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Men's Emotional Connection to Guns: An Interview With Michael Messner (Part 2)

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Blogger's note: This is the second part of a two-part interview I conducted with USC sociologist Michael Messner, whose memoir King of the Wild Suburb: a memoir of fathers, sons and guns, was published recently by Plain View Press. Click here for Part 1.

JK: Recently in the small town of Seal Beach, California a man in a custody dispute with his ex-wife went on a shooting rampage in a beauty salon, killing eight people -- including the ex-wife and mother of his son. On a Los Angeles talk radio program the day after the mass murder, conservative host Larry Elder interviewed Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America. Pratt decried the calls for more gun control that typically arise after these kinds of heinous shootings. He said that the biggest obstacle he faces in convincing people of the wrongheaded approach of gun control were people's feelings. It's hard to argue with "people who don't think linearly," he said, "who go with their feelings" against guns. In other words, people like him who advocate for overturning most restrictions on gun ownership arrive at those views rationally and logically, while people who want stricter controls on guns are too emotional to think clearly. This harkens back to the tired, discredited, sexist belief that men are rational and women emotional. By contrast, your book provides insight into the emotional connection many men have to guns, a connection often rooted in their childhoods, and in their relationships with other men.

MM: Sure, we do need to think rationally and logically about the role of guns in our society. But to suggest that gun rights advocates are the rational ones in the national debate ignores the deeply emotional connection that many gun owners -- be they hunters or not -- often have with their guns. I illustrate this in my book by reproducing a loving letter that my grandfather hand-wrote to my dad on Christmas Day in 1934, on the occasion of giving then-fourteen-year old Dad his first rifle. This gift -- and the lessons about safety embedded in the letter -- were a deep expression of love. For the rest of his life, my dad kept that letter in his top drawer, with his socks. Emotions are of central importance on all sides of the gun debate. We can't wish them away in favor of some imagined Mr. Spock-like linear rationality, nor should we try to project blind emotionality on to one side while claiming rational clarity for our own camp in the debate. What we need is a rational public discussion that recognizes and respects the depth and breadth of emotions that swirl on all sides of the debate on guns and violence.

JK: The major political battles about guns in our society concern handguns and assault weapons, not long arms like hunting rifles. Can you talk about the differences between types of guns and what they're used for, as well as similarities?

MM: Handguns, rifles, shotguns can all be deadly, obviously. I tell the story in the book of our next-door neighbor blowing his brains out with a shotgun he borrowed from my dad. This was a poignant lesson for me as a young boy. But I also tell the story of how Gramps and Dad insisted on my adhering to the strictest rules of gun safety. Gun control advocates -- with whom I agree on most everything -- sometimes err in thinking of all guns in the same way. Of the roughly 12,000 annual firearms deaths in the U.S, on average, only one of these deaths per year results from accidental shootings by hunters. Too often, anti-hunting sentiment is ignorant middle-class snobbery, expressed in morally inconsistent ways by the very same people who think nothing about slicing into their ranch-tortured filet mignon.

On the other hand, hunters have done little to allay the negative stereotypes that people hold of them. Instead, hunters have too often been sucked into extremist right-wing paranoia about protecting second amendment rights, thus defending the indefensible: ownership of assault rifles and concealable handguns. When I hear gun owners claiming a constitutional right to own weapons designed only to kill other people, perhaps so that they can fight off the Black Helicopters secretly deployed by their own government, I can't help but imagine Dad and Gramps shaking their heads in dismay. Hunters, I believe, should be in the forefront of pushing for strictly enforced and sane gun control. Most gun deaths do not result from hunting rifles or shotguns. And you don't need an assault rifle to hunt quail.

JK: Journalistic coverage of guns and politics typically focuses on clashes of constitutional interpretation and questions of individual vs. group rights, and rarely delves into deeper questions about manhood. Why do you think so few voices in the mainstream --including leading gun control advocates -- want to talk about the gender issues at the heart of these debates?

MM: This may be an example of the fish not recognizing the water. We talk about "gun violence" and "kids' violence" as though the issue is gender-neutral. But it should be obvious that with the vast majority of "gun violence" -- by kids or adults -- the trigger-puller is a boy or a man. And this is due in part to the cultural celebration of masculinity and violence. We live in a society where boys still learn, in myriad ways, that the guy who successfully deploys violence will be celebrated, will get the goodies. But on a deeper level, lots of boys like me were connected to guns (and thus still "cling to our guns," as then-candidate Obama famously claimed) not merely because we celebrate violence, but because guns are the symbolic glue that connects us, at a deeply emotional level, with other men, including especially fathers. If we want to sever the deep and deadly emotional link between men and our guns, we need go beyond gun laws, and consider broader, deeper, and life-affirming ways for boys to learn to connect with adult men, and with other boys in their lives.

JK: You tell the story of how your father, in the Navy on an island in the south Pacific during World War II, discovered two Japanese soldiers who had been hiding in the water under a dock. You had imagined a Hollywood-style violent confrontation with bayonets waving and grenades flying, but the reality of what ended up happening was much less dramatic -- the two frightened, shivering men surrendered without incident.

MM: This was an important lesson for me. When I asked my dad about fighting "Japs" during the war, he sternly corrected me, and told me that story of the frightened Japanese soldiers in a way that revealed them as human beings -- and this was very different from the image of Japanese soldiers with which I'd become familiar in war movies. Salinas, California, where I grew up, was an agricultural town. The largest non-white minority in my grade school was Japanese-American kids; a few of them became my closest friends. I had no clue, and nobody ever spoke of the fact that these kids' parents, most of them U.S. citizens, had been imprisoned by our government during the war. My dad worked as a coach at the high school with lots of Japanese-American kids, and I suspect he empathized with them, and wanted to convey to me an attitude of respect.

JK: Your father told the story in a way that suggested he empathized with the Japanese men. Both your father and grandfather taught you something about war that contradicted some of the heroic fantasies of war you had as a boy. Can you talk about what you learned from them?

MM: Dad and Gramps continually punctured my heroic war fantasies. Their grim silence on their war experiences was punctuated by occasional stories -- intended I believe to give me a glimpse into a world they hoped I'd never have to experience. When I started graduate school, I lived with Gramps for the final two years of his life. One evening as we ate dinner, I told him that I'd read a book by a historian, who said that when the U.S. entered World War I, young men were so excited they couldn't wait to go. Modernity had undermined men's traditional ways of proving themselves, and a good manly war seemed just the ticket for shoring up their sagging masculinity. Gramps listened quietly as he leaned into his pork and kraut, his face mostly hidden behind the ubiquitous red visor. My story done, he peeked up from under his visor and made brief eye contact with me, glanced down momentarily at his fork as though carefully choosing his words, looked up again and barked at me, mouth still full of food, "I was drafted!" Face reburied in his plate, he muttered disparagingly, "Masculinity! -- kinda' crap they teaching you up at that university!?"

In the interim years between the World Wars, Gramps had joined many other veterans of The Great War initially to oppose the U.S. intervention in World War II. Both Dad and Gramps were patriotic and proud of their military service. But neither would glorify war; and I am convinced that neither wanted me ever to have to go to war.

JK: You wrote in Wild Suburb that as a 21-year-old, you denounced hunting to your college friends as "a violent proto-military activity through which men bonded with each other, excluded women, and subjugated nature. Hunting was part of everything that was wrong with the world, everything I was fighting to change." If a young male student of yours today uttered those lines, what would you say to him?

MM: Well, I guess I'd be surprised to hear that sort of politicized passion about something like hunting coming from a young guy today. However I am happy to see so many young men today -- including my sons Sasha and Miles -- for whom ideas like equality with women, gay and lesbian people are taken for granted. Beyond that shifting consciousness in the culture, I'm encouraged to see more young men today getting involved in violence-prevention work with boys and men. My current research focuses on this. It's pretty striking to think of the distance that feminism has brought us since my childhood in the 50s and 60s -- but it's also so apparent how far still we have to go before we live in a world where social equality and safety from violence can be taken for granted. It's always been my hope that my work -- my teaching, research, and now my memoir -- make some small contribution to moving us in that direction.