Less Harm

I grew up with guns. Who didn’t? We had Han Solo blasters and rifles that shot little copper pellets ducks would eat and die from.

My dad kept an assortment of firearms, defense weapons, hunting rifles, a couple shotguns for when we went out for rabbit or quail. He never made a big deal out of them, taught me to keep the barrel pointed at the ground until it was time to shoot. Not once did I hear him mention the Second Amendment nor did he put a rack in the back window of his truck and drive around the city, but on more than one drunken New Year’s Eve he fired off a round or two from his backyard straight into the sky at the edge of Phoenix. I loved those nights, my dad in a Hawaiian shirt or whatever the hell he’d be wearing, taking a drag on his Benson & Hedges as he lowered his .357 and dogs barked in backyards answering his shot.

There’s a gritty sort of pride you can take from knowing guns. But I can’t love them.

When I heard yesterday of the second suicide of a teen who survived last year’s Parkland shooting, I couldn’t help wondering if banning overkill weapons would have infused them with hope when they’d already seen the worst from guns. If it might have prevented their deaths. First it was a 19-year-old last week, then, the day after she was buried, a Parkland sophomore boy took his life, followed like a domino by a father who killed himself, his body found Monday, 7 years after his 6-year-old daughter died at Sandy Hook.

I can’t love guns, not anymore. I’ve had one around, a .22 for putting down a skunk or scaring a bear off the front porch, but it’s like having a wrench, a hammer, a tool.

The shape of a gun, the stock and barrel, the curve of a magazine, are feeling more and more like sickness. You are holding the murder weapon of our age; in your hands is the despair of so many others.

The argument I hear is that we are not New Zealand. We are a gun culture dyed in the wool. But how flexible is human culture? Plasticity is held up as our greatest evolutionary trait. We are considered, by our own account, and by Scientific American, to be one of the most adaptive species on earth, which lifted us into sentience and civilization.

The bottom-up view of cultural change is that genetic evolution defines neural substrates, which set our cognitive abilities and in turn define the range of our cultural practices. But that chain of dependence may be nonlinear. There is evidence that culture can turn around and alter our nervous system. We are designed for change on individual and cultural scales, from the bottom and the top. If we’re as adaptable as we like to think, tell me again how we can’t do it, how grit and manhood are defined by weaponry, by wielding forces in excess of ourselves. The story is getting old and it’s killing us. It is to our evolutionary advantage that we stop loving guns.

I have agreed to a story that kills us. I’ve followed the thrumming of my nervous system, something written there a long time ago.

Some years back I put a bullet through a metal boundary sign with a .45 handgun. For three decades I’ve lived around small towns with bullet holes through their signs, like hands painted at the mouth of a canyon, a message. I was proud of what I’d done, proud of the shitkicker lineage I picked up from my dad born and raised in rural southern New Mexico. But we are not 1:1, generation to generation. We shave off a little here, add more there. We don’t have to be what we were.

The pride is eroding. The hole in that sign is now what I see as harm. So clearly, it is nothing else. With so much harm around, I don’t find room for this anymore. I’m seeing these weapons for what they are, not passion, not love, but at best a tool hanging in the shed, one whose space I would rather see empty.


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