If some writer had put this in a work of fiction people would have sniggered at such cheap plotting. On the night a major Hollywood movie opens in a small town in the US, a psychopath with an automatic weapon walks into the movie theatre, opens fire and kills people, carrying on shooting till his weapon jams. Behind the real life tragedy, the staged mayhem continues on the screen (or, let’s imagine it does). In an early scene, the action hero has stopped the action heroine from shooting a baddie, dispatching him instead with a swipe of his super-built-up arm and shouting, “No guns!” In the climax, the hero is saved in the nick of time as the chief villain is swept away by a hail of bullets and, even as the paramedics rush in to the theatre to carry away the actually dead and injured, the sleekly attired heroine leans on her bike-mounted machine-guns, grins and says, “You know that ‘no guns’ thing? I don’t know if that works for me.” Had the real life killer not interrupted the screening, most of the victims would have laughed gleefully at the wisecrack, wiped the flecks of popcorn from their mouths and gone home.
That the United States was the Land of Guns was something many of us knew before we ever set foot in the country. The Ballistic Paradise was mapped and flagged clearly in a variety of different ways. First there were the addictive Westerns with their bullet-ridden nation-founding myths, the righteous Winchester repeater-rifle winning out over the savages’ arrows and tomahawks, the good guy being almost always quicker on the draw when it mattered, even though his bespoke revolver might have a barrel several inches longer than the outlaw’s gun, the hordes of wild-shooting Hispano-swarthies being scythed down by three of four calm, dead-eyed Texas Rangers. Then there was the much-thumbed mail-order catalogue of the Sears department store with several pages of fantastically real toy guns, from old muskets, the cowboys’ Colt .45s, the 1930s Tommy-guns, the much fetishized Luger 7.65mm (physically and iconically seized from the Nazi army and raised to the status of “almost as good as any American automatic”), to the sleek, contemporary M-16 sub-machine guns, the whole thing driving home how much better life was for Yankee kids of your age. A couple of years down the line, it was when you picked up one of the many American gun magazines from the Park Street pavement stalls, each snub-nosed Smith & Wesson, each over-endowed Magnum .357 as glossily displayed as any Playboy-Penthouse model, that you realized, once again, the deprivation and poverty in which you existed here in gun-scarce India.
Getting to America and living in rural Vermont was a whole different thing again. Here, in my ‘counter-cultural’ college, along with the feminists, early ecology-theorists and hippie gamelan-gurus, you also had anarchist teachers who would say things like, “Well, the army have guns, the National Guard have guns, the state police have guns and the local cops have guns so I’m damn well going to have my own guns to counter these bastards if they ever come for me.” In case you thought this guy was wacko, Francis, the wise old security guard, the one who never busted students for smoking ganja or making love in the meadows, would sit you down and explain the defences he had in place around his house, in case the army or the National Guard decided to attack his remote cabin. “Are you an anarchist, Francis?” “Hell, no, I’ve voted Republican all my life, but not for shysters like this Reagan guy.” “Then why all the weapons?” “As an American, you gotta retain the means to defend yourself, no matter who’s in power. That’s one thing we should never forget from 1776!” This was before the arrival of the Rambo films, but even then it was no point arguing with either the ‘anarchist’ prof or the kindly old Vermonter that if the best-equipped army in the world decided to take panga with you, a couple of high-velocity hand-guns and hunting rifles and such wouldn’t ‘defend’ you for too long. There was an admixture of intense 20th-century paranoia in the caked ‘frontier pride’, a hard-wired belief that your guns were at the core of what kept you American, that your aiming eye and trigger-finger would somehow ‘save’ you in the end.
If the gun-culture in rural Vermont was a revelation, New York City was shock. Various cops and gangsters may have had semi- religious relationships with their pieces of ‘heat’ but not too many people connected the words ‘gun’ and ‘weapon’ to the word ‘defence’. Firearms were offensive instruments, plain and simple, that enabled you to kill or (if you were lily-livered or hampered by a shield), at least severely disable the ‘Other Mother’. Within a few months of graduating from college, I found myself, late one October night, standing on a wide avenue with at least eight, possibly more, weapons pointed at me. These were not the toy replicas in the Sears catalogue, these were real, and I had no doubt that all the pesky safety catches were off. I have a very clear memory of that long moment, of vividly imagining my parents coming to New York to pick up my body. Luckily the people holding the guns, the men and the one woman, were from New York’s finest and given pause by their shields, their training and perhaps the thought of the long reports they would have to write explaining why they wasted a lone, possibly un-armed, young brown-skinned male suspect. The longer story will have to await a recounting elsewhere, but I was among the crew that called the police that night and it just so happened that there were a lot of them close by, mostly in plain-clothes, doing a stake-out for an armed robbery based on a tip-off. On the avenue, I walked forward slowly as instructed by the bull-horn, and as I advanced I managed to get out from my throat some simple words: “Don’t shoot. We called you. Don’t shoot. Un-armed.” It was probably the only time any policeman ever acquiesced to a request of mine but I’ll take it. Later, I was told that three beat-cops had been gunned down just that evening on a street not far from where my encounter took place; it was unsurprising that the police at the stake-out were really jumpy.
It might be pointed out by people who know America far better than I do that the regular gun-slaughters that have taken place over the last two decades in the States, especially the ones by school-kids and very young men, come from a pathology that’s completely different from the old-fashioned, rural American frontier-nostalgia as well as the Fuzz and Gangsta binary of the megapolis. I would say the new shooting-sprees draw at least some lineage from both milieus. As a certain meaning of America springs increasingly widespread leaks, the idea of America as a world ‘leader’, as the ‘land of the free and home of the brave’, the easy access to weapons, the web-catalogues of the deadly toys, the mail-order or no-questions-asked purchase pathways (Aside: In which other country would someone sell you an Uzi, an AK or some similar assault weapon without asking, “Son, mind telling me why you need this?” Answer: possibly only in Afghanistan and Pakistan, specifically Peshawar) make a hellish cocktail with the psycho-glamour of the contemporary urban gun-battle where a young man can ‘express himself’ by directing a hail of lead at other (sub) humans.
In most other countries this is usually done via Playstation with the results contained on the TV screen, but that can, I suppose, get boring. In a country where many people are brought up with the idea of hostiles, of an envious enemy of some kind or other perpetually closing in, the transfer from the toy and the virtual candy-shelf of weapons to the almost equally easily available real thing can prove a deadly temptation. And the unreal could and does piggy-back on this transfer, where the difference between a pretty woman driving a two-wheeler gun platform and a lone man carrying a backpack stuffed with working, killing instruments disappears in a whiff of gunsmoke.