Imagine a child barely tall enough to reach the top drawer of the bedroom dresser. Imagine the child on tip-toes opening the drawer because the forbidden object is hidden there. The naughty thrill of reaching under the socks, the shock of actually touching the thing, finding it cold, as if on ice. Such is my memory of furtive encounters with my father's handgun. At the time, Dad was an FBI agent. Where he stowed his weapon when off-duty was absolutely out-of-bounds, which defined its appeal. Invading that drawer is my first remembered act of disobedience.
Even at age 4, I was hypnotized by a gun. The gun was a mystical object, with significance that far transcended any imagined use. Fear, but also consolation. Awe. Trembling. That the gun was my father's was a first clue to potency. Hidden away, yet the gun sent a pulse through the whole apartment, a psychological electromagnet around which my awareness swirled. Long before I tasted the temptations of sex, I yielded to an irresistible prurience by opening that drawer. Initiation into obscenity. Because primal disobedience is so defining, I found a sense of independent selfhood in relationship to a gun. Only later would I realize how very American that makes me.What is it with Americans and guns? "The right to bear arms" is the constitutional dynamo sparking an electromagnetic pulse through every corner of politics. Meanwhile, in the nation's cities, a slow-motion massacre unfolds, with gunshots mercilessly cutting down a legion of the young. Yet in legislatures, bills designed to reduce gun violence are routinely killed by the all-powerful lobbying of the National Rifle Association. Presidential candidates are universally required to worship at the altar of the Second Amendment.
Now an "open carry" movement encourages gun owners to wear their weapons ostentatiously on their belts, "to make a firearm," in the words of a Los Angeles Times story last week, "as common an accessory as an iPod." Or, as one open carrier said, "Hey, we're normal people who carry guns."
Get used to it. In most states, there is no law against license-holders cradling a rifle on the street, or holstering a firearm on a hip, like Wyatt Earp. But since the close of the last frontier, gun display, except in movies, has been culturally taboo. The power of that prohibition is what stirred me at my father's dresser. "Open carry" aims to remove such visceral negativity, though the taboo amounts, in fact, to last ditch gun control. The "normalizing" of guns will inevitably normalize their use. From movies to legislation to political rhetoric - and now to "accessory" fashion: guns galore. And who, pray tell, will bear, not the arms, but the consequences?
In despair over unchecked gun-carnage in Chicago schools, Mayor Richard Daley asked, "Why is America turning its back on its children when it comes to gun violence?" The answer is buried deep in the national psyche, and I am a case in point. The gun is a totemic object, with meanings that drill far below surface arguments about self-defense, the sport of hunting, standing militias, or the intent of the Framers. Children die because these deeper meanings of the gun go unreckoned with.
Anthropologists suggest that the evolutionary mutation separating primates from humans was the invention of the weapon. Instead of merely gathering food, our forebears began to hunt for it, and "culture" followed. The hunt organized around a weapon, whether a wedge-shaped stone or a sharpened stick, led to cooperation, planning, sharing, communication, and even upright posture. But the use of weapons against fellow animals seems also to have imbued humans with a sense of shame, which spawned post-hunt rituals of sacrificial atonement, the genesis of religion. Only the weapon made it possible for humans to better beasts, but only shame enabled humans to moderate the weapon's use. Otherwise, the human species would have plunged quickly into self-eliminating extinction.
In the great American gun debate, some would forgo the primordial shame the weapon still generates. Hence the "open carry" movement. But given the gun-deaths of children, and the sponsoring gun-paralysis of politics, Americans should have more shame, not less. A gun is no iPod. Shame is the children's last protection.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
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