Devil’s Right Hand

So then I went and bought myself a Colt 45
Called a peacemaker but I never knew why
I never knew why, I didn’t understand
Mama says the pistol is the devil’s right hand

Steve Earle

A couple-three years ago, after telling public truth about a violent bully in a way I knew would enrage him (and earn him aggressive, ill-informed fealty among people who saw me as the real bully doing the real violence), I slept with a thick, hickory ax handle within arm’s reach of my bed for more than a month. I feared violent retribution. I thought I had credible reasons. I may have been overreacting.

I don’t necessarily know how to defend myself with wooden sticks or any other weapons. The last time I got in a fight, about this time of year in 1984, Mike Aikens kicked my ass in Allendale Park, on 18th Avenue NW across from John Adams Junior High, in Rochester, MN. Feeling unsure seems antithetical to fighting well. I felt unsure during that fight. I didn’t yet — wouldn’t for many years — know how to stop pondering ambiguity and just be where I needed to be in any specific moment. I still feel unsure very often. In the interest of trying to understand as many perspectives as possible, I ponder ambiguity a lot. A lot. At least I think I do. Maybe not. I don’t know. Or maybe I do. I see it in a lot of different ways.

Every now and then, when that ax handle was propped in the corner of my bedroom, I’d look at it and wonder about whether, if literal push came to literal shove, I’d be able to get my brain to the same relentless, violent place I’d seen the bully’s go when he felt threatened. My brain has a version of that place. I’ve worked hard to make acknowledging then modulating it my standard operating procedure. That leaves me vulnerable in many confrontations, especially in ones with people who know how I try to operate.

I did, in that weeks-long moment, even while overwhelmed with self-doubt and certain sorts of fear, know a few things for sure: that bully goes hard at people who defy his sense of authority and disrupt his tightly controlled image; I can swing an ax better and harder than almost anyone I know; I’m stronger and maybe tougher than I think I am; I contain combustible reservoirs of rage and pain; I don’t want anyone, including that bully, to ever experience the same fear and damage he causes; I will have no compunction, if he comes at me, about hitting him very hard with whatever is available until one of us is incapacitated or quits.

I lived in the worst of that fear just a few weeks. It continues to teach me a lot, especially about why I refuse to dominate and enforce compliance from fellow human beings (especially in roles where I am entitled and expected to) and about my own capacity for using violence in defense of people and things I care about. For a few weeks I’ve been working hard to make sense of a cacaphonous Facebook feed in which pro-gun and anti-gun zealots talk to and about each other, and about those of us whose zealotry is for acknowledging difficult truths and ambiguities, as amoral, sub-human dimwits. At some point I realized, both with and without surprise, that had I owned a gun during those fearful ax-handle days I would have kept it close to me at night. I never thought about buying one. Never thought about thinking about it. That seems to separate me from some folks and align me with others whose relationships to guns I think I both understand and don’t.

Spoiler alert: this little piece of writing takes a stand, but neither of the ones you might want or expect it to.

As pro-gun and anti-gun chatter in my feed have become more intense, I’ve been spending a fair amount of time trying to figure out what I really know and feel and believe about private citizens owning “assault weapons.” I know a few folks who own AR-15s and many other types of firearms, including some guns aggressive enough to make an AR-15’s function and appearance seem gentle. I know a lot of people who own “normal” rifles, pistols, and shotguns used for mindful hunting and sport, but who neither have nor want, as far as I know, anything with a collapsible stock, flash hider, pistol grip, large-capacity magazine, all-black components, or other characteristics that make some guns look so much more intimidating, to some folks, than guns with brown wood stocks and blued barrels that can fire just as many bullets, just as fast, and just as powerfully as the scary ones.

I’ve been thinking a lot — I am always thinking a lot — about who “needs” what; about the differences between needs and wants; about who gets to decide what anyone does or doesn’t have a right or need to own; and about how so many people seem to feel so comfortable dictating what everyone else should think and do and have and give up and feel bad about wanting and etc.

I’m not interested in lazy equivocation and false equivalencies. I have very strong beliefs about some things, and some of those beliefs are about cultural norms that entitle some of us to primacy at the physical, emotional, and general expense of many of us. I also believe strongly in the need for all of us to acknowledge and correct our own nonsense notions as eagerly as we call out the nonsense notions of people we believe are stupid and evil. I promise: “we” operate according to just as much stupidity and just as much evil as “they” do. (And depending on who you are and how you see the world, I am just as likely to be one of “us” as I am to be one of “them.” I might actually be both. Or maybe I’m way more than either/or.)

As I always do when I’m thinking deeply (which I always am, which doesn’t mean I’m always thinking productively or even being a decent human being), I’ve been wishing I were more experienced and well-read. In the past couple weeks, and especially since the March for Our Lives, I’ve been wishing I knew more about matters relevant to “the gun-control debate.” Not because I think my inherently limited ideas and perspectives are stupid — although of course they sometimes are — but because I often judge the credibility I’ll have in a conversation according to whether I’ve read, studied, and experienced as much, or the same things, as the other folks in the conversation. I don’t (consciously) perceive or treat other people that way. I contain epistemological multitudes, which means I find credibility in wide varieties and expressions of knowledge, many of which have nothing to do with APA source references to “the literature.” I’m not saying formal, academic versions of knowledge are less important than other credible versions. I’m definitely saying they’re no more important than any others.

I’ve also been quite effectively conditioned to judge myself according to scholarly expectations. If I’m in online or face-to-face conversation with someone who’s read and done things I haven’t and wish I had, or if I feel like my own bodies of knowledge and experience are credible but still deficient in relation to the other person’s, I tend to feel like I’m not very smart. For reasons too tedious and long-winded to blah blah about much more, those self-perceived deficiencies lead me to socially isolate myself a lot. That’s why most of the gun stuff I’ve been pondering of late comes from Facebook and a small amount of other reading instead of impassioned in-real-life dialogue over coffee or whiskey or mead. Sounds silly when I type it out loud. I don’t think it’s the sort of stuff people with new social-science doctorates are supposed to admit. I don’t think I’m supposed to admit that the process of earning my new education degree left me feeling much more aware of my intellectual and experiential limitations, and the limitations of scholarly research for generating objective knowledge, than I felt before starting it. I know a lot more than I did. That new knowledge helps me see what I and my colleagues don’t know. It also helps me identify the stories we tell to justify our sense of primacy in some situations.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about gun ownership, about knowledge, about cultural dominance and compliance, and about some other stuff. I still have way more questions than answers, but during that rumination process I came to a super-clear realization: if I expected imminent attack I’m pretty sure I would arm myself for defense. If my experiences and relationships and education and every other bit of nature and nurture that combine to make me who and how I am led me to feel certain THEY were coming for US and my only options were to kill or be killed, I would want multiple guns I could use to intimidate or destroy human beings.

I’m not there. I neither fear nor expect attack. I assume some folks see me as foolish for (among other things) that complacency. The relatively little I know about the thinking of folks who do seem to fear attack — and of folks who claim attacks are already in process — tells me they and I disagree about more than a few things. Or maybe about just a few fundamental things. I haven’t had a lot of conversations with them. But I understand my own version of feeling scared enough to get a weapon — that ax handle — I could use to fight back against someone trying to hurt me. My fear during that time and my “plan” for protecting myself probably seem ridiculous to a lot of people. A lot of fears expressed by people who say they “need” multiple semi-automatic weapons to protect themselves seem ridiculous to me. I also have compassion for those folks, even when I think their reasons for feeling scared are stupid. And there are people whose reasons for staying armed I find 100 percent legitimate.

It’s a complicated thing to basically say, “I feel compassion for people whose beliefs suggest they have very little compassion. I love people who seem to operate according to bigotry and hate.” I’m not saying I trust such folks or admire what they believe and how they express it. I’m saying I acknowledge and love them as fellow human beings to whom I am inextricably connected. I’m still trying to figure out how that works. Sometimes Emperor Palpatine comes close to seducing me.

What if cops had showed up at my house and said having that piece of wood next to my bed was illegal and they were, because of laws passed after some other people had done horrific things with ax handles, legally bound to confiscate it? I would have had a few options: A. give it to them and hope for the best; B. give up all my ax handles and axes and mauls and go get something similar (like a three-foot pry bar, a framing hammer, a hockey stick, a pickax, a pulaski, a five-pound or two-pound sledgehammer, a small scythe, a one-inch-diameter oak closet rod, a metal broom handle, a hickory shovel handle, a wrought-iron fireplace poker, an aluminum downhill ski pole with a very sharp tip, or a short scrap of PVC or copper or steel pipe, all of which I had at the time; C. grab the ax handle and invite them to come take it from me. I don’t know what I would have chosen. I suppose it would have depended on what I was afraid of and how deeply, and on how intensely I believed in my right to own the ax handle and use it as I decided as long as I wasn’t just randomly kabonging people or using it to intimidate and dominate vulnerable people who posed me no threat.

Listen: I know an ax handle is not a gun.

I know only a gun is a gun.

I see legitimate reasons other than fear of imminent attack for a person to own as many guns as they want to own, regardless of whether or not they can justify “needing” them. Good grief; if we all had to justify our every possession based on whether or not we need it, or whether we could use it to hurt fellow human beings, a lot of us would own a lot less than we own, and many of the things we’d be missing are things we care enough about to partially define ourselves by them.

I still know only a gun is a gun.

When my father-in-law was alive and had a hundred or so mostly antique and well-maintained long guns in his and my mother-in-law’s basement, I used to spend time looking at them the same way I look at bicycles: admiring their functional and aesthetic conciseness and curves and connections and components; imagining taking them apart, cleaning them, putting them back together, and making sure they work as well as they’re designed to; getting to know their operation well enough to use them smoothly and safely, diagnose problems and solutions, and feel confident communing with them in stressful conditions. I used to do something similar with guns as a teenager, when I owned a Remington 870 12-gauge shotgun and a Crosman pellet gun, and when my dad kept his dad’s early 20th Century Winchester pump .22 in a cloth case in his closet. That .22 is such a cool-looking and pleasantly heavy little old gun. At least I assume it still is. I haven’t seen it since probably 1987. I think Dad gave it to one of Mom’s brothers.

I also understand and respect having guns for hunting. I believe it’s most moral for people who are going to eat animals to participate in killing and processing them. I believe it’s morally hollow to eat meat without looking the living creature it came from in the eye before or after choosing to end its life. Those beliefs make me a hypocrite, because during the periods when I eat meat — sometimes for a few days at a time, sometimes for years — I buy it from people who have done all the hard, bloody, dirty work for me. I think about that a lot. Sometimes it keeps me from eating meat. Sometimes it doesn’t. So far it hasn’t motivated me to kill and gut anything other than a few fish.

I neither understand nor respect gun ownership based in brandishing and braying about big, scary weapons to provoke hyperventilation and sputtering from people who either legitimately or performatively express fear of guns. Life experience tells me there are people who own and seldom shut up about “assault rifles” almost exclusively because those guns terrify or offend people who are fun to antagonize. That’s just boring and stupid, and not in a good way. I’m all for provoking difficult, productive, critical dialogue. Belligerence for the sake of belligerence is dumb. Getting someone to lose their shit by waving a ludicrous firearm at them is lazy trolling. It’s more clownish than moral-crusaderish.

Life experience also tells me there are people who hate AR-15s and other guns more because of what they think they know about who owns those guns — because they sanctimoniously think moral and intellectual and cultural deficiencies are the primary or only explanation for wanting to own such weapons — than because of any characteristic of any gun. That’s just as lazy.

It seems specious to pretend that banning or confiscating guns, or repealing the Second Amendment, will eliminate tens of thousands of deaths people cause with guns in the United States every year. It also seems foolish to scream, “Guns aren’t the issue here!” when so many people use guns to kill and injure themselves and fellow human beings.

Guns are an undeniable part of many problems.

Guns are only one component of many problems.

Those previous 2,700-odd words say about .176 percent of what I started out hoping to say. I’m relatively happy with that percentage. I don’t mean to do anything other than throw out a bunch of ideas and see what folks have to say in response.

Here’s another quick attempt: If we’re trying to stop violence by just modifying or eliminating access to one of the tools used in committing it, we’re going to keep getting the violence we’ve got; if we ignore the role of a prominent and effective tool for committing violence, the violence will persist.

If we maintain our culture of enforcing dominance for some and compliance for many at the expense of us all, we’ll only ever get what we’re getting.

Bumped up to like .183 percent.


Helmut Flaag

about 6 years ago

...there are people who hate AR-15s and other guns more because of what they think they know about who owns those guns — because they sanctimoniously think moral and intellectual and cultural deficiencies are the primary or only explanation for wanting to own such weapons.
And they would be mostly correct? Your garden variety AR looks like an ugly piece of crap, it even comes in pink. Having no aesthetic features (compared to say that fine antique .22) and being a gun that performs identically to other more beautiful rifles with 'wood and bluing,' this would be an indicator of the type of person who admires cheap garbage over a fine antique weapon, especially if they have the money for the later, as many of them do, yet aren't bothered by how shitty it looks. It would indeed indicate something about their personality. Just like the person who has the money to eat at the best restaurants but prefers poison like McDonald's.

Helmut Flaag

about 6 years ago

But lead is poison too. And common sense has nothing to do with this.

Dave Sorensen

about 6 years ago

I spent enough time around guns as a youth to not be freaked out by terms like "semi-automatic," but assault rifles don't just differ in appearance -- the damage they do is much greater than conventional guns.

I support peoples' rights to own a gun, but think we need sensible gun control to put the brakes on the current arms race led by paranoiacs brainwashed by Fox News. Mostly I just have more questions. Why isn't gun violence such a problem in so many other countries? Who gets to play judge, jury and executioner? Is the penalty for trespassing or frightening a gun owner death? Why do we have such a toxic, divisive culture, and who ultimately benefits from it? Guns are one more wedge issue dividing us, and fearful people not only do stupid things, they are a lot less likely to form healthy communities. Is life in a bunker worth living? Should the anti-racist left be taking up arms as they are now?

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