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Wednesday, 27 June 2007 00:00

A clean miss

Written by 

Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy by Joan Burbick. New Press, 2007. 288 pages.

While teaching Latin at Tuscola High School in the late 1990s, I occasionally used some old copies of Jenney’s Latin I for extra exercises in the classroom. To my great amusement, I came across one book that some past student, doubtless driven mad by declensions and conjugations, had shot.

By this remark I mean that the student had fired a gun at this book. The bullet hole was small and neat, and had penetrated the cover and the first few score of pages, evidence that the student had probably used a .22-caliber long round to give voice to his opinion of Poor Old Jenny.

Although the student’s gunpowder commentary on his text might win sympathy from any former student once lost in the thickets of lingua Latina, I myself had never thought of actually blowing away a book. I have commented negatively on books both in print and in the classroom; I have laughed or cursed at books; I have thrown a few books in the trash; I was not adverse to kicking my high-school pre-calc book across the floor of my bedroom.

I might even favor banning certain books (by ban I mean an official government ban and not the prohibitions, common in our schools and libraries, which the jamokes among us call a ban). If someone decided to publish How to Blow Up Anything Anywhere: High-Explosives for the Backyard Terrorist or Poisoning the Well: An Amateur’s Guide to Biological Warfare or even Terrorism for Dummies, I wouldn’t object to some official raising the red flag.

But putting a bullet into a book had never occurred to me until I saw the Latin book. The thought came to me again last week when I finished reading Joan Burbick’s Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy (ISBN 1-59558-087-5, $24.95).

Burbick’s discussion of the history of firearms in America is as full of holes as the paper targets in a gun club. She seems to imply that guns played little part in American lives before the Civil War. In arguing that the framers of the Constitution never envisioned guns being used outside of “a well-regulated militia,” she never explains why the framers seemed perfectly content to let people buy and own as many guns as they wished.

In her brief intrusion into the life of Samuel Colt, manufacturer and promoter of guns, Burbick seems to blame him for factories and the consequent ills of the Industrial Revolution in America, forgetting that the textile mills of New England surely had far greater impact on the development of industrialization and mass production. She also attacks both Colt and Buffalo Bill Cody for successfully promoting their individual endeavors, as if such success constituted some sort of wrong or sin.

Burbick tries to make the point that white American males have also used guns to subjugate minorities in this country. She writes at length about cases of whites shooting blacks in the early 1870s in the American South but without ever once alluding to the fact that the Reconstruction, which she mentions was a time of hatred and bitterness in many Southern states. She theorizes that guns and the freedom to own them gained public attention in the 1970s because of a desire among whites to dominate minorities. Again and again she drones on about white males and their love of weapons. Her theories regarding race, gender, and guns lead her to make points that at times sound like the whifflings of one of those ink-blotched rad-lib underground papers from the long ago sixties:

White victimhood needed the gun to conserve its power in social relations and the economy. The current use of the Second Amendment not only reassures individuals about personal security, but also reminds (typically white) citizens of the clear and present dangers from criminals and political enemies. Not only did we arm ourselves, but we also armed everyone in the government that represented us to fight a war against drugs, crime, and terror, until we mirrored back to each other our thoroughly militarized minds. Each soldier and citizen became an army of one.

The lack of logic in this argument, the resort to clichés — “clear and present dangers,” “an army of one” — and the broad brush with which she paints both people and issues are all revealed in this passage. What are we to make of comments about “our thoroughly militarized minds?” How did gun ownership help whites maintain their place in the economy? What in heaven’s name does she mean when she writes that we armed our government to fight crime and terrorism? These remarks come from the conclusion of the book, but make no sense.

Oddest of all in Gun Show Nation are Burbick’s accounts of visiting various gun shows. Her writing here shows a strange impersonality toward her subject, a detachment that never brings the gun shows to life. We never learn the names of any of the people to whom she speaks at the shows. We have very little in the way of recorded dialogue or direct interviews with the vendors and customers at the gun shows. Although Burbick tells us that she fits into these shows because she is white and because she knows something about guns, her writing leaves us with the image of a woman wandering aimlessly around the floor of the gun show, a horror-stricken smile plastered to her face, an outsider, an observer who never connects with the observed.

There are arguments for gun control, but this book ultimately fails to make them. For its awful grasp of history, its paucity of hard evidence, its reverse racism, and even its stolen title, Gun Show Nation deserves a blindfold, a last cigarette, and a firing squad.

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