By Patrick Blanchfield
“Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times.”
– Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (1929)
Since its publication in 2007, anthropologist Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects has become foundational for thinkers working in the field of affect theory. Stewart’s text is a series of vignettes with a shifting cast of characters that moves, at once languid, dreamlike, and abrupt, from one story or moment to the next. Drawing upon a vocabulary of charges and flows, Stewart’s book aims to “slow the quick jump to representational thinking and evaluative critique long enough to find ways of approaching the complex and uncertain objects that fascinate because they literally hit us or exert a pull on us.” (4) In this final installment of God and Guns, inspired by Stewart’s book, I toggle between moments and places and reflections linked by a common theme: the presence of guns. With a nod to Stewart, I want to bracket judgment or analysis in favor of description, while also not losing sight of the fact that, in the case of guns, the “force” of their impact is frequently not only literal, but quite lethal.
Right about the time I lost my faith in God, I realize now, was when I started to believe in guns.
In other words: right about the time I stopped believing in divinity, I began to have faith in humanity. And faith in humanity, to the extent that humanity is what it is, is faith in dependable horror. It is counting on the inevitability of obscene miracles; a position, as it were, of negative awe. No center to hold, no grand redeeming narrative – just fragments, pieces: bones, blood, brass, lead. Pick the wreckage up with your hands, let it crumble through your fingers.
“No guns on Sunday!”
As a child, this was the household rule. Not real guns, of course – growing up in New York City, actual guns were not a ubiquitous feature of my everyday life, let alone the stuff of childhood play. There were guns out there in the city, of course – legally, in the hands of police or civilians wealthy or dogged enough to get licensed, and illegally, stashed in private homes or alleys or fast-food restaurant restrooms. But real guns did not touch my life: they might drop bodies or go off in the hands of children in the outer boroughs, but, for me, their threat was not real. Instead, my parents’ prohibition was about pretend guns – brightly colored Nerf weapons and realistic-looking cap pistols (the sale of which the state of New York now bans) and virtual representations (No wolfenstein, no doom). It made some kind of sense, I guess, as a sort of updated version of the Medieval Church’s Pax et treuga Dei, which banned warfare on the Sabbath, but adapted to the pretend battlefields of the playground and the living room. It certainly had the force of a divine commandment for me. I distinctly remember one Sunday, after Mass, getting caught up in the moment while playing tag in Central Park with some other kids and then realizing that I had been running around with my index finger pointed out to shoot people, bang-bang-bang. My transgression brought me up short, and I covered my mouth in horror and fearfully glanced at the sky, afraid that God had seen me. “No guns on Sunday!” I told one of my playmates, as though the rule should have been obvious, universal. He looked bewildered. I don’t remember clearly, but it wouldn’t surprise me if my scruples wound up in my getting tagged.
I am shooting a .22 with my father in Michigan. I am maybe 12. It is the first time I have ever fired an actual gun. His folks were never really gun people, but they were big into the outdoors, and many of the men had shotguns, a few rifles. As they got married, had kids, they sent their guns to the uncle who didn’t. Now he’s got kids of his own and the long guns are locked up in a case in the bedroom. We’ve taken the smallest one out back and set up some tin cans on beanpoles with a big hill behind. I lie prone and start to shoot, working the trigger and bolt methodically. I do not miss. Ping-ping-ping goes one can, as I hit it three times in quick succession. We go through a brick of ammo in minutes. I want to shoot more, to get out one of the bigger guns, the polished .30-06 in the corner. “No, that’s enough,” says my father. There’s something in his voice I can’t quite identify.
Around this point, back in the City, I receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. I have been told for two years that this is a momentous thing, a turning point. The Holy Spirit itself. I study and pray and get dressed up. The moment comes, and – nothing. Just a man in a gown with the ruddy nose of a career alcoholic rubbing foul-smelling oil on my forehead. I feel nothing at all, but I go through the motions for the next few years, because I should, because I have to, because benign formalism seems harmless enough, and it is my community. By the time I am in college in Boston, though, I have a ringside seat as the Diocese is at the epicenter of revelations of clerical sexual abuse. One Sunday, at the height of things, and under protest, a pastor reads a letter from the Cardinal advising the parish to stand against a public referendum on extending adoption rights to gay and lesbian couples. “For the welfare of the children.” After Mass ends, I walk out and never come back. After college, I move to the far side of the country, and, with vague thoughts of studying apocalyptic extremism in graduate school, I buy my first gun, a shotgun, to see what all the fuss is about, what’s bullshit, what isn’t. I take it out to shoot clay pigeons, and I’m hooked.
I’m talking to a family working one of the tables at a gun show: husband, wife, three kids. Their oldest son is maybe ten; their daughter, a toddler; the youngest, a boy, a bit older than two. I like them, almost instinctively, for the scene they present, but also, for their candor. Way they see it, bad things are happening – Hurricane Sandy, Newtown, DNA technology – and they’ve got apocalyptic premonitions for the future, but, for now, they are among “good people,” their children are at play, and they are thankful. Everything is a “blessing” – their spot on the floor today, business in general. They don’t sell guns proper, their business is “survival kits” – packaged first aid supplies, camping tools, and tiny New Testaments. “Survival is 90 percent mental,” the father, who otherwise works as a fireman and paramedic, tells me. “And I can’t think of a better book to read if you knew you were going to die.” He and his wife are Cherokees. They’re also selling art – charcoal sketches of Native American warriors in headdresses, on horseback. “They’re Ancestor Portraits,” he says, when I ask. “My mother-in-law draws them. She’s real good. Works as a police sketch artist. After the bombing in Atlanta, in ’93, at the Olympics, she sketched that guy, Eric Rudolph, for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Her sketch was on all the news shows.” The Ancestor Portraits sell well, but what really moves is when she does sketches of John Wayne. “I keep telling her, make more of those! Some Clint Eastwoods, too!” My friend who’s with me asks where she gets her inspiration, if she bases the striking picture on photos. No, is the answer, the faces come to her in dreams.
Another high-profile mass shooting. When they happen, news alerts on my phone, the occasional message from an editor. How quick can you turn a piece around? Can you call in for a panel?
I remember all the places and the names, but also, even then, they run together, gaining their own momentum and gravity. It is impossible not to feel that America is hurtling towards something horrible, unspeakable, and brutish.
But – we always have been. From the start, our pursuit of territory and happiness has been inseparable from murder, from ethnic cleansing, from slavery, from rape. The earliest gunshot victim in the New World to have been discovered by archaeologists is an Inca man, shot clean through the back of the head by a Spanish musket and dumped unceremoniously in a mass grave sometime in the 1530s. Less than a century later, a teenage settler in Jamestown bled out and died within minutes after a musket ball fractured his tibia and ripped apart an artery. We do not know why he was shot; some speculate it may have been a duel. His skeleton, labeled JR102C, is on display in a museum in Jamestown, Virginia. You can still see the lead lodged in his shattered leg.
Another message alert. Each time there is a school shooting, another “senseless” massacre of children, another baby killed in their crib by a stray, the chorus arises: Why? Why? Why? I do not gainsay the grief, but the answer seems obvious enough. Of course we kill our children, of course we teach them to kill one another. Our path to the present was paved with the perforated bodies of the young, the fleeing, the innocent. Are we truly so surprised to reap what we have sown, to be haunted by the sins of our fathers, the past that isn’t even past? Only in America do we place faith in an “exceptionalism” that might somehow exempt our future from the consequences of our own history. But Manifest Destiny was death drive from the start.
“For the longest time, I couldn’t even be in the same room as a gun,” the woman says. “My father was in Vietnam, he died because of a gun.” She’s in her mid-forties, wearing a cowboy hat and a lot of turquoise, which works great with her eyes. Turquoise in her ears, on her neck, on her bracelets. The metal is brass, reclaimed from spent ammo casings; she makes it herself. At first, I’m under the impression her dad was KIA, but that’s not the case – he shot himself years after the war, back Stateside, when she was just a little girl. “After that, I couldn’t be near guns, for years.” Then a girlfriend insisted that she try shooting, took her to the range. They rented a lane, and her girlfriend helped her wrap her hands around a gun, stood behind her, holding her in her arms as she held it, clutched her as she fired. “And then, just like that, I felt all of it, thirty years of fear, unnecessary fear – it all melted away.” She shoots all the time now, sells her jewelry on the Southern gun show circuit. She’s active in her church, and when not making jewelry, works as a photographer and volunteers with special needs children.
“God created men, but Sam Colt made them equal,” runs the old line, capturing in a few short syllables a quintessentially American blend of piety, entrepreneurial hero-worship, and commoditized mass-market egalitarianism. But guns are not an abstract equalizer, no mathematical operator. The terms on either side of an = may be equivalent, but the relationship of power between the triggerman looking down the sights of a gun and the victim staring into its barrel is anything but reversible.
The Pennsylvania gun shop is cramped and musty; the shots from the shooting range next door are only barely muffled. A white man in his sixties is buying a revolver. The salesman, about the same age, with a kindly-looking face and a snow-colored Wyatt Earp mustache, asks for an ID for the background check. The client is grudging. “That really necessary? I mean, look at me, I’ve got my hat on the right way and my pants aren’t sagging below my ass.” His flannels are indeed tucked into his khakis, and his baseball cap is brim-forward. The salesman looks at the customer, and his contempt is visible. “Let me get someone else to help you,” he says, and motions over a younger employee, also white. As the second salesman proceeds with the transaction, swiping the customer’s plastic, the older salesman walks away, expressionless. Money is money.
Pressed over dinner in a conversation with some liberal colleagues, I cop to it: I love shooting. Aiming, following-through, squeezing a trigger – the pleasure of targeting and extending your reach into the world with a firearm taps the same, intricate systems of perception, coordination, and cognition that makes throwing a ball pleasurable, activates and exercises the same circuits of stimulus and reward that lead monkeys to throw rocks and children to toss balls. Put me in a field with a good shotgun, and I will break clay pigeons for hours, and think only minutes have gone by. Nothing competes, there’s no flow state like it. “Meditation: Just like clay pigeon shooting, but with thoughts,” quips a friend who studies Zen. When I am shooting clay pigeons, I might as well be meditating.
And the devices themselves, the guns? At their best, elegant tools that effortlessly combine and embody mastery of physics, materials science, design, and chemistry. A boutique shotgun can be a work of art, and can command those prices. A well-built handgun, too, can be an amazing thing. For years, I had a Smith & Wesson 1911 .45 that fit in my hand like a glove and shot more precise and true than a dream. The durability of such things, too, can be a thing to marvel at. The “1911” isn’t a random number. The basic design of the pistol itself has not changed in over a hundred years, and it is still carried by countless soldiers and civilians today. In an age of throwaway technology and planned obsolescence, what else can compare to this? A Model-T is a rickety deathtrap; anyone with sense wouldn’t trust one on a modern highway. But that 1911, if maintained half-decently, will still be operating exceptionally decades from now, and, if necessary, you could trust it to save your life. God, the heft and balance, the elegance of the design, and the history, why —
— I stop talking, realizing that everyone at the table is looking at me like I am a monster.
It’s raining, the GPS isn’t working, and I make a wrong turn, winding up in a neighborhood of burned-out brownstones. Piled up at the base of one lamppost is a stack of stuffed animals and flowers, some real, some plastic. A memorial to someone shot dead there, a shrine. The picture taped to the post has come apart in the rain; the face is now invisible. The fur of the toys has grown muddy, splashed by water from the gutter, and darkened by soot from the nearby highway. A cup of flowers has fallen over. I want to get out of the car and set it upright, but I scan the area around me, and realize that I need to leave. I go.
Life – conceived, brought into the world, nourished, and flourishing – is, some say, a miracle. There are nearly a hundred billion neurons in the human brain, the little cells that fire as we fall in love, write a canticle, build a cathedral, plant a garden, tell a joke. With a few pounds of pressure from your finger, all that intricate biological architecture and human possibility can be obliterated, turned into unrecognizable pulp in milliseconds. A bullet can push through brain matter faster than cortex itself can tear. What God proposes, Man disposes of, in an instant.
At a post-concert house party at an acquaintance’s place, the frontman of a heavy metal band, a neighbor. It’s my first time there, and I immediately realize this is not a good scene. There are weapons everywhere, closets full of swords, axes, staves, nunchucks, absurd shit. In the cramped kitchen, a crowd of people have clustered around the burner of a dingy gas stove, heating a pair of outsize bowie knives white-hot on the range, then squeezing dollops of hash between them, collecting the hissing vapor into a glass bottle and taking long, rough hits. I’m a foot out the door, but my acquaintance says, “Wait, I wanna show you something,” and pulls me aside into his room. Rock posters on the wall. He reaches beneath his bed and produces a small bag, unzipping it and laying its contents on the unmade sheets. A big, six-inch Ruger GP100.357 Magnum sits, unsecured, loaded, stainless steel gleaming in the dingy half-light. “Sweet, right?” Next to the gun, a Billy club with a filed-down tip. “And this –” he picks the club up and thwacks it against the palm of his hand. “This is my nigger-poker.”
I look at him, realizing I do not know who he is at all. I realize that there’s a good bet you could count on two hands the number of actual black people he’s met in his whole life. I look at him and the gun and the stick, trying to formulate words, but then there’s a commotion outside. A stocky guy with long hair and an outsize nose ring has started shoving random people, yelling “I don’t give a fuck – I’m on parole but I don’t give a fuck and I will take any one of you I will take all of you.” The air smells now like more than just ozone and weed, more acrid, and whatever it is people are smoking, this guy is geeked to the gills on it and looking for a fight. My acquaintance is preoccupied and I slip out into the night. The moon glows dull behind Northwest clouds; the gun shone brighter.
Shooting in the woods with some friends, plinking bottles and bowling pins against a dirt backstop. Good times. We’ll collect the debris when we’re done. A friend of a friend shows up to join us. He’s got a Romanian AK with a big 75-round drum mag. “Watch this!” he says, taking aim at a nearby fir. It’s practically still a sapling, the trunk’s diameter about as wide as my fist. He begins to shoot at the tree, bump-firing from the hip, holding his trigger finger rigid and letting the recoil of the gun against his body do the work. It’s wildly inaccurate, and reckless as hell, lead spraying everywhere, brass flying wildly, but quantity trumps precision, and the tree starts to splinter and crack and then fall, years of growth suddenly yay much toothpicks and sap at our feet. “YEAH! FUCK YOU, TREE!” he cackles. He stands there, admiring his handiwork, gun canted against his hip, barrel smoking. I want to break his jaw.
I check my messages. Some, inbox filters catch. Others, not so much.
“fag go get a job working door at a gay bar.”
“What kind of jewish/communist anti-white bull shit is this?”
A lengthy poem, in rhyming verse, about how those who support gun control will change their minds when their homes are invaded and they are all raped. Which they deserve, of course. It seems unnecessary, but the race of the rapists is specified.
A letter from a man serving a life sentence for the rape and murder of a woman and her three-year-old daughter. He’s returned to Catholicism in prison. He quotes Augustine. “You cannot love with fear in your heart.”
I am talking to someone whom I had hoped would know better, a very educated person, a powerful person, someone I respect. I had been under the impression we were talking about viable gun control policy scenarios for the future, but realize that what instead is at stake is a matter of Catechism. In a flashback to my childhood, I recognize the feeling: I am failing to articulate the proper credos. Why can I not agree that all handguns should be banned? Never mind that there are at minimum 140 million of them out there in America, that the enforcement of such a ban might would most likely take the form of either Stop-and-Frisk-writ nationwide or exactly the implausible and bloody jackboot fever dream the NRA spent the mid-`90s selling the American public. The important thing, now, is that I acknowledge, in principle, as an article of faith, that handguns should not exist in civilian hands, and that we then work backwards from there, bringing our current hell closer by baby steps to that utopian heaven. I start to falter, trying to gesture at the possibility that, perhaps, not all handgun owners are paranoid; that, in parts of the country, variously rural or with failing urban infrastructure, police response time to urgent 911 calls can average 30-40 minutes, easy; that, whatever the actual public health data, I am no position to tell a victim of domestic abuse, for example, that she can’t buy a gun when her abuser almost certainly has one; that the regulatory landscape is broken; that the genie is out of the bottle; that none of the candidate platforms on “gun control” are either honest or realistic; that the inexorable logic of a tragedy of the commons has already exceeded our capacity to return to a prelapsarian, entirely fictional state of unarmed innocence – but then I realize the window has shut. I am an ideologue. I am “pro-gun.” The conversation is over. My interlocutor has to go. Their doorman is buzzing them from downstairs. Theirs is a busy schedule.
The Sportsman’s Warehouse is as big as an airplane hangar. On the floor, you can buy anything from kayaks to tents to hunting blinds to trampolines. Taxidermied animals set up in dioramas wrap all the way around the mezzanine. Ferocious-looking black bears frozen mid-roar, ten-point bucks butting heads with horns locked, a half-dozen mountain goats, foxes, a cougar, even some African big game. In the back of the store, beyond the tents and hunting apparel, and past several aisles of ammo, a wall of rifles and a giant class counter full of pistols and revolvers. A group of men stand there, listless. One strokes the barrel of a Barrett .50 caliber sniper rifle; it is “On Sale!” for $3,500. He makes a joke about how you could hit Jane Fonda from a mile away with that baby. The older men laugh. The jokester himself is maybe twenty. When Fonda was in Hanoi in ’72, he was at least fifteen years from being born.
A July 4th. We are hanging out waiting to go down to the river to watch the fireworks. A friend is talking about his tour in Fallujah, during the worst of it. He is an ex-Marine, Force Recon. He wants to go back, but he can’t, they won’t let him. What he saw and did in the city gave him PTSD, and so a service shrink prescribed him SSRIs, but care lapsed when his tour was up, as did his script, and the VA was no help at all. Withdrawal was bad, and so he wound up self-medicating with street drugs, and though he took a month to detox before trying to re-enlist, he pissed dirty and now it’s all over. “Done for me, man. Not sure what I’m going to do next.” Someone mentions there’s an AR in the house; he asks to see it. I fetch it and his eyes light up. “Can I…?” he asks. I hand the Bushmaster to him. Moving precisely, mechanically, he fieldstrips and then fully disassembles the entire weapon, slapping out the delta ring that gives me such trouble like it’s nothing at all, and then puts it back together in maybe fifty seconds, a minute, tops. For the first time in the whole evening, he seems calm. He hands it back to me, breathing steady and slow. I lock the rifle back up. Later, during the fireworks, something gets to him, and he disappears. I don’t know where he went, and I don’t know where he is now.
Sitting at a picnic table on a massive compound in a Southwestern desert. Tens of thousands of people come to this place each year to train for days at a time in marksmanship and self-defense. The crackle of pistol fire comes in regular waves, punctuated occasionally by the rata-tata-tata of a fully automatic weapons or the load rapport of a high-powered rifle. The mountains rising around us on all sides like the rims of a giant bowl are young by geological standards – only forty-to-sixty million years old. Their solid rock has furnished the gravel, dotted with spent casings, that sits beneath our feet. A friend and I sip espresso milkshakes by the lunch truck. A gentle-faced late-middle aged man sits down by us; like everyone there, including ourselves, he is wearing a sidearm on a hip and carrying extra magazines. As we wait on our order, the man talks about his wife: they came here together, paying a great deal of money for five days of classes in Concealed Carry, but the climate hasn’t been kind to her, and an allergy flare-up means they’ll have to abandon their vacation plans. As soon as her swelling comes down, and the day cools into night, he’ll drive her back to Arizona. It’s a shame, and they’ll lose money, but her health comes first, without question. He is a good man, and he loves her. As it always does, talk turns to from the weather to politics. Out of nowhere, he says he doesn’t trust Obama: “Honestly, I think he’s a Muslim.” Unsure what to say, we find our fries and chicken fingers objects of suddenly intense interest, and chew in silence, letting his matter-of-fact declaration hang in the air, as though hoping it will blow away in the dusty Mojave wind. Our .45s hang heavy on our sides. I realize in a flash how glad I am to be armed.
A domestic terrorist attack; images of refugees struggling to cross borders; a foreign terrorist attack. A white nationalist tweets a drawing. The image is of a Crusader, Red Templar Cross on his shield and a Teutonic helmet on his head. We see him from below; he is bringing down a bloodsplattered sword for the killing blow. The caption: Jihad Cuts Both Ways. Another tweets an Iron Cross, writing: Lone Wolf Terrorists Will Soon Face Lone Wolf Patriots. #Christianity. A local chapter of Oath Keepers shares an article on Facebook. The title: “Islamic Invasion Pulls Trigger: Europe now scrambles for guns.” The lede: “Many now wish they had a Second Amendment.” The image accompanying it is picture of Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix,” hefting a submachine gun.
In Paris, the bodies are still being counted. Up pops an ad for a new AR model. Better than The Puritan, even more on-the-nose than The Crusader, it is The Peacemaker JFM. JFM stands for “Jihad Fighting Machine,” and it is being brought to market by Florida Gun Supply, the shop that made news earlier this year by declaring itself a “Muslim-free Zone.” Even for gun ad copy, this doesn’t hold back. “This rifle is not only a state of the art fighting gun, but it’s also an inspiration to American Patriots that the extreme political correctness in the United States must be stopped. If we can’t call evil “evil” for fear of offending people – lives will continue to be lost unnecessarily.” Apart from the Bible verse inscribed on it (“Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” – Matthew 5:9), the JFM has another unique feature – it comes pre-lubed with an oil containing 13% pig fat. As the advertisement explains:
“In the evil theocracy known as Islam, Jihadis are forbidden to touch any swine product without atonement. If they die before they have the opportunity to atone for coming in contact with swine product, they won’t get their virgins in the after life. Straight to Islamic hell – do not pass go, do not collect $200 dollars.”
The oil itself is called “Silver Bullet Gun Oil.” Because, I assume, as silver is to werewolves, pig fat is to Muslims. “Silver Bullet Gun Oil – One Shot, One Soul.”
Meanwhile, a leading Presidential candidate and a former Speaker of the House both blame “gun control” for the fatalities. If only the victims had been concealed carrying guns, they say, they would not have been blown up.
We are hurtling toward somewhere horrible, unspeakable, and brutish. And it has always been so. Is this time different? I don’t know. I turn off my computer and go listen to the rain.
Part I of “God and Guns” by Patrick Blanchfield can be found here.
Patrick Blanchfield holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Emory University and is a graduate of the Emory University Psychoanalytic Institute. He writes about US culture, guns, and politics at carteblanchfield.com.
Some reportage here was made possible with the generous support of the The Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute.