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Episodes: Guns


Emily VanDerWerff

Dec 05 2015

6 min read


I grew up surrounded by two things: Republicans and guns. Thus, I don't particularly hate the former, and I don't particularly fear the latter. That, increasingly, makes me feel like I'm out of step with my fellow progressive urbanites.

Don't get me wrong: I think it's well past time for this country to have effective gun control legislation, no matter what it takes. But a lot of my closest friends and most casual acquaintances will briefly mention that they want to get rid of guns entirely, or repeal the second amendment, or what have you, and while I can understand their passion and anger and terror, I still bristle a little bit. When I hear that, I don't think of the couple that stormed a developmental disabilities center just an hour from my front door, nor do I think of any of the hundreds of other mass shooters who have entered the headlines in my lifetime (or just the past few years). No, I think of my dad.

Which is a misnomer, of course! My dad has a collection of guns, yes, but he has never gone in for the massive, semiautomatic firearms that are at the center of so much of this discussion. He has guns for hunting, mostly, or for scaring off coyotes or what have you. He claims they're for self-defense, but I think he knows as well as anybody that where he lives is not exactly going to be overrun with criminals any time soon. No, he has guns because he likes to hunt, and he enjoys shooting, and because where he lives, people just have guns, as surely as people like to eat at the trendiest restaurants where I live. It's a lifestyle choice, a status symbol, a way to signify, culturally, that you belong.

So much of every political debate that seems old and tired and worn out in this country right now is tied to this: we used to be a nation of rural agrarians, and our laws reflect that. Now, we're a nation of urban centers, mostly, but for a lot of people, that world of small town life and agricultural wonders is rooted very close to the American ideal.

I was thinking about this while listening to Christmas music, actually. So many of those songs are about leaving the cityscape to return to the countryside of one's youth. Yes, there are songs like "Silver Bells" that are explicitly about the holidays, but for the most part, our secular Christmas songs are about going over the river and through the woods to return to America's primal roots. And even though this isn't how we live today, this ideal of ourselves has endured. I love The Waitresses' "Christmas Wrapping" (a great, great song about Christmas in the city), but it hasn't quite become a standard.

Anyway, I think this anxiety is behind a lot of America's seemingly complete psychotic breakdown in the last several years. Yeah, I buy a lot of the analyses I read about how this is driven by race, or by class, or even by economic inequality. But when I go home, there's also this thin layer of dread that is all about how everybody used to know how things were and where things went, but now, it's harder to say. Things are changing. Not rapidly enough for many of us, but too rapidly for many back home, and that's scary. And I don't know how to explain that world to people I know who've only ever known the America I now live in.

(Sidebar: This is pretty much what season two of Fargo is about on a thematic level, which is why I love it so. It's also probably the most Coens-y thing about it, even while nobody would suggest it was. The brothers, from Minnesota, are a little obsessed with people who long to stuff genies back into bottles and find themselves unable to.)

A lot of what I read on the internet proceeds from the starting point that those who "cling to guns and religion," as presidential candidate Barack Obama put it, are dumbass hicks who need to be put in their place. And for as much as I disagree politically with many of those I grew up with, I find this attitude even harder to bear. Yes, I wish they'd change their mind on some things. But these people aren't an existential threat to our way of lives, any more than we are to theirs (something I believed city folk were for a long, long time). We all share the same damn country.

And I know the reasons for this, of course. The people I grew up with assume that more guns will equal more safety, because that's the way it works out in the middle of nowhere, except the "more safety" probably has more to do with the fewer people than anything else. If everybody on the streets of Los Angeles was carrying a gun, it would be dangerous, mass chaos. They're two different countries, except they're the same one, and that means a law that makes sense there might not make sense here, but could still apply.

As surely as I live in a country that can't understand the one I immigrated from (mostly from lack of imagination but also from a sheer disconnect from that world), well, it cuts both ways. When I go home, people assume that I'm terrified to go out at night, or that my every commute is filled with near-miss accident after near-miss accident. I feel sometimes like an interpreter, trying to explain two very different realities to each other.

Obviously, the guns I remember from my childhood, mostly accessories to days spent out stomping through pastures and cornfields, hoping for the ululating burst of a pheasant, are not the guns we're talking about when we discuss gun control in the US. But it's easy to feel like they are, and that's a gulf that seems to only grow wider, as we build up ramparts around our Facebooks and Twitters, closing ourselves off from the world that exists right alongside us but might as well be on Mars.

(Sidebar: Should really revisit China Mieville's The City and the City, which is not about this but is also all about this.)


Episodes is published daily, Monday through Friday, unless I don't feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

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