Saturday, January 12, 2013

In the Shadow of the Gun

If there is yet any positive result to the Newtown Massacre, gun rights activists have at least made it abundantly clear to the rest of us the real reason why they cling so passionately to the Second Amendment to the Constitution. While some claim that the Second Amendment is a guarantee of their right to self-defense, others have been arguing it isn't to provide them with the right to protect themselves from criminals but to protect them from a tyrannical government. For those of us in America who don't belong to the gun culture, who see no reason to possess a lethal weapon, we are already living under a tyranny - the NRA is tyrannizing and terrorizing America. It is coercing our government into doing its bidding. And if gun hoarders think that, when martial law is declared in America, an assault rifle is going to stop a SWAT team or a tank, they are even more delusional than I thought they were.  

In some states, there are laws that expand on the definition of self-defense, to include what can be interpreted as cold blooded murder. In the classic recounting of his Travels in Arabia Deserta, Victorian adventurer Charles Doughty described his encounter with "the treacherous Rafiqs" who kidnapped him and whom he feared would kill him at any moment. Hands tied by his captors and forced to walk, tethered to a camel's tail, through several miles of desert, Doughty watched them and discovered an opportunity to seize one of their pistols and shoot his way out. But after profound self-examination, Doughty decided that "a man should forsake his own life rather than stain his soul with the outrage of murder." Doughty came to the desperate conclusion that the taking of another man's life, even in self-defense, was unjustified. All these years later, has murder, under any conditions, ceased being an outrage and become merely disagreeable, so commonplace that people speak of it as lightly as if it were the extermination of a rat or a cockroach?

In 2010, on the 4th of July, I published a post on this blog that examined the funny kind of patriotism of so many gun owners who claim they need to arm themselves to the teeth to defend themselves against their own government. I wrote it in response to a Supreme Court ruling just days before that struck down a gun control law in Chicago as unconstitutional. I present it again unedited.

The Show Goes On

In 1927, while on a world tour, Aldous Huxley attended the screening of an American silent film in the outreaches of the British colony of Malaya. He did not mention the title of the film, but from his description of marital infidelity, jealousy and revenge, it is probably best forgotten. Huxley wondered what the Malayans must have thought of such Americans in their world of unimaginable prosperity and mechanical advancement being represented by such a preposterous movie.

Living in Asia today, very near where Huxley passed through 80 years ago, I notice the number of American television shows that are available to Asian cable TV viewers, and I wonder, as Huxley did, what people must think of Americans when every one of the dramatic shows being presented to them is a "crime drama" - CSI, NCIS, 24, Close, Leverage, and a few others. Practically all that Asian viewers see of American television - which is mistaken by some for American life - is crime, guns, and violent death.

But I begin to wonder, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on 28 June that a long-standing gun control law in Chicago is unconstitutional, in a nation where some have estimated that 200 million guns are in circulation,* in which it is now legal to carry a gun into a restaurant in some states and into a bar in others, if all the crime and guns is all that far from the reality of American life.

I accept the authority of the Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution. I am dubious of its ability to do so. The Second Amendment to the Constitution made perfect sense at a time when America consisted of backwoods and frontiers. In the absence of any authority greater than that of an overworked lawman, citizens had to defend themselves against threats to their lives and their property. Hollywood has re-created this period of American history in loving detail in countless films.

But today, the 4th of July, I have to question the patriotism of my fellow Americans who feel the need to own guns, who do not feel safe in their homes behind locked doors without a lethal weapon under the bed, who (unbelievably) do not even feel safe in restaurants or in bars without a gun on their belts. What kind of patriot is it who does not trust in their own government or their municipal police department to keep them safe? Or is the widespread ownership of guns, which always seems to be a politically conservative activity, something more insidious than simply the exercise of a Constitutional right?

I have expressed elsewhere my contention that if I felt unsafe in a particular neighborhood or in a particular town anywhere in America, I would simply move somewhere else where I did feel safe. I have friends living in parts of America in which locking one's front door is considered unnecessary. (I assure you that my front door would, nonetheless, always be locked.) I have even said that if there were nowhere in my country where I believed I was safe, I would emigrate. What is the use of a country where I had to live in fear? Buying a gun would definitely not make it all better.

There seems to be a kind of siege mentality behind gun possession and gun culture, a somebody-is-out-to-get-you belief that runs very deep. As a cinephile, I have perhaps seen far too many movies in my lifetime. I know for a fact that I have seen too many bad movies. It seems to me that Americans have seen only the bad ones, and all the crime-ridden television shows, and think they are living in them, like they're John Wayne or Dirty Harry. Why does Oliver Stone's film, Natural Born Killers seem more prophetic the older I get?

*2013 Update: the number of guns in America is now estimated at over 300 million.


Anonymous said...

So you're suggesting we should allow ourselves to be killed rather than defend ourselves? Stupid.

Dan Harper said...

The Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that the 2nd Amendment covered the ownership of guns in citizen's homes for protection of life and property. It failed to address the issue of responding to a thief with lethal force which in some states could land you in jail. The 2nd Amendment is not a license to kill.