Friday, July 06, 2007

Focused Explosions

by Marcus Sakey

Ever fired a gun?

You've seen it thousands of times on screen, of course. But have you ever actually held or fired one? Most people haven't, and so there's something they don't realize.

Guns feel terrific.

Just holding one. A gun embodies a tactile balance of metal and grace. Smooth and heavy, they smell faintly of oil, and fit your hand so perfectly that you wonder if your hand wasn't made for the gun, rather than the other way around.

Which is maybe part of the problem, too.

Two weeks ago, I was out in Utah, writing an article on rock climbing, which is very good work indeed. Afterwards, I drove to Los Angeles to see a friend, a former Army Ranger, gang cop, and current LAPD firearms instructor. We went to a range in the hills and spent three or four hours firing a multitude of weapons.

I had done a little shooting before, when I was about eighteen. I had a .22 rifle, and once or twice fired my dad's .38 snubnose. I remembered it fondly, the feeling of holding a weapon, the precision and ease and rhythm required, the satisfying roar and punch when you pulled the trigger.

This was different.

We shot an AR-15, structurally a very similar weapon to what our troops are using in Iraq. An AK, the most popular insurgent weapon in the world. An authentic World War One Mauser with a kick like a rhino. We shot skeet with his imposing-as-hell shotgun (my best run was 6 of 8, launched one at a time; his was 10 of 10, flung 2 and 3 at once.) But the real fun was the handguns. He had about a dozen: several Glocks, a Beretta, a 1911, and some others.

As I mentioned, my friend is an instructor. So this wasn't just a couple of yahoos blasting away. He taught me how to hold a weapon, hands braced, maximum amount of palm to the grip. The proper stance, legs apart, gun directly in front, arms extended, elbows straight, wrists steady. How to pull the trigger slow and gentle, keeping the sights as centered as possible, but not trying to catch a moment--just keeping them on target and pulling so smoothly that you are almost surprised when the thing actually fires.

All which allowed me the supreme pleasure of sending row after row of bowling pins flying.

Now is probably a good point to interject and say that despite the tone thus far, I'm really not a gun nut. I'm a member of the ACLU, and well left-of-center politically. I wouldn't say that I'm against the NRA per se, but I do question the need for readily available armor-piercing rounds. And while I respect the Constitutional right to keep and bear, I also think the country would be a far better place if we weren't awash in weapons. I don't worry about people like my friend having guns; I worry about fourteen-year-old gangbangers.

They say that guns don't kill people, that people kill people. That's true. Guns just make it a hell of a lot easier.

Having said all that, let me say this: Firing a weapon is an intense experience. You are tapping into raw power. As a kid, I used to stare out the car window and pretend my eyes were laser beams that could slice everything I saw. A gun is the physical manifestation of this fantasy. You point it, move a finger, and something far away is shattered.

As I said, intense. Which is part of the problem, too.

The title, and theme, of my debut novel comes from a Homer quote that reads, "The blade itself incites to violence." I've held swords. Real ones. They don't incite nearly the way a gun does. The fact is that guns are made for shooting, and when you pick one up, it's very hard not to aim it at something.

At the same time, in the hands of a trained individual, a gun is a tool. It might be all that protects you or your family. In 1987, Florida made it legal for adults to carry concealed weapons; since then, more than 20 states have followed suit. And while the subject is hotly contested, research by the University of Chicago suggests that states that adopt those laws reduce their murder rates by 8.5%, rape by 5%, and aggravated assault by 7%.

What's my point? I haven't made up my mind. I've been musing about it since I returned, and it's had me swinging back and forth. So I thought I'd throw it out for discussion, see what you all had to say.

If you could, would you get rid of all our guns? Or would you go the other way, and allow regular civilians to conceal and carry in order to protect themselves and their loved ones?

And have you ever fired a gun?

Ever want to?


Libby Hellmann said...

I totally get it, Marcus. The first time I fired a gun was on a gun range at a Sisters in Crime outing. I was astonished at how much I loved it. (In fact, I blogged about it last winter). The power that comes from knowing you have the opportunity to change history with just a tiny squeeze of the trigger is overwhelming. And sobering.

Thus far I've limited my shooting experiences to the gun range, and haven't paid attention to loading and unloading.. that's kind of my way of denying myself the totality of the experience.

And I won't get a FOID card, even though you can do it online. It's just too tempting. With a FOID card I know I'd eventually feel compelled to have a gun in the house. And if I had one in the house...

Well, I'd rather not go there.

PS Happy Birthday to the Outfit. Who knew we would last? I'm looking forward to another great year.

Bob said...

I don't know where to weigh in on guns, either. I'm not against having them, but at the same it's a little scary knowing the average citizen can be carrying.
Also, I am glad to know that I wasn't the only kid who thought he could shoot laser beams with his eyes.

Rob said...

When I hit puberty, I traded in my laser beam eyes for x-ray vision.

As for guns, I'm not quite as middle of the road as you, Marcus. Guns were made for one purpose kill stuff. The guns don't, people do thing is a stupid argument. If I thought it were at all possible, I would rid the world of guns. That ain't ever gonna happen, so having some restrictions on deadly weapons only makes sense to me.

When I was in high school, a girl in my class was shot to death while in a car with friends stopped at a red light. The person in the car next to them was driving around with a loaded weapon and he fired into their car for no discernable reason. Somehow, however, he was slapped on the wrist and walks free today. Statistics are one thing, but I've never been able to shake off the feelings of anger, fear, and sadness when I learned what happened that night. I graduated, she didn't. I got married, have my first baby on the way. She will never have any of those things. Because of a guy with a gun. And there is no way this incident could have happened *without* the gun.

I'll never like guns.

I'll admit that I have yet to fire one. But I doubt the experience would change my feelings.

Marcus Sakey said...

Rob, I can't disagree with what you're saying. That's part of what made the whole experience both intense and unsettling. Because all you have to do is pick up a gun, feel how good it feels in your hand, and you'd be surprised how much you want to pull the trigger.

Obviously, I'm not saying that's an excuse, or a reason for guns to exist. And if I could wish away all the guns, I might be tempted to.

However, since that isn't happening, where does that leave us? I'm a pacifist, but I wouldn't hesitate to fight to protect the people I love. I doubt any of you feel different. And if the bad guys have guns, where does that leave the good guys who don't like them?

Understand, I really don't feel like I have the answers to these questions. But they're interesting to explore.

Lee Child said...

" ... a gun is a tool. It might be all that protects you or your family ... "

Plausible. And people claim to believe it. But they don't really believe it. If they did, after 9/11, they'd have been clamoring for - and this administration would have mandated - the requirement that we all carry box cutters on airplanes. No exceptions. Compulsory box-cutter inspections, not X-ray lines. But they didn't do that, because when reality bites, people get serious. And serious research reveals that in 100 years of widespread gun ownership, the number of successful home- or person-protective uses of firearms is vanishingly small.

A gun is indeed a tool. What fascinates me is why there aren't clubs and associations around other tools, like electric drills or blenders.

Anonymous said...

As someone who grew up without guns, I found them extremely scary until I married a man from western Pennsylvania who had grown up with guns. When we had children, my mandate was that we would teach them how to shoot to eliminate any mystery or fantasy. Agree - Holding and knowing how to shoot a gun gives a strong feeling of power. Do I have one now - living in the city by myself? No. It would be too easy to use it erringly. Perhaps a caveat could be attached to all gun-carrying laws - the absolute requirement of training in the shooting of a firearm. Tks. Ruth

Rob said...

Lee Child said: "And serious research reveals that in 100 years of widespread gun ownership, the number of successful home- or person-protective uses of firearms is vanishingly small."

Great point. Even if I'm packing heat, what good is it going to do if some lunatic pulls up next to me in traffic and starts unloading through the window? Unless I'm Quick-Draw McGraw with seriously awesome peripheral vision, not a whole hell of a lot.

The Home Office said...

Thanks to The Outfit (and Marcus) for providing a discussion on a controversial topic where we can virtually certain all of the correspondents can breathe through their noses and none are putting Wite-Out on their monitor screens to correct errors.

I also grew up in Western Pennsylvania, had a .22 rifle when I was a kid, and used to shoot trap on Sunday mornings with my dad and a friend of his. Got pretty good with an M-16 in the Army, so I’m not afraid of guns. I don’t own one, preferring my trusty 32-ounce Louisville Slugger for home protection.

I think Marcus has it about right. Guns are here, so we might as well deal with them. No one needs armor-piercing rounds for their M-60 machine gun, and everyone can wait a couple of weeks for their request to clear. I think the Second Amendment right is overextended, and I’m always curious about why so many of those most ardent about their Second Amendment rights don’t seem to think much about the other nine amendments in the Bill of Rights.

I see no need for all guns to be rounded up, nor do I think it’s right for police to feel outgunned on the street. It’s a difficult, and multi-layered question, and kudos to Marcus for bringing it up in such an even-handed manner. The sad truth is, he’s right: holding and shooting a gun feels great.

Steve Malley said...

I have a long, conflicted history with firearms.

In the US, I carried. It was a hell of a responsibility, but I tried my best to live up to it. As crazy as the US is with the gun violence (notice I didn't say gun ownership), I either had the craziness myself or felt I needed that innoculation.

In Israel, I felt distinctly underdressed. It felt like everybody carried. My first week in Jerusalem, a group of Palestinian men hopped out of a car and ran into the Russian Quarter shooting. They didn't get far. I got used to standing in line behind teenagers with assualt weapons on their hips. The Palestinians got the hang of suicide bombing the open-air markets.

Here in New Zealand, I don't have a gun. Don't miss it, either. They own a lot of guns here, but they don't shoot each other with them.

Cops don't carry here either. If they have the need, they call in their version of SWAT. I don't know if that makes any difference, but I feel safer.

Gun-stuff aside, my politics (such as they are) are liberal. Very, very liberal.

And like Marcus, I always did like a nice afternoon at the range...

Kevin Guilfoile said...

I grew up in a small town where just about everyone owned a gun and I'm sure the first time I fired a rifle, the rifle was bigger than me (I only know that this wasn't my first time). Every year they talked about closing school on the first day of deer season, because there was hardly a boy over the age of 13 in class.

I also know that I can't think of a single instance in that town when anyone ever shot anyone.

That said, I'm a fierce advocate of gun education and registration. If people were more familiar with guns, they'd be a lot less likely to use them. Not a week goes by when some innocent child in this city isn't killed by some idiot blasting away at a differently affiliated moron. I don't need to do any research to find out if that gun was registered or if that gangbanger took a class in gun safety. If cars and robots were regulated as loosely as guns we'd be just as horrified by them.

You will never be able to control whether bad guys have guns. But there are certain kinds of guns and certain kinds of ammunition that are good for nothing but killing people and there's no reason it should be legal to buy, sell, manufacture or import a product like that in a nation that recalls Thomas the Tank Engine trains on the whisper of lead paint.

Not every gun is a murder weapon, however. And if you're not a bad guy and you want to own a gun, always, always, always remember that the gun is bigger than you.

Adam Hurtibise, my old friend from that same small town, once had some wise words as a liberal and a gun owner. The reality is I don't have a gun in the house because more bad things can happen from it than good things (like THO, I have baseball bats placed about my home the way Sinatra had packs of Camels). Nevertheless, if any government, liberal or conservative, ever told me that I, a citizen with no record of criminality or mental instability couldn't, own a gun, I would go Weatherman on its ass.

[Confidential to the person opening my FBI file: email me and I'll send you a photo I think is half-decent.]

Marcus Sakey said...

Kevin, you remain about the smartest guy I know.

Sara P said...

Shortly after I'd written my third novel, a Boston PI approached me. She actually does homicide investigations with a social justice twist, much as my detective does. She told me that although she's licensed to carry a gun, and owns one that she is knowledgable and comfortable in using, she doesn't carry it on the job. She said that a weapon in hand unconsciously gets you to ratchet up the level of confrontation with another person--having the weapon can make you create a situation in which you have an excuse to use it.

I thought of that advice when the U.S. was deploying troops and arms to the Persian Gulf in the winter of 2002-03. Although I kept working for peace, I knew my friend was right: having all those troops and weapons to hand meant we were itching for an excuse to use them.

About a year after I met my PI friend, my husband was held up at gunpoint--thugs hiding in an alcove in an Albuquerque hotel followed him into his room when he checked in. I still get cold shakes thinking about it. I don't know that his carrying a concealed weapon would have done much but increased the level of violence in the confrontation; guns do nothing but scare me, even when I hold them and fire them myself.

By the way, Marcus, I never quite trust John Lott's research--not because he's Trent Lott's cousin, but because his research and his named chair at the U of C are both funded by the gun lobby. He even advocates arming all teachers, which creates an agreeable fantasy for those of us who've taught: "You haven't done the assignment, Mr. Sakey? Well, make my day..."

Michael Dymmoch said...

Konrad Lorenz wrote a great book in the 60s--On Aggression--in which he pointed out that animals with built-in weapons have instinctive checks on their aggressive impulses. Dogs and wolves, for instance, go belly up when they've lost a fight, and the winner lets them go. (Fighting dogs--bred and trained by humans--excepted, of course.) Humans haven't had millions of years to evolve instincts limiting our fire-power. We still do, however, have the impulse to defend ourselves against threats.

I've had a FOID card for many years, and I feel the power-pull of guns to the extent that I find myself staring at cops' guns. I'd never own one. I've come too close to losing it while driving to trust that I wouldn't do the same with a pistol.

That being said, I wouldn't ban guns. In this country, banning things seems to make them irresistible (How many people have gotten hooked on the forbidden fruit of illegal drugs or under-age alcohol?)

There's no good reason, though, why people can't be required to prove proficiency and a grasp of legal consequences before being allowed to own a weapon.

Adam Hurtubise said...

What a provocative post, Marcus. Thanks for airing it.

Funny, I'm scrolling down the comments, just knowing Kevin is going to weigh in, and then not only does he weigh in, but he beats me to the punch, using my own blog as ammunition... Thanks, Kevin.

I'm an unabashed liberal who grew up in the same small town that Kevin did. For me, guns have never been a liberal-conservative or Democratic-Republican argument.

I grew up around guns because all the men in my family hunted for their entire lives. I hunted for a while as well. I stopped, not because I didn't like shooting, or stalking the animals, but because I hate getting up at 5 in the morning and I'm allergic to everything in the woods.

My thought about guns is that the divide is rural-urban. People who grew up hunting have entirely different perspectives on guns than those who grew up in cities where only police officers carry (lawful) guns and "everybody else" with a gun must be a criminal.

This turns into a D-R battle because people in rural areas tend to be more conservative and people in urban areas tend to be more liberal.

I'll add that neither the NRA nor the gun-control crowd is completely right. Neither is completely wrong.

I love guns. I can't wait to teach my kids to shoot. The Saint I married hates guns, and I lost that particular argument, so I don't keep the two guns I own in our house.

Like many things in life, the most important thing about guns is to become educated about them. Knowing a little about them goes a long way toward understanding why some people love them and others hate them.

Again, Marcus, great post. Great comments in this thread as well, and Kevin, thanks again for the shout-out.

Steve Z. said...

Interesting topic, and one I'm closer to than I'd like to be. A few years ago, my friends Barry and Greg (not his real name) were walking home late from a bar on the northwest side, not far from where my wife and I live. Two guys in gang (or gang-like) attire passed them on the sidewalk. One of them said something like "What's up?" He then pulled out a gun and shot Barry in the head. Barry died that weekend. The cops think it was a gang initiation: Go kill somebody, and you're in the gang. The killer has never been caught, and probably never will be. It all happened in just a few moments.

If either Barry or Greg had had a gun, it wouldn't have made any difference. There was no time to react, and Greg was busy trying to save Barry's life as soon as it happened. Unfortunately, he could not.

Could guns be banned? Sure, a law could be passed, but criminals would probably still get them. Many drugs (heroin, cocaine, etc.) are against the law, and most of them can found and purchased quite easily in most American cities. Human beings are smuggled across the border every day. Prohibition of alcohol allowed for a record amount of illegal alcohol to be consumed, and organized crime became rich and powerful for decades as a result.

I don't want to own a gun. However, I (somewhat reluctantly) believe that people should have the right to own them. I also think Kevin's point about gun education and registration is a good one. There are also many ancillary issues that affect the subject, such as gangs, poverty, the education of our young people, parental responsibility, a very unjust world, and others. These things are all part of a world where a gun is seen as the the answer to one's problems.

Sara's story about her husband could have ended differently, as she points out. I tell everyone
I know to be aware of their surroundings at all times. Sometimes being alert might not help you, but sometimes it will.

There is a line in the movie Unforgiven that goes something like (I'm paraphrasing), "When you kill a man, you take away everything he is, and everything he'll ever be." You also take away something from everyone who cared about him, something they can never get completely back. Their lives are never the same. I think about Barry every day.

Chapman said...

I learned about this blog in Friday's Tribune. Very cool. It's nice to see you're not shying away from controversial topics.
The reason we'll never get rid of guns is the same reason we'll never stop our war machine. Now they want to build missile bases in Poland using technology that doesn't work to protect against an enemy that doesn't exist. It's all about the money. Manufacturing and selling weapons is a lucrative business. All the blather from the NRA about not giving an inch on constitutional rights is just smoke. No legit hunter or target shooter wants or needs automatic weapons or Teflon ammo.
I've fired guns before (on the range) and you're right; having the power to take someone's life is frightening. And we've all seen movie heroes using guns to solve problems; kill "bad" people, etc. How strong is the temptation? Look at Bernard Getts.
Here's my anecdote- I used to work for the CPD crime lab back in the 90s. The crime scene techs were on the same floor and one night a couple of the old timers were sitting at their desks starring at the wall when I came in to work and didn't respond when I said, "Good evening." One of them was shaking his head and mumbling. I found out from the desk sergeant that they had processed a scene that night where a baby had been shot and killed by an older child who found a gun. I didn't see them again. I don't know if they transferred out or took vacation time or just had a shift change, but I always imagined it had something to do with that shooting.
I guess gun violence is a problem without a clear solution but like the post about the "unexamined life" implies, we shouldn't just accept the status quo. We shouldn't let a company's "responsibility to their stockholders" interfere with our responsibility to make the world a better place.

Swanny said...

Hey Marcus, intriguing post. I know we've discussed this before, but I used to work as a security officer and I had to carry a gun on the job. Despite my familiarity with firearms, it was a bit disconcerting to know that I may be forced to use my .38 revolver (sidearm) or the AR-15 we also carried.

Like you I come down somewhere in the middle on the issue. I can certainly see the need for certain people to carry guns (police, military, security forces, etc.), but I can't feeling like we'd all be a little safer if guns weren't readily available it almost everyone.

You hold in your hand, a device with the ability to forever change lives. Not necessarily for the better. Once you pull the trigger, you can't pull that bullet back. It's a tough choice: kill or be killed. I wouldn't want to, but if I had to protect my family, I would.

It always makes me think of Robin Williams, who said, "You have the right to bear arms, or the right to arm bears, whichever you want to do.

Anonymous said...

I'm a lawyer...and not a member of the ACLU. Not because civil rights aren't important, but because the ACLU is so hypocritical to say...yeah, all these other rights in the Bill of Rights are individual rigths (free speech, assembly, religion, etc.) but not the rights under the 2nd Amendment (ie, the right to protect ones' self with firearms). I have several, and I have a license for concealed carry - but I normally don't, because it is a hassle - can't take a firearm here or there, have to lock it up in the car...and god forbid if someone sees you taking your firearm out of a holster (to store it, for example) in a car - that leads to a quick cell phone call, the police pulling you over, and having you lie down in the street with your good clothes on... so I mainly just keep a pistol and a shotgun by the bed.

Oh, and I've never been tempted to shoot a firearm at someone...but I enjoy shooting at the range.

Also, I used to ride around in a vehicle with Polaris missiles with nuclear warheads...wasn't tempted to shoot them off either..