We are all the NRA
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National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre may be the extremist voice of "the gun lobby," but virtually every single one of us is an active promoter, and consumer, of gun culture.
It's a crowded lobby.
More than the flag, more than the dollar sign, more than the Cross or the Crescent or the Star of David, it is the gun that is the paramount symbol of American life.
The gun is the leading character in a stunning -- and numbing -- variety of TV shows, movies, magazines, books and digital games. Imaginary guns -- drawing them, firing them, blowing smoke from their barrels, re-holstering them -- figure in end zone celebrations, while tough gun dialogue morphs into political catchphrases: Hasta la vista, baby. Read my lips.
The producers of the new Jack Reacher movie that was to have had a Hollywood-style premiere in Pittsburgh this week hurriedly canceled the affair in the wake of the Newtown shooting. The Reacher novels on which the movie is based feature a protagonist who rolls up a stunning body count in each adventure, beating and stabbing -- but mainly shooting -- bad guys to death. The movie, which stars Tom Cruise as this hard-boiled avenger, starts off with a seemingly random massacre of innocent people who do nothing to deserve their fate except walk out of work at the moment a sniper decides to start firing. They're only the first to die.
We live in a culture that venerates the psychopath (Dexter, Hannibal Lecter), as well as the merely trigger happy (Dirty Harry, Rambo, James Bond). We abhor the gun when a horror like Newtown occurs, but we adore the idea of the gun the rest of the time.
We don't know yet what influenced the twisted mindset of Adam Lanza, who killed 27 people, including 20 children, last week. We probably never will.
We do know that Jason Holmes, the Aurora, Colo., shooter who murdered 12 innocents at the premiere of the latest Batman sequel in July, was seemingly operating under the delusion that he was The Joker in that dark and violent saga. What he has in common with Lanza, and other young rampage murderers going back to Columbine, is that he grew up in a culture where the use of firearms is routinely and graphically depicted as a way to assert power or exact revenge. In American cultural dialogue, a bullet is the ultimate last word.
As someone who studies media, I know that violent media's influence on violent behavior is not a monkey-see-monkey-do proposition. Most credible researchers, in fact, believe that media can, at best, "cultivate" a certain view of the world -- in concert with a host of other factors such as upbringing, personal experience with violence as victim or perpetrator, mental condition, etc. Most of us process the idea of the gun for what it is -- symbol, plot device, fantasy, agent of catharsis -- but for a few it may serve as the catalyst for a perfect storm of rage and violence.
And so the media don't "cause" violence. But when gun violence is as pervasive as it is in American life, and beyond pervasive in pop culture depictions of that life, attention must be paid.
Gun control is a step in the right direction, but given that Smith & Wesson -- one of more than 5,000 firearm manufacturers in the United States -- produces a quarter-million handguns per year (according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives), stopping the sale of all handguns or assault rifles tomorrow would still leave America a bristling armory.
In addition, nothing political in America happens tomorrow and guns are, all things considered, cheap: a lightly used tactical .223 Bushmaster assault rifle like the one used by Lanza, and similar in firing power and capacity to those used by Holmes and the Washington, D.C., snipers, is listed on budsgunshop.com (motto: "more bang for your buck") for just over $900.
But the availability of guns is not the only issue we have to ponder in the wake of the Newtown horror. The idea of the gun, the symbol of the gun, the culturally recommended uses of the gun -- vengeance, assassination, mayhem (and almost never the kind of self-defense the NRA claims justifies near-unlimited gun rights) -- is in fact as powerful as the gun itself. And ubiquitous and graphic depictions of gun violence serve as the best promotion the idea of the gun, as well as the gun itself, could ever have.
While millions and millions of guns are sold each year (10.8 million guns, generating $4 billion in revenue, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation), you see far less advertising for gun brands than for motorcycles, smart phones, breath mints, power tools or constipation cures. Look at the movie ads this weekend if you don't believe that gun = cool, gun = power, gun = right.
Along with a good many critics, I happen to like the Jack Reacher novels. His creator, Lee Child, is a terrific writer, and Reacher himself is an existential hero who brings, if not order to chaos, at least chaos to the right people, the bad guys. He may also be the most informed protagonist on the specifications of weaponry in modern literature; Mr. Childs' extended passages comparing the virtues of the Sig Sauer P226 vs., say, the Glock 19, verge on ordnance porn.
Make no mistake: More so than Wayne LaPierre or the NRA, or budsgunshop.com for that matter, Jack Reacher, James Bond, Jason Bourne and other icons of gun-crazy cinema, along with the designers of "first-person shooter" games, are the real engines of gun culture in America. Second only to we who buy tickets to watch the gunplay -- or pretend to participate in the comfort of our living rooms.
See you at the movies.
First Published December 19, 2012 12:00 am