun violence (though I’m hoping it’s partly a media frenzy that has made mass shootings seem to have gone more viral than Gangnam Style). There is a problem, a serious and terrifying problem. But if this gives us reason to fear public spaces, then the solution needs to be collective, not a grab bag of personal solutions (fortify the cellar door, armor the shutters, clean the rifle, medicate my child and lock the gun closet so she doesn’t kill herself).

Arming ourselves individually against some separate evil has only forced us deeper into the corner of the living room, into such a twisted predicament that if we ever do escape the house it may be only to go looking for the enemy who never showed. An enemy we may very well find in a mosque or a classroom.

Somehow I confused two separate stereotypes in the gun control debate: the psychopathic killer and the retrenchant gun owner. These are two of the dramatis personae of the public spectacle who usually act out separate roles.* The one causes a scene, the other gets interviewed. But to me they are cousin characters in the tragedy of American gun violence. They share the same antagonisms: isolation, hatred, confusion, fear.


*The other two major characters I haven’t mentioned are  the urban gang warrior, who has a lead role  but the fewest lines; and the suicide victim who accounts for the majority of the U.S.’s 32,000 annual gun deaths, according to a 2012 article in The Atlantic.


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