Brain Pickings

Stephen King on Gun Control and Violence

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“Assault weapons will remain readily available to crazy people until the powerful pro-gun forces … accept responsibility, recognizing that responsibility is not the same as culpability.”

More than merely resurfacing the discourse on gun control, the recent tragedy in Newtown illustrated the futile ebb-and-flow of these debates as school shooting after school shooting shakes the nation yet fails to bubble up into actionable government policy. So argues Stephen King in Guns — a short Kindle e-book in which the celebrated novelist brings his uncompromising lens, at once passionate and rationally composed, to the issue of gun violence in America. He argues that while the mere presence of guns may not be a direct cause of violence, access to them in a formidable enabler of existing problems and pathologies in perpetrators who might not otherwise resort to outward violence, harming many.

He begins:

Here’s how it shakes out.

First there’s the shooting. Few of the trigger-pullers are middle-aged, and practically none are old. Some are young men; many are just boys. The Jonesboro, Arkansas, school shooters were 13 and 11.

Second, the initial TV news reports, accompanied by flourishes of music and dramatic BREAKING NEWS logos at the bottom of your screen. No one really knows what the fuck is going on, but it’s exciting. You get your still photo of the location; you get your map from Google or Bing. The cable news producers are busting their asses, trying to get some local news reporter on the phone.

[…]

Twentieth, there’s a killer tornado in Louisiana, or an outbreak of hostilities in the Mideast, or a celebrity dead of a drug overdose. Out comes the dramatic music and the BREAKING NEWS chyrons. The shooting is relegated to second place. Pretty soon it’s in third place. Then it’s a squib behind that day’s funny YouTube video.

Twenty-first, any bills to change existing gun laws, including those that make it possible for almost anyone in America to purchase a high-capacity assault weapon, quietly disappear into the legislative swamp.

Twenty-second, it happens again and the whole thing starts over.

That’s how it shakes out.

King cites the case of his early novel Rage, published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, which resurfaced in the late 1980s and 1990s in four separate incidents of mass shootings, both attempted and actual, by teenagers who had read and seemingly imitated the novel. Even though by the time of the fourth incident in 1997 the book was already part of an omnibus, King insisted it be pulled by the publisher. While his argument bears a faint hue of apologism (one can only imagine the cognitive dissonance that comes with a situation like this), King makes a lucid case for the triggers of violence, be those guns or novels, as precisely that — triggers — rather than singular causes:

These were unhappy boys with deep psychological problems, boys who were bullied at school and bruised at home by parental neglect or outright abuse. They seem to have been operating in a dream, two of them verbally asking themselves afterward why they did what they did.

[…]

My book did not break [them] or turn them into killers; they found something in my book that spoke to them because they were already broken. Yet I did see Rage as a possible accelerant, which is why I pulled it from sale. You don’t leave a can of gasoline where a boy with firebug tendencies can lay hands on it.

Nevertheless, I pulled it with real regret. Not because it was great literature — with the possible exception of Arthur Rimbaud, teenagers rarely pen great literature — but because it contained a nasty glowing center of truth that was more accessible to me as an adolescent.

King goes on to argue how profoundly our adolescent experience shapes us, something science has corroborated:

Adults do not forget the horrors and shamings of their childhood, but those feelings tend to lose their immediacy (except perhaps in dreams, where even old men and women find themselves taking tests they have not studied for with no clothes on). The violent actions and emotions portrayed in Rage were drawn directly from the high school life I was living five days a week, nine months of the year. The book told unpleasant truths, and anyone who doesn’t feel a qualm of regret at throwing a blanket over the truth is an asshole with no conscience.

As far as I’m concerned, high school sucked when I went, and probably sucks now. I tend to regard people who remember it as the best four years of their lives with caution and a degree of pity. For most kids, it’s a time of doubt, stress, painful self-consciousness, and unhappiness. They’re actually the lucky ones. For the bullied underclass — the wimps, the shrimps, and the girls who are routinely referred to as scags, bags, or hos — it’s four years of misery and two kinds of hate: the kind you feel for yourself and the kind you feel for the jackwads who bump you in the halls, pull down your shorts in gym class, and pick out some charming nickname like Queerboy or Frogface that sticks to you like glue.

In likening the current state of American political dialogue, including the debate on gun control, to “drunks in a barroom,” King argues the solution lies in the bursting of the “filter bubble”:

If I could wave a magic wand and have one wish granted, I’d wish for an end to world hunger; the small shit could wait in line. If, however, the god or genie who bestowed the magic wand told me my one wish had to do with American politics, I think I’d wave it and make the following proclamation: ‘Every liberal in the country must watch Fox News for one year, and every conservative in the country must watch MSNBC for one year.’ (Middle-of-the-roaders could stick with CSI.)

Can you imagine what that would be like? For the first month, the screams of ‘What IS this shit???’ would echo high to the heavens. For the next three, there would be a period of grumbling readjustment as both sides of the political spectrum realized that, loathsome politics aside, they were still getting the weather, the sports scores, the hard news, and the Geico Gecko. During the next four months, viewers might begin seeing different anchors and commentators, as each news network’s fringe bellowers attracted increasing flak from their new captive audiences. Adamantly shrill editorial stances would begin to modify as a result of tweets and emails saying, ‘Oh, wait a minute, Slick, that’s fucking ridiculous.’ Finally, the viewers themselves might change. Not a lot; just a slide-step or two away from the kumbayah socialists of the left and the Tea Partiers of the right. I’m not saying they’d re-colonize the all-but-deserted middle (lot of cheap real estate there, my brothers and sisters), but they might close in on it a trifle.

[…]

Think of the quiet that might ensue if all that shrill rhetoric were turned down a few notches! Think of the dinner table arguments that might not happen! There might even be (o lost and shining city) a resumption of actual dialogue.

In trying to peer past the us-vs-them rhetoric of the gun control debate, King speaks to the cluster of contradictions inherent to each of us:

When I think of the politically conservative gun enthusiasts who are opposed to any form of gun control, no matter how many innocents die in acts of gun violence, I remember something a Democratic member of the House of Representatives is reputed to have said about Gerald Ford: ‘If he saw a hungry child as he walked to work, he would give that child his bag lunch without hesitation, then go ahead and vote against school lunch subsidies without ever seeing the contradiction.’

Most anti-control firearms enthusiasts have similarly split personalities, and the slogan you sometimes see pasted to the bumpers of their station wagons, campers, and SUVs — YOU WILL TAKE MY GUN WHEN YOU PRY IT FROM MY COLD DEAD HANDS — does not make them bad people. It only makes them walking contradictions, and which of us does not have a few contradictions in our personalities? Most Americans who insist upon their right to own as many guns (and of as many types) as they want see themselves as independent folk who stand on their own two feet; they may send food or clothes to the victims of a natural disaster, but they sure-God don’t want charity themselves. They are, by and large, decent citizens who help their neighbors, do volunteer work in the community, and would not hesitate to stop and help a stranger broke down by the side of the road.

The only assertion I find worrisome is the bombastic certainty with which King dismisses how the “culture of violence” dominating the media, especially entertainment media aimed at young people, affects the development of the human psyche — not so much because I happen to have logged considerable academic hours studying developmental psychology in my own ancient past and remember well Bandura’s famous behavior modeling studies of violence, but mostly because sandwiched in King’s questionably substantiated contention is an outright affront to the general public’s capacity for intellectual stimulation:

The assertion that Americans love violence and bathe in it daily is a self-serving lie promulgated by fundamentalist religious types and America’s propaganda-savvy gun-pimps. It’s believed by people who don’t read novels, play video games, or go to many movies. People actually in touch with the culture understand that what Americans really want (besides knowing all about Princess Kate’s pregnancy) is The Lion King on Broadway, a foul-talking stuffed toy named Ted at the movies, Two and a Half Men on TV, Words with Friends on their iPads, and Fifty Shades of Grey on their Kindles. To claim that America’s ‘culture of violence’ is responsible for school shootings is tantamount to cigarette company executives declaring that environmental pollution is the chief cause of lung cancer.

What a tragic conception of culture, if we were to subscribe to the binary choice between violence and intellectually vacant entertainment. Let’s instead stay with David Foster Wallace, who reminded us that “what we need…is seriously engaged art that can teach us again that we’re smart” and embrace E. B. White’s conviction that the role of the media is “to lift people up, not lower them down.”

Ultimately, King returns to the ethics and rationale behind his decision to revoke Rage, echoing Anaïs Nin on character and responsibility:

I didn’t pull Rage from publication because the law demanded it; I was protected under the First Amendment, and the law couldn’t demand it. I pulled it because in my judgment it might be hurting people, and that made it the responsible thing to do. Assault weapons will remain readily available to crazy people until the powerful pro-gun forces in this country decide to do a similar turnaround. They must accept responsibility, recognizing that responsibility is not the same as culpability. They need to say, ‘We support these measures not because the law demands we support them, but because it’s the sensible thing.’

Until that happens, shooting sprees will continue. We will see the BREAKING NEWS chyrons, the blurry cellphone videos of running people, the tearful relatives, the rolling hearses. We will also see, time and time and time again, how easy it is for the crazies among us to get their hands on portable and efficient weapons of mass destruction.

Because, boys and girls, that’s how it shakes out.

Guns comes as a kind of follow-up to King’s 2008 op-ed on video game violence and, at just $0.99, is well worth a read.

Public domain photographs via Flickr Commons

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