A hard thing to know about America: James Holmes and a nation of Dark Knights

July 21, 2012

It is a hard thing to know about one’s country, but we are a merciless state.

These things do happen here. However much we might wish that they did not, this is exactly the kind of country where Aurora, Columbine and Jonesboro happen. Children can and do obtain firearms and shoot up their schools, teachers and fellow students. Where spurned lovers kill their beloved then do themselves. This is the kind of place where a 24-year-old student can lay down a credit card, once, twice, three times over the course of a few months and accumulate a personal arsenal. It is a place where innocent people die at the hands of well-prepared strangers. It has happened before and however much we hope the violence will miraculously cease, the truth is that we are not living in an age of miracles.

I want to say early in this piece what I have always said, and what some of the people who pepper my email box will not hear. I believe there exists a right to bear arms. I believe that the Second Amendment means what it says. I don’t question your right to own a weapon. The Constitution says you can.

But some of us are gun drunk and dazzled, in love with the fascist ideal of the firearm as instrument of personal retribution. Most people who want guns are responsible citizens who understand the terrible potential of the heavy thing in the back of their closet, or in the bedside drawer or the vault in the den. But there are some who are not, and there is an industry that sees this sizable and sick demographic as a profit center, and there are cynical people willing to exploit the prejudices and fears of ordinary folks in order to make money. There are plenty of people who ought to be ashamed, but are instead at this moment drafting their response, framing what is only the most recent tragedy as a reason that more people ought to pack heat.

I don’t want to take away your guns. I want gun owners to grow up.

There are a few things that qualify me to offer my opinion on this subject:

First, I have known murderers — I made my living for a few years knowing all I could about that. I know most of them regretted what they did in the very instant they were doing it, and that if they didn’t have a push-button method of killing they could not have killed.

Maybe we all understand murder. Maybe we’ve all felt that the annihilation of an offending person was the answer. Maybe we all can envision ourselves standing above our enemy, his skull pulped and our hands bloody.

It’s not the threat of punishment that keeps most of us from killing. There is something else, some deep revulsion at the act that makes us pause at the apex of our anger — to hang suspended for a long and precious second. Then we drop away from the murderous impulse, into shock, perhaps, humiliation. We cool slowly, but we cool.

Unless we have a gun, some button we can push, it is not an easy thing to kill a person. It takes a long time, it is messy. It is intimate, forbidden and to do it — at least the first time, Hollywood killers always say the first one is the toughest —requires a kind of cruel courage that is not available to most of us.

If we have a gun, we can think our disrespecters dead. We can kill anonymously, from across the room or across the street. We can spin off our bullets, visceral signals of our disapproval, into the streets and let providence decide whether or not they are lethal.

In the second place, I have been shot at, and threatened by men with handguns. In the first instance, it was not personal, it was the result of an ill-conceived ride-along with some detectives who thought I should observe their work. When the suspect came out of his motel room, firing blindly in the direction of our unmarked vehicle, all of us rolled out through the door opposite the shooter and into a ditch and covered our heads. All of us thought how stupid it would be to die that way, because we spooked some tweaker pusher down from Houston to meet with some pretend client. (None of us felt brave, though the policemen I was with did their duty.)

And, on a couple of occasions in my life, men have flashed pistols at me. If that has ever happened to you, maybe you know what I am talking about when I say I felt an instant wave of nausea, a soul-killing demoralization. It was something other than being afraid, it was a disappointment in the futility of having lived until this pathetic moment. It was a kind of disgust with the universe, with the hypocritical vanity of the human animal.

Most importantly, perhaps, is that I myself have a thing for guns, their fitted precision and solid clicks, and the way they made me feel when I measured their holy, totemic weight in my hand. I don’t think there is anything more American than a well-made pistol. I like them, and I have enjoyed them. I understand why people want them.

I suppose there is blame enough for all of us, if that is what we wish to do. Maybe the only thing blaming is good for is that it allows each of us the opportunity to deny that we were in complicity with the juvenile shooters. We can analyze the situation, look for nuances and ways in which James Holmes is different from us, and we can comfort ourselves with the thought that we did nothing to aid and abet or lend him comfort. We can attribute it to some dysfunction of the social order, to the failure of some compromised system, or simply write it off as a sad accident. We can pretend it was an anomalous situation, that the chemicals got out of balance in his brain and everything just broke right to allow what happened to happen.

Doesn’t that absolve us — we who would not allow this thing were it up to us after all? What is there left to do but scrub away the blood and conjure justice? It is a relatively simple matter to devise a punishment equal to the crimes committed. We so love the neat algebra of crime and punishment, the balancing of accounts, the requiting of blood. Let the blood of the guilty expiate our sins, let us offer a sacrifice, comfort the survivors and swear that we know that the fault lies not at all with the common decent folk who watch TV and go to work and keep their firearms responsibly locked in the gun safe so that no child or burglar or Barack Obama can ever get to them.

Don’t knock on this door expecting to be told that this or that should be done; it doesn’t work that way. I’ve got no answers. I’ve already hear people saying more guns in the hands of more citizens is the answer. I’ve already seen the Facebook posts worrying about how the most recent horror will be used by liberals “as an excuse” to take away the guns of law-abiding citizens who only want to protect their families and their personal property. Don’t you think that if everybody had guns this would be one polite society?

No. I don’t think so, sir. I think we’d be a lot better off if so many people didn’t want guns, didn’t consider them a necessary component of their manhood.

But I do I think people ought to be able to buy guns.

I’ve thought a lot about this and I’ve written a lot about this and I think that it’s important for a free society that ordinary citizens be allowed to own guns. I’m not really opposed to licensing guns, or to reasonable restrictions on what kinds of guns people can legally own, but in principle I believe we have a right to bear arms.
And I honestly believe we have to pay for that. I understand there will be some collateral damage, that we cannot make the world safe.

But I’ll tell you something else. A lot of you — a lot of us — have a problem with guns. A lot of us are more than a little sick. I know this because every time I write about the subject I get a flood of letters, a frightening percentage of which are nutty and obscene and just plain stupid. I’ve been to gun shows, I’ve read the gun porn magazines and I know that there are people out there who are obsessed with their guns, who have an erotic fascination with handguns, who respond to their greasy ratcheting and ultimate potentialities.

There’s something cool about holding something that could forever change the arc of history in your very own hand— you shoot the right person and you could start or prevent a war, you can obliterate your enemy. You can show them all.

Like James Holmes did.

I know there are plenty of good people who own guns, who hunt or maybe just feel a little safer with a chief’s special tucked under their pillow. I understand that; though I might not agree it makes them safer, if it is what they want to do then it’s all right with me. I won’t get into a statistics-spouting argument with them.

 But you others, you come on.

Go ahead, you law-abiding patriots, write your letters. Have your catharsis, do your worst. You know who you are, you sick death-loving gorehounds. You with the literature and the martial lust and the “Kill ’em all, let God sort ’em out” mentality. Come on, I’m sick of your fringe loony goof talk carrying the day, of reasonable decent people being shouted down and run off by your tough words and your supposed political clout. I’m tired of kids and cops and good people dying because you think you’ve got a right to a cheap Uzi knock-off. You goons have got to lose this one.

 Hey, you in the camos with the tattoos who never spent a day in the service of your country, you explain to the ones left behind, the mothers and the fathers and the survivors feeling guilty because they felt lucky when they realized that they were going to live and not be cut apart and drained out by the bullets that, after all, as we all know, don’t kill people, that what happened had nothing to do with the climate you guys have helped to create, that the creepy stuff with which you furnish your fantasies has nothing to do with the corpses of moviegoers.

 You tell them it is the permissive people who created a country where things like this happen, you tell them that Ted Kennedy’s car has killed more people than your gun, you tell them that you’re their last best hope when the black-clad storm troopers come kicking down the door.

You tell them that guns had nothing to do with what happened in Aurora, you look those mothers and fathers in the eye and you tell them that.

You tell them that this is just an aberration, just a tragedy, nothing that could be helped. Just tell them that.


  • Comment by tmfw — Jul 21,2012 at 3:40 pm

    Agree completely. It’s like the idiot who posted “spoons cause obesity” on my FB page. Yeah, well…..I can’t take a spoon and make 50 people instantly obese.

    And I remember a terrible argument with someone late one night a couple of years ago. He was incandescent with rage and probably more than a little drunk. I believe with all my heart that if he had been armed he would have shot me. As it was, he just merely threatened my life if I opposed his scheme.

    I know plenty of safety conscious, responible and law abiding gun owners. I know hunters and target shooters. I know folks that carry for personal protection. Some have more valid reasons than others. I don’t have a problem with that. But I don’t know any civilian that needs an assault rifle. I bet if you asked the average cop. they would agree.

    It’s bad enough that lunatics and people with anger management problems have access to pistols and rifles. They damn sure don’t need to have access to assault weapons.

  • Comment by Philip Martin — Jul 21,2012 at 3:54 pm


    But I’ve apologized for that night, repeatedly. And I don’t believe I would have actually shot you. Maybe shot at you.

    See you tonight, probably.

  • Comment by tmfw — Jul 21,2012 at 3:56 pm

    Will be there 6:45 or so. I’ll be packing.

  • Comment by tmfw — Jul 21,2012 at 3:56 pm

    I sent you a text w/an edit.

  • Comment by Marcy Shoberg — Jul 21,2012 at 6:02 pm

    I’m a self-defense teacher and self-professed expert in teaching people to stay out of trouble. I write a column that runs in only two papers. I liked your column above. It didn’t act like the world is going to heck in a handbasket as so many people seem to feel. From what I hear, disasters are no more common now, they just feel so because of the news reports.

    You are also the first person I’ve seen in a long time that seems open to examining actual evidence about gun control and forming a logical opinion as opposed to sticking to their guns or lack of them, as the case may be. Do you know where a person can find unbiased statistics about how guncontrol works in other countries? People say gun control works great for Austrailia (people opposed to the right to bear arms, that is). People say gun control is a failure in Mexico (people in favor of the right to bear arms, that is.)

    Anyway write me at theselfdefenselady@gmail.com if you want to communicate.

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