Could Smoking Guns Go the Way of Smoking?

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What do we say about a six-year-old girl who dies of a gunshot wound?

What do we say when the gunshot was fired by a six-year-old boy? At school.

Do we say, "Guns don't kill people, six-year-old boys kill people?"

That's one way to look at it.

Thus does outrage cool down to the merely sardonic. It's interesting how quickly we cover the range from shock to acceptance.

Each new episode is merely another chapter of what has become the turn-of-the-century American Gun Drama — a cultural kabuki in which teenagers or tykes go to school one morning and blast away. The site of the explosion may be anywhere (Colorado, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Michigan) — fate showing up on the doorstep like Ed McMahon with a surprise. Tabloid theater: the same scurry of panic, same expressions on the kids' faces, same emergency swooping-in, too late, of adult authority (ambulances, cop cars, local TV trucks), same aftermath of "grief counselors" and fatuous talk of "closure."

And meantime, the house divides — pro-gun, anti-gun. The same stylized arguments gallop out of the fax machines, two armies with different emotional techniques. The gun control tribe has the momentary advantage of shock. The NRA has developed a sort of rope-a-dope genius for slipping the punch: All you have to do is enforce the laws already on the books, say the gun conservatives, and anyway, that kid in Michigan was living in a crack house with guns everywhere, and criminals aren't deterred by gun control laws, so what's the point of them? Let the outrage drain off a little (it takes only a day or so, a news cycle), and then focus, in a certain manly way (subtly denigrating emotionalism) upon specific details of the case.

I suspect it will go on and on, like Israel-Palestine, or Northern Ireland, or the Balkans, until there comes some changing of the cultural tide, a force that will overwhelm mere arguments over policy. That is what happened, of course, in the case of cigarettes. When I was a child, nothing was more glamorous than smoking. In fact, there was something vaguely wrong with you if you did not smoke.

Guns possess a similar seductive glamour, especially to children. I have always loved guns — their machined steel, significantly weighty, their dark dynamic, the spiraled rifling when I sighted down the inside of the barrel to the tab of blue sky at the muzzle.

Guns were the things that heroes carried, transformative instruments that giants used to save the world from Hitler and lesser bad guys. And when I walked as a 10-year-old through Adirondack woods, slipping through birches and hemlocks, carrying a .22, I possessed secrecy and manhood and power.

Guns are seductive. Listen to the word "seductive" — the language of cunning love. Guns seduce children, and men as well. The American male's love of guns has a kinship to his love of cars: Both have to do with beautiful machinery, with individual power and control and aggression-on-demand. Of course, guns and cars have different purposes. Both may be instruments of rage; the gun is more single-minded in accomplishing its aim.

Pending the cultural sea change, I have a modest proposal. New entertainment industry standards should require that in all movie and television productions in which guns are used, only live ammunition may be employed, so that an actor who is portrayed as being shot must, in actuality, be shot. Every character who is portrayed as dying by gunshot must, in fact, die. All blood from gun wounds must be the actors' actual blood.

This rule would restore a wholesome cause-and-effect verisimilitude to our entertainment, and, overnight, would reduce gun violence in media to zero. It's a thought.