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Tim Kreider

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Freedom to Fear: Is The Gun Industry Selling A Fantasy?

Posted: 08/02/2012 8:00 am

I finally went to see the new Batman film, the same one those people in Colorado were watching when they were killed. I suppose anyone who goes to see that film now can't help but think of that ghastly incident while they're sitting there waiting to be entertained. There's a scene in the movie where the villain and his henchmen hold a crowd at gunpoint, and I could feel myself getting a little tense and scared, imagining what it would have been like: a dark figure suddenly standing up in the front of the theater, everyone confused or assuming it must be some sort of gimmick until the moment he opened fire.

Mass shootings have become an American tradition by now, like lynchings or pie-eating contests. No one even pretends we're going to have a national discussion about gun control anymore, but there are still certain rituals to be observed when they occur: a litany to be recited, rote and pro forma as the interviews after football games. Politicians take bold, unequivocal, anti-senseless-tragedy stands. Religious leaders ask, but never get around to answering, how God could have allowed this to happen. Talking heads demand an investigation into how the alleged shooter could have perhaps slipped through the cracks in the mental health system (which amounts to pretty much the same question as the clergy's). A dwindling few voices in the press wonder whether better gun laws might not be a good idea, and the gun lobby laments aloud that no one was carrying a concealed firearm at the scene of the crime.

It's this last talking point that always amazes me. It's so nakedly adolescent, a wish fulfillment so obviously cribbed from the payback scenes of action movies, that I can't believe that any grown up is unselfconscious enough to voice it out loud. It reminds me of those pro-torture arguments that posit a hypothetical scenario where we have a terrorist in captivity who knows there's a nuclear bomb set to detonate in Times Square in just 20 minutes -- ! This is not something that is ever going to happen in real life; this is something that happens on 24. What happens when you have a heavily-armed citizenry vigilantly on the lookout for dangerous criminals is not the climax of a Charles Bronson film -- it's Trayvon Martin.

I'm not above getting off on this kind of nasty fantasy; after my apartment was broken into and my laptop stolen I found myself wondering whether I hadn't been relying too much on my First Amendment rights and not enough on the second, imagining what would've happened if I'd been waiting there for the thief with a gun, soothing myself with pathetic little revenge scenarios of shooting the intruder -- only to realize I was now imagining murdering someone over a piece of merchandise worth about a thousand dollars retail, and realized I had gone temporarily insane. Instead, I got renter's insurance.

Come to think of it, I've been the victim of a violent crime, and it's never once occurred to me in all the years since to wonder how things might have gone differently if I'd had a gun at the time. For one thing, I was drunk -- if I'd carried a concealed firearm around with me in those days I would've shot myself in the face showing off in a bar long before that incident ever occurred. And I never even saw the guy who attacked me -- he yelled at me from out of the dark and later ran up behind me in the middle of a crowd and stabbed me. This is the problem with real-life violence -- it's almost always messy and unexpected and comes out of nowhere, inconveniently hard to plan around. The perfect moment for making your stand somehow never comes.

But the gun lobby's argument, and our national policy on guns, is founded on this delusion: If only you have a gun, X bad thing cannot happen. Guns are nothing more than a prop to enable frightened people's fantasies of invincible security, the same way consumer Humvees are props for impotent men's fantasies of machismo and giant raccoon suits are props for fetishists' fantasies of having sex with cartoon characters. The gun industry sells a fantasy, like strip clubs or prostitutes offering "the girlfriend experience" sell a fantasy. The difference is that sexual fantasies are mostly harmless, whereas in order to indulge the fantasies of frightened gun fetishists, the rest of us have to risk our lives.

The unmarketable truth is that there's nothing much you can do to protect yourself or the people you love, not buying a gun or moving to a gated community or building a survival shelter. Bad things can happen any time. But mostly they don't. Statistics show it's a safer country than it used to be; the murder rate is as low as it's been since 1961. And yet we're more scared than ever. I wonder, sometimes, what we're all so afraid of. It may be nothing more than each other, all of us armed and frightened, guns aimed at each other in a national standoff.

At one point in The Dark Knight Rises Batman -- our leading, if not only, anti-gun cultural hero -- tells Catwoman: "No guns; no killing." Later on, she saves his sanctimonious ass by blowing away a bad guy with a cannon. In my viewing life as an American media consumer I've seen about 900,000 iterations of this moment -- someone spared from murder/rape/torture at the last second by a savior with a gun. Catwoman ripostes: "This whole no-guns thing -- I don't feel as strongly about it as you." We all laughed with relief. It's a funny line. But of course it's only a movie.

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