Monday, January 28, 2013

A Review of Stephen King's "Guns"

One element of King's work that I've spent very little time discussing on this blog is his nonfiction writing.  He's written a massive amount of it over the years, although much of it has been in the form of relatively brief pieces, such as his Pop of King columns in Entertainment Weekly.

Once in a while, though, he'll crank out an essay that, in terms of its breadth and scope, is every bit as impressive as one of his short stories.  On Friday, January 25, King released just such an essay as a Kindle single.

You can read a bit about King's rationale for writing the essay, as well as his rationale for publishing it online, here.

Delving into a political topic like this one is sure to irritate some of King's more conservative fans, and writing about it here -- which will inevitably lead to me giving you my own opinion of the issue -- is likely to irritate some of my readers, too.  In my case, we're talking about irritating maybe a few dozen people.  In King's case, the potential ire he invokes is considerably larger, and you've got to admire Uncle Steve's willingness to risk pissing off that many potential buyers of his novels.

The essay itself, however, is quite a bit more middle-of-the-road than conservatives will probably assume it to be.  Enough so that it might even irritate a few liberals, who might want King to have a more radical approach than he is putting forth here.

We're getting ahead of ourselves, though.
Let's back up a bit and examine some of the key bits from the essay.  There's a lot to chew over, and my approach here is going to be to just grab a bit of it, and see where it leads me.  Before we go any further, though, let me add that I encourage anyone who is reading this to go buy the essay at Amazon.  It'll cost you a dollar, and is well worth it.


One of the best sections of the essay is an extended wrestling with the legacy of the novel Rage.  That section begins like this:

During my junior and senior years in high school, I wrote my first novel, then titled Getting It On.  I suppose if it had been written today, and some high school English teacher had seen it, he would have rushed the manuscript to the guidance counselor and I would have found myself in therapy posthaste.  But 1965 was a different world, one where you didn't have to take off your shoes before boarding a plane and there were no metal detectors at the entrances to high schools.  Also a world where America hadn't been constantly at war for a dozen years.

The essay proceeds to give a plot summary for Getting It On (later retitled Rage for publication under the pseudonym Richard Bachman), which is about a troubled high schooler named Charlie Decker who walks into an algebra class one day, shoots and kills the teacher, and then proceeds to hold the students hostage for the better part of the day.  He and the hostages engage in what is perhaps best described as a sort of psychotherapy-at-gunpoint, and before long most of his fellow students are, in terms of their sympathies, in league with him.  One holdout, a student named Ted, is savagely beaten by the others when he will not budge in his antipathy toward Charlie.  Over the course of the short novel, we learn a lot about the abuses Charlie has suffered, mostly at the hands of his father, and while most of us probably will not leap to the conclusion that Charlie was right to do what he's done, we will at least have an understanding of the pain that has motivated his actions.

Rage is by no means a great novel, and it is certain that (unless you are a reader with zero cognizance of the rash of school shootings that have occurred over the course of the last two decades) it will give you an uncomfortable feeling in your stomach.  However, it is fairly astonishing to consider that it was written by a high-schooler.  King revised the novel prior to its 1977 publication, but it is likely that those revisions were mostly of a cosmetic nature (i.e., the correction of spelling errors, the tidying up of grammar, etc.).  My rationale for saying that is simply that the novel simply does not show evidence of the maturity present in the other novel King published in 1977, The Shining.  If King had revised Rage heavily, it would almost certainly read very differently.  As is, it absolutely seems like a first novel, and one written by a writer at a considerably earlier stage in his evolution.

Still, for this to be the work of a high school student is somewhat jaw-dropping.  King's assertion that it would raise red flags in 2013 is undoubtedly accurate, and that's as it should be.  However, knowing what we know about the trajectory of King's life and career, we can look back on it now and see it not as the warning signs of a troubled mind, but simply as the working-out of some of his issues.  Writing-as-self-therapy, in other words.

It's important to note that in Rage, the murder of the teacher is not a main focus for Charlie.  Charlie's primary objective seems to be to initiate a sense of rapport with his classmates; killing their teacher is merely a necessity for him, to get her out the way so that he and his classmates -- with the gun between them as a leveler -- can "get it on."  The result of this "getting it on" is a catharsis, not merely for Charlie, but for many of his classmates, as well.  The implication is that whereas they don't all want to commit murder, the vast majority of teenagers -- except those too repressed to admit it -- do have a raging need to talk about how horrible it is to be an adolescent.

That's the primary emotional thrust of the novel: a young man's cry for understanding and sympathy.  Charlie doesn't have the slightest interest in killing his fellow students, and practically as soon as he's done it he regrets killing the teacher; he realizes that he should have killed his father instead, since that troubled relationship is the core of his problems.

It might raise red flags in 2013, but anyone with half a lick of sense and even some shallow amount of knowledge about King's personal life would realize that in no way is Charlie Decker a stand-in for Stephen King.  Charlie Decker is, instead, a stand-in for Charles Starkweather, who as a nineteen-year-old went on a killing spree in Nebraska and Wyoming in 1958.  As a child, King apparently developed a fascination with Starkweather, and began keeping a scrapbook about the killer.  In a 1983 interview with Playboy magazine, King recounted:

God, I had a hard time hiding that from my mother.  Starkweather killed nine or ten people in cold blood, and I used to clip and paste every news item I could find on him, and then I'd sit trying to unravel the inner horror behind that ordinary face.  I knew I was looking at big-time sociopathic evil, not the neat little Agatha Christie-style villain but something wilder and darker and unchained.  I wavered between attraction and repulsion, maybe because I realized the face in the photograph could be my own.

In response to a follow-up question from the interviewer, King proceeded to say:  
Obsession is too strong a word.  It was more like trying to figure out a puzzle, because I wanted to know why somebody could do the things Starkweather did.  I suppose I wanted to decipher the unspeakable, just as people try to make sense out of Auschwitz or Jonestown.  I certainly didn't find evil seductive in any sick way -- that would be pathological -- but I did find it compelling.

Rage is entirely consistent with King's puzzle-cracking fascination with Starkweather; the fact that the novel is told from the first-person perspective does not indicate that Stephen King is sympathetic to what Charlie is doing, but that he is empathetic to the pain and agony.  To some degree, this seems like King answering a question: is this something I could, theoretically, do?  The answer, obviously, is no, because in order for King to persuasively empathize with Decker, he has had to distance himself.  Charlie is the victim of an abusive father; King's father left the family when Stephen was only two years old.  There is, perhaps, even an element in Rage of King coming to terms with that lack of a father figure.  You can almost hear one part of his brain telling another, "Hey, if Dad hadn't left, maybe he'd've just fucked me up like Charlie Decker's Dad fucked him up." 
That's reading a lot into the text, but my point is merely that if King had written Charlie as an analogue for himself, then Charlie almost certainly would have been the child of a single mother.  That not being the case, I see no reason to assume that Rage was anything other than a development, and a highly imaginative and healthy one, of that Charles Starkweather notebook.  "Is this something I could do?" King is asking himself.  The answer is no.

Imagine King's dismay to learn, several decades later, that after Rage was published -- and, later, collected in an omnibus edition titled The Bachman Books -- a quartet of readers seemingly read the novel, asked themselves the same question, and answered it with a "yes."  More on that in a moment or two, but first, let's return to the notion of King writing Getting It On as a form of investigation into what forces must be motivating psychopaths.

If Getting It On / Rage was King's first fictional exploration of that notion, it damn sure wouldn't be his last.  His second-ever professionally-published short story was "Cain Rose Up," in which a college student named Curt Garrish begins killing people sniper-style from the window of his dorm room.  That one was published under his own name, in the University of Maine's literary magazine, Ubris 
Rage eventually became the first Bachman book, but the next three had resonances with it.  The Long Walk is a haunting tale, the story of a bunch of teenage boys who go on a walking competition that only one of them can survive.  It has a veneer of science-fiction over it to distance it, but at the heart of things it is an examination in the same way Rage was, this time asking the question, what must it be like to be 99% certain you are not going to survive the trip you've taken?  Obviously, this has Vietnam-era resonance.  King wrote the novel as a college student; it is not merely light-years better than Rage, it is one of the best things King has ever written.

The next Bachman novel, Roadwork, was written after the completion of 'Salem's Lot.  It is the story of a man at the end of his rope who buys a rifle and refuses to move out of his home, which he has been ordered to vacate as part of a freeway-construction project that is demolishing his neighborhood.  This character, Barton George Dawes, is not a psychopath, but he is a profoundly fucked-up fellow, and you can sense King trying to get a handle on the hows and whys related to the actions Dawes takes.

You can make a similar claim for The Running Man, which was the final of the first quartet of Bachman books.  It had actually been written several years prior to Roadwork, and is a sci-fi tale set in a future in which people sign up to be contestants on game shows in which people frequently get killed.  What, King seems to be asking himself, would drive people to take part in something like that?  It's an expansion of the same question asked by The Long Walk, and the answer here is: a corrupt society breeds desperation.

Corruption is also very much on the author's mind in Apt Pupil, a novel -- later published as part of the anthology Different Seasons -- King wrote after he'd finished The Shining.  This one comes back squarely to looking at the Charlie Starkweather/Decker figure and asking, how and why could this happen?  Todd Bowden, a high school boy, meets a former Nazi and blackmails him into telling him stories of what it was like to kill all those people.  Todd is a profoundly messed-up kid, and his association with the Nazi flips his internal psychopath switch from "off" to "on."  The novel ends with Bowden taking a rifle onto the top of a water tower and beginning to pick people off.

Elsewhere in King's fiction, there are other examples of similar figures:
  • One of the most famous is Carrie in the novel of the same name; she is nothing more than a bullied young woman who is finally pushed too far.  
  • Harold Lauder in The Stand is a high-school loser who has an opportunity, after the collapse of society, to re-write his personal destiny; he finds it impossible to do, though, and ends up willingly giving himself over to evil.  
  • Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone is yet another look at a man who grabs a rifle and starts shooting; the whole novel seems to be an answer to the question of "If you knew -- knew -- someone was evil and would cause great harm to the world, would you kill them to stop them from enacting that harm?"
  • Arnie Cunningham in Christine is a high-school loser whose emotional problems make him the perfect target to be subsumed by the ghostly lure of a demonic car.
One of the most interesting stories in all of King's fiction is the novella "1922," from Full Dark, No Stars.  In that novella, King comes almost full-circle back to Rage, in a way.  Rage is a first-person story told from the perspective of a young boy who turns killer partially as the result of abuse from his father.  "1922" is a first-person story told from the perspective of a father who enlists his son's help to do some genuinely horrific things.  The result, eventually, is that his son runs away from home with his girlfriend.  The two of them go on a killing spree that is not at all dissimilar to the one Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate (his girlfriend) went on.

In "1922," King is asking himself the question: what kind of father must it take to turn a son into a killer?  The answer: a really, really bad one.

You might be wondering right now, "What has all of this got to do with the anti-gun essay?"  Don't worry; we're coming back to it, eventually.  However, I think it's crucial to understand the motivations behind Rage, and in order to do that, it's crucial to understand that King has built a career out of examining the things that scare him.  Clearly, the idea of Charles Starkweather is one that has continued to scare him, at least all the way up to the writing of "1922."

We're now back to imagining King's reaction to learning that his novel Rage had inspired four different young men to take violent action:

  • In April 1988, Jeff Cox held his English class hostage in San Gabriel, California.  He didn't kill or wound anyone, admitting that he didn't think he could brig himself to do so.  He cited, among other influences, the novel Rage.
  • In September 1989, Dustin Pierce took eleven students hostage in a World History class at his school in Jackson, Kentucky.  Again, there were no injuries, and as it turned out, the entire scenario had been concocted by Pierce as a means of getting to his father.  He'd used Rage as a blueprint.
  • February 1996: Barry Loukaitis walks into an algebra class in Moses Lake, Washington.  He kills the teacher, but is later subdued by another teacher.  He, too, is a devotee of Rage.
  • December 1997: Michael Carneal opens fire on a before-school prayer group, killing three and injuring five more.  Found in his locker: a copy of The Bachman Books.

In all four of these cases, the perpetrator is a disturbed teenage boy.  None of them go on cross-state killing sprees, a la Starkweather; but in all four cases, you've got to wonder if King -- metaphorically-speaking or otherwise -- saw these four boys' faces and thought, "Yep, there's Charlie Starkweather agai; another one for the scrapbook."

After the Carneal incident, King talked his publishers into taking Rage out of print, which really meant taking The Bachman Books itself out of print.  In "Guns," he has some interesting thoughts about the necessity of taking the book out of circulation:

It took more than one slim novel to cause Cox, Pierce, Loukaitis, and Carneal to do what they did.  These were unhappy boys with deep psychological problems, boys who were bullied at school and bruised at home by parental neglect or outright abuse.

And, skipping forward a bit, King says:

My book did not break Cox, Pierce, Carneal, or Loukaitis, 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.  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.

That last sentence is a fine observation, and I agree with it wholeheartedly.  I also agree with King's decision to take Rage out of print, although I am decidedly less wholehearted in that agreement.  I hate censorship.  Loathe it, even.  This isn't censorship, exactly, and even if it was it would be self-censorship, which is a completely different thing and something that I would vigorously defend any author's right to practice.

Still ... you've got to figure that while Rage did some palpable harm in at least four cases, it probably also did some good.  There are no documented cases of disturbed young boys with violent tendencies reading the novel and being influenced by Charlie's pain and regret, and thereby ending up deciding not to go through with some crazy act of antisocial behavior.  However, there is no persuasive reason to believe that such an outcome is impossible, or even unlikely.

I've been of the opinion for the entirety of my adult life that violence in the media cannot and does not cause violent behavior.  It can, as King suggests, accelerate it; it can inform the specifics of its execution; but cause it?  I don't think so.  My rationale for that is simple: if it could, then surely I ought to have committed some form of violent crime by now.  I grew up in the 1980s; our heroes were actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, and the like.  They made very violent movies; even when sanitized for broadcast on television, those movies were orgies of violent behavior.  Even more benign fare like the James Bond movies, and the Indiana Jones movies, and --yes-- the Star Wars movies had tons of violence in them.

And that's just for starters.

I literally grew up with stuff like that in my life.  I'm by no means a model of sanity, either.  I've got my quirks, believe you me.  I've got a rather troubling inability to keep friends on a long-terms basis, for example, and I go through periods when I genuinely have trouble going out into public, because I feel as if nobody wants to be around me.  So I do 'em a favor and stay home.  I'm also at a point where I'm having serious trouble with overeating, and with not going to sleep early enough, and not exercising enough.  I'm kinda fucked-up, to tell you the truth.  But in a low-grade way, and anyways, who isn't a little fucked-up in one way or another?  Nobody I know.  Probably nobody you know, either.

So, given my having been raised on violent imagery in the media, and also given my mild-but-undeniable set of mental/emotional problems, shouldn't I have snapped at some point and done something antisocial?  If violence in media could prompt one to do so, shouldn't it have prompted me to do so by now?  I used to play a lot of Halo; I used to listen to a lot of Black Sabbath; I've read Rage probably half a dozen times.  So seriously, why haven't I murdered a few people by now?  Shouldn't I have poisoned some dogs, at the very least?

No dice.  Hasn't happened, and never will.  Because, like, I ain't THAT kind of fucked-up.  Very few people are, because if they were, we'd have dozens of schools getting shot up on a daily basis.  You wouldn't be able to walk into a Walmart without wearing Kevlar.  McDonalds?!?  Forget that shit; they'd kill your ass dead in that hellhole.  Violent crimes happen in America every day, but percentage-wise, there aren't that many of them.

If violence in our media was truly capable of causing violence in real life, we'd all have drowned in blood a long time ago.  It's a myth, perpetrated by people too dim, somehow, amazingly, to realize that the vast majority of us are smart enough to realize that entertainment is entertainment, and life is life.  The two inform each other, but they are, in fact, separate.

In "Guns," King spends some time acknowledging these same ideas.  I'd love to -- and am tempted to -- quote from it extensively here, but I think I'll make you buy the essay to read it for yourself.  The upshot of what is saying, though, is this: American's aren't as fascinated by gunplay in entertainment as is alleged.  He points out of the ten top-grossing movies of 2012, only one -- Skyfall -- features gun-related violence.

This is not entirely true.  Bane's minions engage in some gun use in The Dark Knight Rises, and several S.H.I.E.L.D. operative do so in The Avengers.  If I'm not mistaken, Uncle Ben is shot to death in The Amazing Spider-Man, too.  Let's not limit the look to the top ten grossers, though; let's go further, and say the top 100 (which you can look at here, by the way).  Jumping off the list at me as gun-centric films are: Django Unchained, Taken 2, Safe House, The Bourne Legacy, The Expandables 2, Jack Reacher, John Carter, Act of Valor, Zero Dark Thirty, Contraband, Looper, Battleship, Total Recall, This Means War, Savages, Red Dawn, Resident Evil: Retribution, End of Watch, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and Lawless.  All of those have gun-related violence to one degree or another, and I probably missed a few titles. 
Let's look and see: yep, I missed a few.  Add in Wreck-It Ralph, Men In Black 3, Prometheus, 21 Jump Street, Les Miserables, Argo, Underworld Awakening, Red Tails, Titanic and The Phantom Menace (which both got 3D re-releases that did quite well), and The Watch, all of which have guns in them ... some of them sci-fi-style guns, but guns nevertheless.  Add those titles to the first few, and that's 34% of the top hundred movies.  Not an insignificant figure.

As much as I'd like to back up King's assertion that "Americans have very little interest in entertainment featuring gunplay," I can't do it.  It's just not true.  He makes similar assertions about the most popular novels, television shows, and video games of 2012, and I see no immediate reason -- except, perhaps, in the case of the novels -- to assume that he is any more correct about them than he is about the movies.  I take his point, but I think he's just flat-out wrong. 
Let's expand things a bit to consider movies that have weapons other than guns in them.  Bows play major roles in both The Hunger Games and Brave.  Swords aplenty in The Hobbit, Snow White and the Hunstman, and Wrath of the Titans.  Our 34% has grown to 39%.
There are various horror (or horror-related) movies like The Devil Inside, Chronicle, The Twilght Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2, House at the End of the Street, The Woman in Black, The Possession, Sinister, Paranormal Activity 4, The Cabin in the Woods, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, and The Grey, which have tons of violence of one type of another, weapons or not.  (Granted, I only saw a few of those movies, so perhaps some of them have no violence in them.  It's a possibility, though it seems unlikely.)  That's another 11%, which means we're up to an even 50% of the top-grossing hundred films that are violent in one way or another.  In terms of the amount of money Americans spent to see these films in a movie theatre, we're not talking mere millions; we're talking billions of dollars.  Probably about five of them, if not more.  It is, literally, an industry.

I disagree -- and quite strongly -- with King's assertion that Americans aren't interested in movies that feature gunplay.  Clearly, we are. 
But so what?  Does it matter that we are?
Thing is, the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that we don't have any trouble telling the difference between real life and fantasy.  Americans spent $85 million watching The Expendables 2, which may as well be pornography for gun aficionados.  And yet, GASP!, not a single one of us seems to have decided to go out and re-enact a scene from that film by sliding down a zipwire while firing a machine gun into a crowd.  If the movies possessed the power to turn us into slavering, gun-wielding, kill-crazy beasts, shouldn't at least one viewer of The Expendables 2 have killed someone and claimed that Stallone and Statham made him do it?

Turns out, we're not that easily tipped over into psychopathy.  Sure, we get inspired by the movies all the time.  How many of us watched Finding Nemo and found ourselves getting a little misty-eyed, and resolved then and there to have a better relationship with our fathers?  More than a few, I betcha.

See, most of us are smart enough to tell the difference between a good idea and a bad one.  If we weren't, we'd have people mowing kindergarteners down every day, and claiming that they did it because they thought those little kids were actually enemy alien soldiers from the Covenant, like in Halo.

Relatively speaking, these things are happening only once in a blue moon.  So we can -- if we've got a lick of common sense -- rule out the idea that violence in entertainment is causing these incidents.

If it isn't, then what is?

Mental illness.  And like tornadoes, you don't necessarily always know when mental illness is going to strike, or how severe it is going to be.  Or whether you're going to be alive once it's gone.  You can't really prevent tornadoes; all you can do is plan to manage the fallout, and hopefully help to limit their impact.

In my mind, it's much the same with psychopaths.  How can you possibly prevent someone like Ryan Lanza from doing what he did?  If you're the National Rifle Association, your answer to that question is to pump even more guns into the world.  Maybe if those school kids had had their own guns, and had received training on how to fire them properly, then Lanza would have been stopped.

That last sentence is a little snarky.  To the best of my knowledge, nobody is actually suggesting that little children carry firearms.  Why ... that would be crazy...

The NRA refuses to budge on the idea that guns are a part of the problem, however.  Even Stephen King admits that Rage was a part of the problem; hence, his personal sense of accountability came into play and caused him to withdraw the book.

And yet, that doesn't seem to have stopped Ryan Lanza, or James Holmes, or any of the other notorious shooters of recent memory.  Perhaps one or more of them has read Rage and we simply don't know about it.  Perhaps one or more of them would have read Rage if it were still in print, and would have gone about their madness in ways more directly synced with that novel's plot; it's a possibility, after all.

What is certain is that if they had not had such easy access to guns and ammunition, they would not have been able to do what they did.  Ryan Lanza is a possible exception.  The fact is, from a physical standpoint, it's not that hard to kill small children; he could have done those kiddies in with a machete, or even a steak knife.  James Holmes, though?  Good luck taking that many adults out without guns, pal.

In his essay, King makes it clear that he is not advocating some sort of mass ban on guns themselves.  He states that he himself owns three guns, and that he fully supports the notion of handguns, rifles, and shotguns being use for sport- hunting, and self-defense.  What King is asking here is how far the power of the guns needs to be allowed to go, and I think it's an imminently sane question.

Do you, as a gun owner, need to be able to fire fifty rounds per minute?  If so, why do you need to be able to do so?  King points out that if you can't accomplish your means of self-defense with ten rounds, then you're probably screwed anyways.  I'd go further to point out that if you're under the impression that you might need to fend off an attack that would require you to fire fifty rounds per minute, then the odds are quite good that you are the one who has been watching -- and being influenced by -- too many violent movies.  I'm not saying such attacks never happen.  They happen.  Specifically, they happen to Al Pacino at the end of Scarface, and yo ass ain't Scarface, so knock that shit off.

If you don't need weapons that powerful for self-defense, you certainly don't need them for hunting.  That leaves sport.  I've never fired a gun, personally, but I've got no objection to the idea.  It seems like a lot of fun, frankly; I've just never taken the time to do it.  I've never taken the time to visit New York, either, but I've damn sure got no opposition to doing so at some point.

Similarly, I've got no opposition to people having a blast blasting away.  There's no need to actually own the weapons for sporting people to enjoy sport-shooting, though.  Howsabout making assault rifles illegal for private use, but legal for licensed sporting use at gun ranges?  Is there a persuasive reason to not do that?

The fact is, we've been doing things the NRA's way for years now, and it doesn't work.  Let's call it a failed experiment in freedom.  Freedom must have boundaries of some sort, after all, or it becomes anarchy.  Surely the NRA doesn't advocate anarchy, right?  So surely they have no tenable reason to oppose some slight restructuring of the boundaries of our freedoms. 
"Insanity" can be defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  What does that tell us about the NRA's -- about America's -- approach to gun-control?

We tried it their way.  It didn't work, so let's try something else for a while, and see what happens.

Failing that, let's just go full-steam-ahead in the same direction the NRA is pointing.  That road ends with each of us wearing a personal nuclear bomb on our backs in a pack, armed and ready for deployment at the first sign of enemy invasion or government incursion into personal liberty.  After all, if it's okay to own one weapon of mass destruction, why not own them all?  None of us is crazy enough to actually use one of them incorrectly...



Well, I'm at the end of this review, and I find that I've not really spent as much time reviewing the essay as I'd planned.  But that's okay.  King's stated goal in writing it was to provoke discussion, and that's what I've engaged in here.  Sloppy discussion, prone to tangent, but discussion nevertheless.

Before I go, though, let me take a moment to urge all King fans, regardless of their political leanings, to read the essay.  It's not a one-sided piece of work, and even if you find yourself disagreeing with some -- or all -- of what King has to say, it's a very well-written and entertaining piece of prose.

I don't agree with the entirety of it myself, as you've seen by way of my disputing Uncle Steve on the notion of Americans not enjoying gun-centric movies in 2012.  However, I agree with him wholeheartedly in terms of the larger argument at hand: that it's absurd to take no steps toward controlling the gun culture.  The specifics of how to accomplish that goal are up for discussion, and the time for that discussion is definitely at hand.

And if you're one of the people -- on either side -- who is shouting "No compromise!" then you, sir or madam, are the real problem.


  1. Quite a reasonable overview. I downloaded and read the essay, then read it again, took some notes, and I'm puzzling over whether or not to review it, myself. I agree with his conclusions, if not exactly his reasoning for them. But, in the interest of time and to focus on the relevant issue, his conclusions are more than reasonable. (As is your taking exception to his "culture of violence" comment, which is just ridiculous. In fact, I've rarely seen someone be so utterly correct and incorrect at the same time re: "We are not a culture of violence; we are a culture of Kardashian.")

    I'm no psychologist, but I bet therein lies the road out of this mess. When American culture is compared to other cultures (specifically via its gun legislation) what is often left out of the assessment is how other cultures simply do not promote the Cult of Hysterical Narcissism that the USA does. I'm convinced there is a real connection, here.

    Also, when our laws concerning anti-depression meds are written by the companies that manufacture them, and our research concerning them seems to be funded by the very same, an equally-loud alarm bell should be ringing. I think this also needs to be discussed a LOT more. Not everyone who owns a gun is an Adam Lanza, not everyone who takes anti-depression meds is an Adam Lanza, but the same society seems to be failing ALL of the above in the same ways re: narcissism/ pharmaceuticals. That's just a gut reaction/ instinct, not a learned opinion; I defer to experts.

    (Just so long as said expert is not on American Idol's or Pfizer/Wyeth./IG Farben's payroll.)

    As aforementioned, I take some issue with the road King takes towards getting there, but I'm more or less in total agreement with his recommendations at the end of the essay.

    One quick last thing (and hardly important, but)... I've spent the last few decades under the impression that Temple of Doom was the first PG-13 movie, not Red Dawn. A quick internet search disabused me of this notion, but I wonder what the hell else I'm misremembering...

    1. Yeah, I imagine that one of the eventual solutions to this plague of insanity is going to have to involve better treatment for ... insanity. Personally, I'm of the opinion that universal health care would be a step in the right direction in that regard. But I'm also not really knowledgeable enough on the subject for it to be a certainty; it's a vague suspicion instead, but I'm fine with that being the place my opinion gets parked in overnight.

      "Red Dawn" was indeed the first PG-13 movie, but you're not entirely off-base, as the rating was created largely in response to "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." That movie -- along with "Gremlins," both of which were insanely violent for PG movies -- created such an uproar that the PG-13 was created.

  2. Well, the whole essay was interesting to me for several reasons. The first has to do with King's encounter with high school. I don't laim to be any kind of authority, yet a lot of what King talks about sounds very similar to my own experiences.

    Here's how it works out, I've never experienced any neglect or hard times from any of my folks, I was just needlessly pampered, enough at any rate so that, yeha I was kind of a spoiled brat in school.

    I did get hazed endlessly from kindergarten to to elementary. It was in fifth grade however that I just started talking more and years later I realize what was up all those years ago. My classmates in elementary, and for a brief time my friend in high school were all but kicking my ass to get me to clean up my act!

    I don't know ow that must sound, but it's the truth, the instant I started talking and taking more of an interest in others lives, the more better life just seemed to go for me. Because of this, I have very different reaction when i hear king talk about his high school experience.

    Far from finding high school a torture, I'm one of those guys who worries he might have peaked in high school, and I also, because of my own experience, can't help asking, did you ever think the problems might have been, well, yours?

    Like I say, these are reactions and ideas gleaned from my time in high school, and a brief moment i therapy FOR UNRELATED ISSUEs I HASTEN TO ADD, IT WAS SIMPLE OCD AND I WAS OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL BY THAT TIME.

    Still, I learned a lot while "In Session", and in fact it sort of bore out my school experience and all the good times I had there. The word i learned was "Social Interest", which is sort of shorthand for the logical concern for the welfare of others. Apparnetly, I found out, the reason I had such a smooth time of it in high school was because I learned "Social Interest" and people naturally responded in kind.

    That was an interesting thing to learn and It's since got me wondering about King during those years, and now sort of.

    To be concluded


    1. As for King being like Starkweather or Decker? No, of course not. For one thing one look at him and you can tell whatever issues he has or may have will all be of the passive aggressive variety.

      He may worry that he's like Starkweather, though the truth here, this again I learned in therapy, is that it's possible for two patients to suffer the same neurosis and yet display totally different symptoms.

      Has King ever struck me as neurotic in any way?

      ..........Well....Heh, heh...He might have on occaision. During his nineties period he struck me as more or less alright, to be fair though, lately I've wondered, based on the tone of his works, if that accident might have triggered a relapse.

      Again, I learned in therapy how it's possible for a patient to suffer a relapse of neurotic behavior from incidents or words that act "triggers" which can take any form from a chance remark to even a traumatic experience.

      I say this all based on the more darker tone of King's recent work, along with this essay in particular.

      The long and short of it is, I don't remember King ever acting in such snarky manner.

      To get an idea of what i mean, I checked around for a copy of his earlier essay on this same issue, "The Bogeyboys", written around the time of Columbine.

      I found it, and it can be had here:

      What's interesting for me is not just the more laid back tone, but also a subtle difference regarding removing "Rage." In the 99 essay he says he removed "Rage" 'With relief," while now he claims he's "Reluctant".

      Maybe i read too much into things, and maybe it's just time and memory, yet I wonder if King might not be experiencing a kind of "Relapse" as outlined above. Either I wouldn't get too worried by it.

      Like I said,whatever worries Kning might have about his capabilities, one look at him and you know even at his worst (whatever that may be now) he's harmless.

      Sorry if this whole thing came off more critical than it was meant.


    2. I considered re-reading "The Bogeyboys" prior to reading "Guns," but decided not to, just so I'd be dealing with the essay at hand, rather than taking a longer view of things.

      Of course, I ended up taking a longer view of things anyways, so it was all for naught. Overall, this was not one of my more focused efforts as a reviewer, but that's alright; I enjoyed writing it, and that's good enough for me.

      I'm sure there are plenty of people who had similar experiences to you in high school (i.e., didn't have much in the way of emotional trauma), but I suspect that y'all are vastly in the minority. Certainly, I'm not in that group. That's not to say that I was miserable or anything; I wasn't. I just had plenty of times when I couldn't quite figure out how to fit in. It was a time of confusion more than of actual pain. There were some good times, too, though, and I suspect that's what most people's experiences of those years are like, at least in America.

    3. This all has one hell of an ironic postscript I wasn't even planning but had include once I saw it.

      I turn on the news and the very first headline:

      Mother shoots intruders, protects family.

      ...I have no idea what to say and no argument to mount.


    4. Easy: the vast majority of the time, guns are used for their intended purpose(s).

      On other occasions, they are abused.

      I think it's simple common sense to say that steps ought to be taken to try -- TRY -- to make sure that, as frequently as possible, the type of people who would abuse them would be unable to get them in the first place. How to accomplish that? Beats me. But I know for a fact that the way to NOT accomplish it is to let the status quo stand.

  3. I realize that this review is old, but it seems to me that you are asking some questions, and it seems to me from your blog entries that you are the sort of person who likes to have answers, whether you personally like the answers or not. In that vein, I will endeavor to answer them honestly and concisely. Warning, this is long, but I felt that your post deserved more than a drive by post and is wholly worthy of actual discussion, as you stated as desirable.

    First some background. I am a United States Army veteran, who maintained "Expert Rifleman" status for the entirety of my term of service. I am a competitive shooter, both in 3 gun competition and Precision Rifle competition. I am a life long NRA member, beginning with my first shooting competition as a 10 year old Boy Scout. I want to be upfront about this for 2 reasons:

    A. To make it clear that under no circumstances would anyone, including myself, consider me to be unbiased in this debate. I am very firmly entrenched on one side of the debate. However, I believe that my experience and education in the area has led me further and further along that path, and comes from knowledge rather than emotionalism.

    B. To demonstrate that I have more than a passing knowledge and expertise in the area, and that my opinions are not formed in a vacuum or out of ignorance, but out of first hand experience and education.

    In direct reference to your questions, and why I take umbrage with King's position:

    1. "Mental illness."

    While you are absolutely correct in that the driving force behind most (if not all) of these incidents is that of unstable mental health, how would you propose that anyone address this in a manner that does not do away with Due Process in our nation? One of the cornerstones to our Republic is that no citizen be deprived of "Life, Liberty or Property" without Due Process. In this nation, we are innocent until proven guilty (at least ostensibly) and we cannot deprive people of their rights (liberty) without affording them Due Process. We simply cannot, not without undermining our entire judicial branch of government, not to mention the damage to our civil liberties.

    Lanza killed his mother and stole her guns. Holmes passed a background check and legally purchased his. How would we stop either of these from occurring?

    As harsh as it is, the reality is that liberty and safety are on 2 sides of a sliding scale, with anarchy on one end and totalitarianism on the other. The trick is finding a balance between the two, and in our Nation, we tend to err on the side of liberty. As long as we allow Freedom of Speech, we will have to deal with people like the KKK, the Westboro Baptist Church and the Black Panthers. As long as we require Due Process and the Fourth Amendment, we will have guilty men go free for their crimes. And as sad as it is, as long as we have guns and 2A, we will deal with psychopaths that abuse them and kill innocents.

    2. "He states that he himself owns three guns, and that he fully supports the notion of handguns, rifles, and shotguns being use for sport- hunting, and self-defense. "

    I am not sure where the idea surfaced that 2A was written for or that our gun rights stem from hunting or self-defense. That has never been true. As you are an avid reader, I would refer you to Federalist #46 if you have ever had any doubts or questions as to the intent of 2A. It was, and continues to be, to ensure that the citizenry had access to fighting arms that would allow them to operate in a military capacity, both in defense, and in opposition to, our government. Not self defense arms. Not hunting arms. Fighting arms. You can make the argument that 2A is outdated and should be repealed, and it would be consistent. I would disagree, but that would at the least be logical. What cannot be be argued however, is that 2A has anything to do with hunting, or that anything was ever intended aside from civilians being able to act in a military capacity with their privately owned arms.

    1. 3. "The NRA's way doesn't work."

      I would argue that this isn't true. It is estimated that there are over 400 million firearms in the US now. Fun Fact: On Black Friday alone, more guns were sold than there are US Marines, and that was just store sales, and completely disregards private sales. Despite record sales for many years in a row, our violent crime and homicide rates are lower than they have been in 50 years. Correlation is not causation, but I think it is fair to say that while claims that violence and homicide and guns are declining BECAUSE of increased gun sales and ownership would be far fetched, it is hard to claim that more guns equates to more violence, as the statistics do not hold out.

      If by not working you mean that it has not stopped random psychopaths like we are unfortunately seeing right now in FL, then while I will agree that you are correct, I would challenge you to present something that WOULD work given the above? In a nation with over 400 million could we ever stop something like this? This is not snark or sarcasm, it is an honest question coming from the position of someone who is intimately familiar with firearms, firearm law and Constitutional case law on the subject.

      3. "And if you're one of the people -- on either side -- who is shouting "No compromise!" then you, sir or madam, are the real problem."

      The problem with this is that the word "compromise" has been used incorrectly. A compromise by definition ends with both sides of a debate ceding their position in order to meet in the middle. However, that has NEVER happened in the history of this debate. It has been nothing more than a constant and unending erosion of the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. This isn't conspiracy, it is easily researched. The entirety of the debate can be boiled down to ant-gun activists pushing for bans and restrictions, and the pro-gun side conceding to a few of those demands, and then calling it compromise. I have NEVER seen a gun control advocate agree to rescind any of those controls or to cede any ground. The "compromise" on their part begins and ends with simply agreeing not to push certain demands...for a time anyway. If we want to talk compromise, then it needs to be real compromise, where we can meet in the middle...not just continue to meet somewhere on their side of the fence short of the line in the sand that they drew previously.

      I do realize that this is not a political blog, but I assume that you posted this with the intent of forwarding conversation, and I honestly have never figured out how this became a partisan issue. Liberalism and gun ownership have never been and should never be opposite each other. I will never understand how an ideology can simultaneously hold that the government regularly oppresses, marginalizes and abuses it's people, and that the government should hold a monopoly on violence and arms.

    2. The answer to that is simple: it shouldn't.

      Similarly, madmen and lunatics shouldn't be able to get their hands on guns as easily as they currently can.

      I appreciate your thoughtful and passionate reasoning, but I have to admit that all I really take away from it is that you feel gun violence represents "acceptable losses." And here's the thing about that: in theory, I don't disagree.

      So if limiting guns' availability isn't an option (and that's your stance, not mine), where do you go from there? What's going to work if that isn't?

      Understand, I don't particularly expect an answer. I certainly have no intention of giving one, because I'm not qualified to do so. But there are people in the world who ARE qualified to give one (you might be among them for all I know), and I find it curious that they are never asked to do so in any meaningful way.

      What that tells me is that the vast majority of people -- on both sides -- have no real interest in solving problem unless it is solved in precisely the manner that they have already determined it should be solved in so as to preserve their own sense of order and rightness.

      THAT'S what needs to be solved.

    3. Another 2 parter, bear with me:

      If that is all you took away from my post, then I am truly disappointed. I thought that I had expressed my opinion clearly and supported it with data, and that certainly was neither my reasoning or intent, nor was it in any way what I was saying.

      "I certainly have no intention of giving one, because I'm not qualified to do so. But there are people in the world who ARE qualified to give one (you might be among them for all I know), and I find it curious that they are never asked to do so in any meaningful way."

      I have found, in the years of education and debate in this particular conversation, that almost universally, those in the pro-gun control camp seem to believe that there is some mysterious 'other' among us who knows best how to deal with these issues. However, when actual experts in the field give answers, they are viewed with derision and it is claimed that because they are invested in the field, that they are incapable of trustworthy or unbiased findings. (Ironically this same logical skepticism is not extended to climate scientists, but that is another conversation.) There have been numerous and unending suggestions forwarded by experts in crime, firearms, Constitutional Law and legislation, and they are largely ignored in favor of calls for bans and restrictions on the law abiding. So in answer, they ARE asked to do so, they then do so, and then they are ignored because the answers do not match the ideology of those asking the questions.

      "What that tells me is that the vast majority of people -- on both sides -- have no real interest in solving problem unless it is solved in precisely the manner that they have already determined it should be solved in so as to preserve their own sense of order and rightness. "

      You may be correct, but when one side of the debate is ONLY interested in 'solutions' that end with the other side losing yet more of their rights, then it is what is to be expected. How can you "solve" one sides desperate need to control the other? To draw an analogy, how do you "compromise" with authoritarian conservatives (yes, they exist on both sides of the spectrum) who want to ban gay marriage and criminalize lifestyle choices that do not meet their own vision of how life should be? The short answer is that you can't. When one side simply and blatantly only desires to control the other side of the debate, it is invariably those seeking control who are unable to be reasoned with. Because quite simply, the agenda is not "solving" the issue of guns or gay marriage, it is simply for one side to enforce an agenda of control on those who cannot be forced to agree with them. When you cannot convince people that you are right, the next best thing is utilizing the government to force them to your will...right?

    4. As far as suggestions on lowering our violent crime and homicide rate:

      1. End the War on Drugs. The FBI estimates upwards of 80% of our violent crime and homicide rate to be drug and gang related. Prohibition has not and will not ever work. People simply will not listen when told what they can or cannot put into their body, and banning ANYTHING from drugs to alcohol to guns only creates illicit trade and fuels gang activity. It was true in the 20’s, and it is true today.

      2. Mandatory sentences for crimes involving guns. An alarming amount of violent crime and homicide are committed by recidivists. Loose sentencing for violent felons helps no one.

      3. Harsh penalties for gang activity. See #1 and #2.

      Studies suggest that these 3 steps would be momentous steps towards lowering our violent crime and homicide rates, and they have been suggested (and ignored) ad nauseam in favor of bans and restrictions on the law abiding. For instance, and I believe this to be critical, the ever present and continuously proposed Assault Weapons Ban. Which we actually had in this country for a decade, and was found to have “no measurable impact on violent crime or homicide.” All rifles combined are only used in less than 4.5% of homicides, and that includes hunting accidents with grandpa’s deer rifle. The dreaded “Assault Weapon” (which isn’t even a real weapons designation) is an even smaller subset of that. If tomorrow, you could make all “assault weapons” in the US disappear (not just ban them, but actually will them out of existence) it would not have a noticeable effect on violent crime or homicide rates.

      So ask yourself this: If an “assault weapons” ban would have no impact on violent crime and homicide, and if the previous ban had been proven to literally do nothing…then why is it constantly proposed and paraded around as a huge step in the right direction by gun control advocates? Because it is about control, not about reducing anything.

      If you want me to drop it I certainly will, but you posted that you intended for there to be conversation. Here it is.

    5. I have no problem with civil conversation, which this is. It's not a topic I'm inclined to spend TOO much more time on, though, because life's just too short. I avoid political issues as much as possible, especially given the current climate. It's too aggravating.

      "You may be correct, but when one side of the debate is ONLY interested in 'solutions' that end with the other side losing yet more of their rights, then it is what is to be expected." -- Maybe? For my own part, I've never -- despite being what I think of as being quite liberal (I qualify it because I sense the definition moving away from me) -- though it was even theoretically a good idea to aim for banning guns, or even all guns of a particular type. Maybe people don't need to be able to buy some types of weapons, but where that line is, I have no idea.

      What I'M for is finding that line of common sense, and then imposing some limits. Maybe that won't work, but I don't really see how it could hurt. What I hear coming from you is "I won't even consider that," so you'll pardon me, I hope, for assuming that you're unwilling to compromise.

      And, to be, clear, I don't entirely blame you. But I've never seen any evidence that the government -- under either party -- has the slightest bit of interest in coming and killing me in the middle of the night. If they do, they're going to be able to do it without or without me owning a gun, or six guns, or sixty. They'll get you, too, if they want you. That's just how it is. But I continue to see no evidence it actually IS like that, so I have to confess that I just can't get onboard that train.

      Now, regarding your suggestions:

      I 100% agree that the war on drugs ought to have been declared a loss and abandoned long, long ago. Well, 95%, at least; there probably are SOME drugs that ought to stay illegal, although if it's something people want, people WILL find a way to get it.

      I'm less convinced on the other issues, but only because I'm less knowledgeable. (I'm not knowledgeable about drugs in any way, to be clear; it's just a more binary proposition for me, compared to mandatory sentences.) That said, I'd lean toward agreeing with you. I do believe the criminal justice system can be (and has been) used to unfairly impact certain groups, and I'm in favor of fixing that problem. Don't know that letting criminals roam the streets is the way to do it; seems counter-productive, to say the least.

      Regarding so-called "assault weapons," what you say makes sense, but I have yet to hear a compelling reason why anyone needs to be able to own their own Gatlin gun. What am I missing?

      Anyways, that's about all I have to say on that subject. Feel free to respond, but I'll likely not follow up on it. Well, with the exception of asking if you ever read King's essay. If you did, I'd be curious to know what you thought. I can probably guess, but still, I'd be curious to know.

      Oh, and lastly, thanks for your service! Genuinely. You did a service I'd likely have been unable to do even in the prime of my life, and you did it for people you agree with AND disagree, and you probably don't hear thanks for it often enough.

    6. "… for assuming that you're unwilling to compromise. "

      If by "compromise" you mean surrender more of my rights while you (metaphorical you, not you specifically) surrender...what exactly? Some calls for some bans or some infringement into my rights? …then yes. Correct.

      " …thought it was even theoretically a good idea to aim for banning guns, or even all guns of a particular type. "

      Many liberals...particularly actual and classical liberals as opposed to modern "progressives" recognize that bearing arms is not oppositional to their ideology. For the purposes of this discussion though, I am purposely conflating "liberals" and "main stream Democrats" although I would agree wholeheartedly that they are not the same. Main stream democrats however HAVE and continue to push for bans and restrictions. Including Obama and Clinton. As long bans and restrictions on law abiding Americans continues to be a major plank of the Democratic platform, they will continue to hemorrhage votes. So far, they have given up the House, the White House, SCOTUS and state leadership. Maybe they will learn that people do not want to be controlled, but I wouldn't count on it.

      " …I've never seen any evidence that the government…has the slightest bit of interest in coming and killing me in the middle of the night"

      You will get no argument from me. As far as the efficacy of a civilian/guerilla revolution/rebellion, you are discounting history. Look no further than IRA, EOKA, HAMAS, ISIS or more recently, Afghanistan. Why people pretend as if an armed insurrection would be fought between 2 standing armies is beyond me. A revolution would be neither fast nor bloodless, and would be horrible for our nation. I have no idea why some people seem hell bent on causing it. You wouldn't need to get on that train. Every uprising through history, warranted or not, has had loyalists along with revolutionaries, and the vast majority of the citizenry is normally more than willing to stand aside. I believe that only approximately 3% of the population of the Colonies actively fought the British, while only about 10% the population actively supported them, and only 20% of the population was sympathetic and "sided" with them.

      "… what you say makes sense, but I have yet to hear a compelling reason why anyone needs to be able to own their own Gatlin gun. What am I missing?"

      Well, a couple things: A Gatling gun, along with other fully automatic weapons, is highly regulated, cost many thousands (hundreds of thousands in some examples) of dollars, and are not available to the general public. That said I get your point. Secondly, it is not a Bill of Needs. You do not NEED to write a blog. But you can because you have the right, and rights are not contingent upon proving need to others. Lastly, as I covered above, the need comes with the intent of 2A, that citizens are to be able to act in a military capacity if needed. Again, the argument can be made that 2A is obsolete and should be repealed, but that is another conversation and very few people suggest that. Mostly what is said is that they "support 2A" and gun ownership while simultaneously holding that it should be gutted. Orwellian doublespeak at its finest.

      " If you did, I'd be curious to know what you thought. I can probably guess, but still, I'd be curious to know."

      I was hugely disappointed. King is more to me than some random author. I am a bit embarrassed to admit that he is a sort of quasi-hero to me, and that his books helped me through some tough points in my life. I expected a more nuanced and researched essay instead of an appeal to emotion that ignored the historical necessity of 2A.

      "Oh, and lastly, thanks for your service!”

      That is greatly appreciated, but unneeded. I was no warfighter, and was used more for my brain than my skill with arms. I have however lost some good friends that I am thankful for every day.