I'm almost 21. Should I buy some guns?

Like my father, I love and respect guns. But I'm conflicted.

Published April 16, 2007 11:11AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm a 20-year-old college student from Atlanta. I come from a liberal background, was raised an atheist, spent a few years as a communist, a few as an anarchist, and lately don't really know what I think. I've read a lot of Nietzsche, and lately have been getting into Habermas. I'm turning 21 in a few months, and I am facing a big decision: whether to buy a gun.

A little background is needed here. I love guns; my father loves guns; both of us hate "gun nuts" and 99 percent of gun owners. Neither of us feels comfortable with our love of guns, and neither one of us has ever let my mother know. My father grew up with guns; I did not. He spent summers on his grandfather's farm with guns. His uncle was in World War II at Guadalcanal. He imparted a very serious view of guns to my father: "Never point a gun at someone you don't plan to shoot, never shoot someone you don't plan to kill."

As part of my issues with my father, I've confused all of the male figures on my father's side with my father, and idolize them, and try to take their advice to heart. We have two rifles at home: an 1898 Springfield Armory 30-40 Krag-Jorgensen Carbine and an Arisaka 98 from WWII. Both of these are family heirlooms. I love guns (I think) not so much for what they represent (masculinity, power, etc.) but for their mechanical workings: the click-clicks, the bolts, the springs and the steel. Or at least, that's what I tell myself. My friends on some level encourage this obsession, and this has been good for me, because I've been able to admit that I like guns and that I want a gun.

I've pretty much decided that if I got a gun my collection would never exceed one rifle, one pistol and one shotgun. I would get the civilian version of the M14, the M1A, for the rifle and a CZ-75B for the pistol. Right now, I'm only contemplating getting one. But there's so much baggage with guns (all that gun culture crap: survivalists, hunters, paranoids, white supremacists, etc.) and I'm really not sure that I can stand owning something so strongly associated with warrior culture (which I see as a lie; as I'm fond of saying, "Warrior culture died at Agincourt"). To me, a gun is two things: a toy and a tool. As a toy, it is the mechanics that fascinate me. As a tool, I'm not sure I'll ever have any real use for it, post-apocalyptic daydreams aside.

As far as getting a pistol is concerned, I'm not sure that carrying it with me would be good for my mental health, so I've kind of ruled that out at this point. I'm worried that I would draw too much from a gun, that it holds too much appeal for me, and that I should therefore avoid it. I don't know what to do, and aside from whether or not my parents would approve, and all other logistical/material concerns aside, I'm not really sure whether I should buy a gun.


Sane Gun Lover

Dear Sane Gun Lover,

You need to think about this some more.

Right now you're a smart young guy with a lot of questions. If you buy some guns, you will be a smart young guy with a lot of questions and some guns. The intellectual situation won't have changed.

You need to keep at this, to evolve in your thinking to where you can buy some guns or not buy some guns without fearing their inordinate power over you, without fearing that you are making a compact with dark impulses, or that you must hide the guns from your mother, or that you must somehow reconcile your image of other gun owners with your image of yourself.

You need to get to a point where you are at peace with the guns. Until you are at peace with the idea, you will be unable to abandon it. It will have a somewhat mysterious hold on you, as it does now.

I think you want to do the right thing. You want to honor your relatives and ancestors, and you want to honor your own ideals, and you want to find your place in the adult world.

You are about to turn 21. You are about to become an adult, fully vested as a citizen, fully empowered to make your own decisions and fully charged with responsibility for those decisions. So part of your thinking about buying a gun, I suspect, has to do with that. Just as your uncles and your father have given you examples of how to live, so your actions will become examples of how to live and what to do. So that's a huge responsibility!

Recognizing that you are about to turn 21, one of the things I would do, if I were you, and if I were as smart as you, is spend some time trying to visualize the role you want to play in the world. Think about the purpose of the various ideologies you have held, the communism and anarchism and whatnot. I'd venture that your reading and thinking and your cleaving to this or that ideology are basically about ideals -- about looking for a system of thought and behavior that embodies ideals and might lead to a better civilization. It's about trying to figure out how to do the right thing.

And how do you do the right thing and also honor your great uncle and your dad? By showing through your actions that you respect what they've done, you honor what they've done. But you have to take what they've done and, with respect, make some modifications. They've given you a questioning mind as well as a respect for tradition. By his military service, your great uncle gave you political freedom. He gave you the chance to make things better than they were. Now it's your turn.

When you turn 21 and inherit the world, what are you going to do with it? You're going to try to improve it. You're going to say to your dad and your uncles, Thank you for taking us to this point. Now it's my turn. As owner of the future, I have to make my own choices, and I am making some adjustments to the world you've bequeathed me. I must make my accommodation to the long chain of circumstance and ideals that have brought us to this point.

Why not resolve to say to your children and to future generations through your actions: Here, on the day of my 21st birthday in the year 2007, I broke the long chain of guns that has paradoxically both freed and enslaved generations of my family! Why not say that you could have guns if you wanted to, and you love and respect guns, but you renounce them -- not out of ignorance or lack of love for guns but out of proud independence of mind and in heroic quest for absolution from violence and shadowy fear, from unacknowledged male supremacy enforced by the unspoken threat of violence, of the hidden cruelties of the Southern family's misogynistic matriarchy in which, in the war-torn absence of fathers, it was the mothers who ruled and thus had to be overcome by secretive and coded masculine sabotage, the shadowy exercise of psychosexual power.

Why not say, I looked into my heart and I saw there the violence and privilege embodied in beautiful forged steel and I felt that seductive power but I made a decision to walk away from it, to stop looking for power and invulnerability in weapons and instead to look for power in the building of community, to renounce the isolating individualism of Southern pride and instead embrace the kind of collective consciousness that a future of global instability and ecological trauma calls for. Why not admit that the romantic ideal of the agrarian, self-sufficient Southern farmer exists now mainly in the twisted delusions of survivalists, that your future, the one you inherit on your 21st birthday, is one of clustered urban sustainability, of cooperative stewardship, of wise use and resource husbandry. Why not say that the world you are inheriting is too small for guns anymore, too small and too fragile?

Why not say that, as interesting and psychically rich as our twisted Southern heritage is, it's time to retire the guns.

Why not say to the unacknowledged pain of defeat and the unacknowledged dreams of Southern resurrection, to all that is hidden and twisted in the Southern spirit: This is a renunciation and a new beginning: No guns. Not this time. Not this generation.

We tried that. See where it got us. Let's try something new.

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