Thursday, January 20, 2011

Guns and Power

When I was a child, I was fascinated with guns.  Partly this is from the television shows of the time, such as Bonanza, The Virginian, Branded, The Rifleman and so on.  I watched all of them and imitated the main characters.  I owned toy six guns, rifles, shotguns and small handguns.  I very much wanted to be a boy as a child.  The women on these shows did not have fun, and I could not see myself in the character of Miss Kitty who ran the saloon and was one of the only characters who appeared often.  Many of the women got shot or died in childbirth or got run over by horses—as though the writers could not really think about what to do with their characters so wrote them out of the scripts.   I imagined myself a Sheriff or some other heroic and fearless cowboy, shooting bad guys with deadly accuracy and no remorse. 

When I was about 16, I got a job working for a real estate firm as a secretary.  The building I worked in had a very small pond next to it, which had been put there as part of the design.  It was stupid, since we lived in an area prone to drought and with few, if any, natural ponds, but the real estate firm thought it was lovely.  They stocked it with a male and female duck who then had ducklings.  My desk looked out on this pond and over the course of two days, I realized that the ducklings were disappearing.  My boss figured out what was killing them—a big rat would go in the water or simply snatch them as they swam by.  He gave me what he called an “air rifle”—basically a small rifle used for killing small animals.  He told me to shoot the rat in order to save the ducklings.  “Aim a little ahead of where the rat is swimming and pull the trigger nice and slow.  One bullet should do it.”  Despite my many imaginary killings, I had never handled a real gun with real ammunition and found it was not nearly as exciting as I would have thought.  Further, although I did want to save the ducklings, and I did not really like rats, I couldn’t really imagine killing one.  For a few days I thought I had dodged this bullet, so to speak, because the rat did not appear and no more ducklings disappeared.  But then one afternoon, when I was alone in the office, I was watching the ducklings swimming around and I saw the rat come out of a hole near the pond and go in the water.  I went outside with the rifle, took aim and shot.  I killed the rat with one bullet.   For several minutes afterwards, I felt almost euphoric and powerful.   I hoped that another rat would emerge I could kill.  Then I felt really freaked out.  “What kind of a person am I?” 

My boss was pleased with me.  “You are a real cowgirl!” he said.  “I didn’t imagine you could really do it—I thought I was going to have to do this myself.”  I was pleased and pretended it was nothing, but I realized what was upsetting to me about this shooting:  it was so easy to pull the trigger.  Once I decided to obey my boss, I simply looked down the sights of the gun and with one little movement of my forefinger, I killed this animal. 

I decided that I would never own a gun after that.  For me, it was way too easy to use. 

Much has been said about the shootings in Tucson two weeks ago, and I hesitate to think that I could add anything original or helpful.  But reflecting on my own gun story has made me wonder what a commons perspective is on gun control.  I am in favor of gun control laws, but I don’t think gun control laws will really solve the problem of gun control.  In my case at least, I had to come to terms with what I would do with absolute power (in this case over a swimming rat) and realize that there is something addictive about that kind of power.   As commoners we must reflect on the nature of power, and what are healthy expressions of power.  We must ponder how we can feel powerful without making someone else feel powerless.   Gun sales went up 60% in Arizona in the days following the shooting.  Two congresspeople have said they will carry a gun when they are out in public.

We all imagine ourselves the shooter, and not the shot.  But our frame of reference has to move to an entirely different analogy if we are to live in a violence free society.  Pondering these shootings in Arizona, where so many of the gun battles of my childhood imagination took place, I see how seeped in violence I am, and how differently our society has to be constructed to not have these regularly occurring mass murders.  Deconstructing the nature of power is the first step.

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