Friday, April 20, 2007

American Gun Nut Culture

American Gun Nut Culture

The cartoon above is by an American cartoonist and shows two shotgun-toting Americans depicted as gun nuts. Both have exaggerated psycho eyes which go round and round in loopy spirals, and both are drawn as either space aliens or mutants, take your pick.

The cartoonist is evidently amused by the fact that both the owners of these instruments of death and destruction are in the religion business, and she notes that Doctor Nikki has degrees in both divinity and theology.

The point about this cartoon is that it is not drawn by someone who is an outsider, and who views America through the distorting lens of unfair stereotypes. Rather, this critique comes from someone who is located in the very heart of American culture.

The cartoon has been excerpted from the breast cancer memoir CANCER VIXEN, the full contents of which are available to read online, if you are so inclined. (Highly recommended.)

The author is Marisa Acocella Marchett, a New Yorker whose mother lives in New Jersey. Her cartoons have appeared in The New Yorker, and, on the morning of 9/11, she was awakened by the roar of the first of the two planes that were bound for the World Trade Center. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a media outfit sent her to Ground Zero, so she ended up breathing her fair share of asbestos-laden dust.

She is, as you will see for yourself if your read the memoir, in many ways the ultimate New York girl living the ultimate New York life, right in the very heart of the Big Apple. You can't get more American than that.

The context of the frame shown is that wicked women have been hitting on the man Marisa plans to marry. The guys with the shotguns, Doctor Nikki and her husband Reverend Jim, owners of the shotguns Predator and Defender, are not her enemies, whom she lampoons out of spite, but are, rather, her friends and allies.

And if she makes fun of them, well, that's because there's something a bit ludicrous about going armed for the Wild West in the days of the iPod.

I've started writing this on the evening of Thursday 19 April 2007. The TV news headlines here in Japan have been dominated by gun violence.

The number one story, the one which really has the attention of the Japanese media, is the assassination of the mayor of Nagasaki, who was shot dead by a handgun.

However, while I was at the dinner table tonight, NHK was screening fresh video of the recent shootings in Virginia, the fresh video being the self-interview made by the Korean gunman, and sent to the world, it seems, before he went to his death.

I've had a little bit of negative feedback on my earlier statements about gun nuts, so now I want to outline my own experience of guns, and how that has shaped my attitudes.

Unless you have spent many, many hours on the shooting range, then I have a lot more experience in the guns and ammo game than you have. I was, in my younger years, a soldier for ten years. Admittedly, this was just peacetime soldiering, and, for most of those years, I was only in the army on a part-time basis, though I did join up once for a six-month stretch with the regular army under a just-in-for-a-short-time deal known as being on the short service list.

The army had a slot for me, the slot being to work as an army medic at the military base known as Waiouru, and that was where I spent the six months, often being tasked to go out and provide medical cover for weapons training with live ammunition. The deal was that, as a rule, if you went out on a shoot then they would let you have your turn at shooting. (And, if they were throwing grenades, they'd let you chuck at least one yourself.)

My best experience in Waiouru was being sent out to provide medical cover, supplementing the medics which a contingent of Gurkhas had brought with them from Hong Kong when they came to New Zealand to do field training. With them, I got to use their bolt-action sniper rifle, and they let me have a go with a machinegun.

During my time with the New Zealand Army, the main weapon that I trained with was a rifle which the army called the SLR, these letters standing for "self-loading rifle." The weapon is better known to the wider world as the FN rifle, and it was, for many years, the standard infantry weapon of most of the powers in the Western world.

It is a superb battlefield rifle, stubbornly reliable, very easy to maintain in the field, and accurate to 300 meters. If a squad of ten coordinates their fire and all shoot at once, they should be able to kill a guy who is standing a thousand meters away.

This semi-automatic rifle chambers a heavy 7.62 mm round which has two big advantages. First, if you shoot someone with a bullet with this much hitting power, your chances of killing them are pretty good. Second, the weight of the bullet means that it is not easily deflected if you are shooting through jungle foliage.

This was the weapon that the New Zealand Army took with it to Vietnam, where it performed very well against one of the toughest and most motivated foes on the planet.

When I first joined the army, I joined an outfit which was, at the time, called One Field Hospital. For practical purposes, the boss was an infantry officer, Major John Booth, who saw active service in Vietnam. As an infantry officer and a soldier with actual battlefield experience he was, very naturally, extremely keen on weapons training.

The SLR is a weapon with which I became infinitely familiar, to the point where I believe that even now, if you put one in my hands, while I was blindfolded, I could strip it down for cleaning then reassemble it again.

This weapon had one substantial defect, which was that it was too heavy for the ladies, so the girls were not issued with a proper rifle. Rather, what they got handed was a nasty plastic toy, a piece of American junk called the M16, the sorriest excuse for a combat weapon ever seen on planet Earth.

Toward the end of my time with the army, it switched to the Steyr rifle, a rifle which is light, which is accurate, which can be customized to suit a left-handed person, and which is suitable for warfare in the age of the coeducational army.

I got introduced to the Steyr shortly before I quit the army. Other weapons that I trained with during my army years were the 9 mm Browning pistol and the aforementioned M16.

I have, then, a background in guns and ammo, but what I want to share with you in this blog entry is not the smell of cordite but, rather, the weapons culture of the New Zealand Army.

The key feature of the army's weapons culture is the armory. Weapons are kept int the armory under lock and key, and you only bring them out when you have a use for them.

I heard of one recruit who so loved his rifle that he somehow managed to get it out of the armory and take it to bed with him. The army's response to this was to send him to a psychiatrist for evaluation and then to discharge him. If it looks like you might be in Seriously Disturbed Gun Nut Territory, then, sorry, the army doesn't want you.

Now, when weapons were taken out for training, sometimes meal time would arrive, and the question would then arise: what are we going to do with all this firepower?

It was an absolute rule that you could not, not ever, take any kind of weapon into a mess hall. Weapons had to be laid on the ground outside the mess hall, with someone tasked to stand watch over them in case the weapons decided to take advantage of the situation and go walkabout.

The point about the New Zealand Army's weapons culture is this: we are not barbarians, and we do not bring weapons of death and destruction to the dinner table.

Even if we do not have any ammunition for the weapons, even if we do not have so much as a single round of blank ammunition between us, we do not bring death to the dinner table.

It would be my surmise than nowhere in any document produced by the New Zealand Army which would contain the following words: "The shared meal is the basic sacrament of human civilization."

But even if no such words were ever written and even if no such message was every explicitly indoctrinated into people by the army, I believe that is the spirit in which the no-weapons-at-the-table rule was made.

Similarly, there are, of course, no weapons whatsoever in the bars were soldiers socialize.

I am not a pacifist. I joined the army of my own free will, and I was very seriously committed to my training. Emotionally, I committed to it absolutely, in my heart's core.

I believe that there is a time and a place to unleash the dogs of war. I believe in the concept of the just war. I believe, for example, that military intervention in Darfur, right now, would be a case of the just war going into action.

I read, a long time ago, a book which included the epitaph which one of the poets of ancient Greece wrote for the three hundred who fell at Thermapolae. (Alternative spelling: Thermopylae.)
A Google for "Thermopylae simonides" will take you to the Greek poet in question.

Some years ago I looked online for the version that I remembered having reading, but couldn't find it. I believe it is probably in one of the historical novels written by the British poet Robert Graves.

What I have in memory, possibly misquoted, is the following:

Go tell it in lacadaemon, stranger,
That here, obedient to our duty, we lie.

Whether quoted rightly or wrongly, I carry these words in my heart's core.

I believe, then, in the military virtues. But I believe that a civilized society should keep the military virtues in a separate box, the box labeled "military culture."

We need people who are prepared, when the necessity arises, to put their lives on the line. But what we do not need, in civilian life, is shotgun-toting weapons fanatics with Tombstone shootout fantasies playing in the cinema of their minds.

In the military, when death is placed in human hands, the emphasis is always on control. The weapons and the ammunition must be supervised, controlled and kept safe from misuse. And, additionally, the weapons must not be permitted to contaminate our social environment. We do not, as I have already written, bring death to the dinner table.

Looking online to see what the world was thinking about the guns and ammo business, I came upon the following:

Here, if you're interested, is the voice of the gun lobby, speaking out loud and clear.

It's by R. E. Smith Jr and it opens as follows:

""Another shockingly violent, but fortunately rare, case of sudden criminal behavior hit us from media pages, airwaves and screens this week. They called it a "massacre." Students and faculty at Virginia Tech were gunned down by a madman. They were taken by surprise with little means to protect themselves, except to run and hide.

""Despite police being at the scene early in the killer's rampage, he eventually killed 32 people, wounded 15 more and shot himself. Ineffective college authorities could only "communicate" by e-mail to warn students and staff of the lone raging maniac.

""The killer had the advantage: surprising his unaware victims and being armed with evil intent. The innocent, law-abiding people on campus were vulnerable: at first, they didn't know he was out there; when he started shooting them no one was armed. They were unable to defend themselves against deadly force.

""Of course, random, unexpected acts of violence can't be prevented. But the perpetrators can be neutralized by those at the scene who are prepared. Hundreds of thousands of citizens with firearms counteract violent criminals in their attempts to burglarize, assault and murder every year.

""In the aftermath of this mass killing at Blacksburg, Virginia, with all the other reflections being offered, we should be reminded that we have the God-given right to defend ourselves. Further, it's self-evident and codified in the Second Amendment to our Constitution. We have a fundamental right to "bear arms." But radical, misguided anti-gun activists and their political allies persist to curtail that right.""

Here it is, cogently presented, the notion that the possession of arms makes you safe. If twenty students come to class and all show up with one or two handguns in their possession, then we are all safer for it.

This argument breaks down for me for the following reasons:

First, it posits a dichotomy between the mad, on the one hand, and normative law-abiding citizens on the other. But my conception of humanity is that we are a singularly dangerous bunch of murderous animals, and the more weapons we have in our possession the more likely we are to kill each other.

Second, I have a child in my household who is not yet four years of age. Is she supposed to go armed to the daycare center in case some armed marauder breaks in an annihilates her? Arming her wouldn't work for a number of reasons. Her little itty bitty hands aren't strong enough to handle even a handgun like the Browning 9 mm pistol. Additionally, if you want to be any good with a pistol then you have to be on the shooting range all the time, and my daughter doesn't have time for that in her life.

On top of that, if you let those manic steam-powered demons in the daycare center show up armed, then I don't want to be anywhere within a thousand meter radius of the place, thank you very much. And, if I was a life insurance company, I wouldn't sell life insurance to anyone in that situation.

In our adult world we play out our adult fantasies in which we are all red-blooded super heroes dealing with our enemies in a bloody fashion.

In the medical memoir CANCER VIXEN, Marisa shares with us a superhero fantasy in which she kicks the crap out of the bitches who are hitting on the man who she sees as her future.

Most of us, like Marisa, never live out those fantasies. But the point I make here is that such fantasies are predicated upon an adult world, and such a world, the world of the self-reliant warrior, armed and versatile, is not a world for children, for the infirm, for cancer patients temporarily crippled by chemotherapy, for alcoholics who are struggling with their addictions, or for people who are in the throes of a divorce and have reached the point where they hate each other more than anyone else in the universe.

For me, the idea of weapons as a universal solvent which will dissolve all our problems just doesn't wash.

Here in Japan, the security situation is not perfect. Maniacs with knives go to elementary schools and massacre little kids. Not on a regular basis, but too often for comfort. Little kids are slashed by passing strangers on the streets. The mayor of Nagasaki was assassinated, shot dead. Even really strict gun laws didn't stop that weapon getting into the killer's hands.

But, compared to the situation in the States, we're pretty safe. I don't have a gun in my house and I'm confident, sight unseen, that neither do any of our neighbors. When I get on the train to work, I don't anticipate being shot en route. Before I joined the Japanese National Health system, i wasn't fussed that my insurance specifically excluded coverage for gunshot injuries.

Back in the 1400s, the Portuguese came to Japan, and, at that time, the first technology transfer between the West and Japan took place. The Portuguese had these neat things called guns, and the Japanese very quickly learnt how to make them and use them.

Later, after Tokugawa Ieyasu secured a lock grip on the whole of Japan, he realized that guns were a negative for the Japan he wanted, a society of stability and order.

The gunsmiths were placed under strict control and their output limited and controlled.

Today's Japan is a society which has inherited the traits of the shogunate, the military dictatorship beneath which Japan enjoyed long years of stability and order. The result may not be appealing to outsiders, but I would prefer to live right where I do, in the city of Yokohama in the prefecture of Kanagawa on the island of Honshu, rather than in the free-wheeling America of gun shows and massacres.

I'm not from New Zealand so I'm indifferent to the claims of the American constitution. In New Zealand, we don't even have a constitution. We get by perfectly well without one, as do the British, though we do have a collection of documents which, taken as a whole, serve us as a kind of makeshift constitution, one of these documents being the Magna Carta, which one modern New Zealand prime minister, Rob Muldoon, was found by a New Zealand court to have breached.

The Constitution of the United States is not a sacred document. It was designed by its originators so that it would contain a mechanism for its own revision. The Constitution has been amended from time to time but never rewritten from scratch, because nobody has the balls for it. Dare to try to rewrite the Constitution and you really would be opening Pandora's box, and God knows what would come out of it.

But this amendment that gives you the right to bear arms, well, my advice is to scrap it.

If you were in the American military and living on an American military base, you would not have the right to walk around the base armed. Military regulations would not permit you to bring a firearm into a military mess hall.

The strong defender of the gun lobby I found online, and found very easily. Doubtless there are thousands of them.

My basic argument against them, is, as I have indicated above, is that a lot of us are not equipped to live in the world as armed warriors. My daughter, not yet four, is not so equipped. I, blind in one eye and not seeing well in the left, am not fit for the battlefield. My wife, an extremely busy civil servant who is working under enormous pressure, does not have the time to go learn how to use a Glock even if she wanted to.

The task of a civil society is to build a culture which will serve as a home for all its peoples, not just for those of us who are equipped to live as barbarians, bringing death with us when we sit down to eat at the table.

The issue on the table right now is arms control, and I say the time for this is now. Taking the guns away from the people is not the perfect answer, as the assassination of the mayor of Nagasaki in theoretically gun-free Japan shows. But it gives a better result than the situation in Virginia where anyone can buy a gun if they can (a) show two pieces of photo ID and (b) pass a computer background check. And then go on to buy one gun a month, if they want to.

I had planned today to blog about the latest and greatest version of UltraEdit, the 2007 version, 13.00a, which I have installed and am in the process of checking out. It is UltraEdit which I am using to spell check this file, having decided that, no, I won't go the stand-alone spell checker route.

I am still, then, up to my eyeballs in my software wars. But the American gun massacre playing out on our TV screens here in Japan keeps my attention focused on the issue of what, exactly, people are going to be permitted to do with guns, these instruments of death and destruction.

Today, Thursday ... no, when I look at my computer clock, I see that it is now Friday, meaning that before too long I will have to head to bed ... I got an e-mail on the gun issue about a guy who took issue with the stance I took in two recent blog entries, AGAINST THOSE WHO GO POSTAL and COUNTERPRODUCTIVITY CONTINUES.

He disagreed with me, but did me the courtesy of waiting a day and of rereading the entries to make sure he had properly wrapped his head around the offending texts.

Having done that, he still wasn't happy.

He's someone I respect, so I, in turn, have read his e-mail carefully, and have thought about it.

He makes it clear where he's coming from:

""I'm an American, a firearms owner, and a customer of""

And he feels ""that Americans got painted with a fairly broad "gun-nut" brush"".

He says, in part:

""For me, my firearms say something about my self-reliance. They're a symbol of my desire to take responsibility for my own safety in the face of danger. Others choose to turn this power over to the State. I believe that needs to remain a choice each individual makes for themselves. You don't have that option in Japan.""

He closes as follows:

""I just wanted to write to let you know that we're not all as wacko as W over here.""

In response, I will not answer in my own words, because I have already made my polemic clear in the foregoing.

Rather, I will close by coming at the words ""my desire to take responsibility for my own safety in the face of danger"" from an oblique angle, citing a book that I read long, long ago, when I was still at high school, a science fiction book which permanently marked my attitude toward bearing arms, years before I myself ever laid my hands on a weapon designed to kill.

I couldn't remember the name of that long-ago-read book, so I went to and searched for "Heinlein."

I couldn't even remember the guy's first name, but it turns out that he is Robert A. Heinlein. What I know about him (what I knew when I was a high school kid) was that he had been in the American military (the navy, I think) and that he was a pretty conservative type.

The book of which I have the strongest recollection is THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, which is basically a praise poem to self-reliance and capitalist enterprise, the repeated refrain of the book being "TANSTAFL," ie "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch."

Heinlein's voice, then, is a voice from the conservative right. And the book that made so much of an impact on me all those years ago? I can't for the life of me remember the title.

Not STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, though I read that and remember parts of it. Not STARSHIP TROOPER, either, a kind of hymn to the military virtues. I remember it (or misremember it) as being a book which glorifies war.

Not HAVE SPACESUIT, WILL TRAVEL, though I think i remember that one, too. If I remember correctly across a huge gulf of years, the protagonist has a dad whose favorite book is THREE MEN IN THE BOAT, and encourages him to learn Latin.

Wow, this is a real trip down memory lane!

And now here it is, as I scroll down the screen, the book I read, TUNNEL IN THE SKY.

That's the one.

You get to the cover and click READ INSIDE and see ""Rod Walker didn't know where in the universe he'd been sent ... he only knew he had to survive.""

The Wikipedia rundown of the book, if you're interested, is at:

In brief summary, Rod is sent to an untamed wilderness planet for a rite of passage which is supposed to be only temporary. However, he and his buddies get stuck on that planet, and have to hammer together a working society out of what their teenage minds have brought along.

The key point, the guns and ammo point, is as follows:

When you go out into the universe for your rite of passage, you are allowed to take, if you like, a firearm. One kid takes the snazziest assault rifle imaginable, but Rod goes unarmed.

He goes unarmed because a friend counsels him as follows: if you take a firearm, you will think you are the king of the universe, and you will let your guard down, and something will take advantage of your over-confidence and will kill you.

Shortly into his time on the untamed planet, Rod finds the kid with the snazzy rifle. Dead. He was the self-reliant man of the world, armed and dangerous. And now he is lying dead with, if memory serves, his beautiful new rifle at his side.

Those of the words of wisdom from Robert Heinlein which have stuck in my mind all these years, and have shaped my thinking about firearms.

When I visited the city of New York, many years before 9/11, I went unarmed. And had no trouble at all, except when the police told me off for standing on a fountain to watch a parade. But, realizing I was a foreigner, they were nice about it.

Marisa Acocella Marchett was, I imagine, unarmed when she was sleeping in her New York apartment when she was awakened by an aircraft flying overhead, enormously close and enormously loud. She had neither a Glock pistol nor a Steyr assault rifle. She didn't even, I imagine, have even a crappy old M16 to hand.

But, even if she'd been armed to the teeth, armed and dangerous, an entire arsenal of weapons in her personal armory, that would not have given her even the slightest margin of safety on the day when death came to America, from the skies, big time.

I rest my case.


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