There’s a brief scene in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket in which the new recruits, led by Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, chant in unison, “This is my rifle, this is my gun. This is for fighting, this is for fun.” On the words “gun” and “fun” the privates grab their, well, privates, letting the audience know that there’s a Marine-Corp-specific semantic distinction between the words “rifle” and “gun.”
Unfortunately, too many pro-gun American men don’t know the difference and this is a central problem in the process of redefining the purpose and availability of firearms in America. Men, whether intentional or not, tend to confuse their guns for their penises. The bigger the gun/penis, the more masculine they are. Guns have become penis extensions, if not penis substitutes, and the phallic similarities are obvious.
Consequently, our gun culture too often blurs the line between masculinity and firearms, even among people who ought to know better. If you own, hunt, shoot, or generally fetishize firearms, it’s considered to be synonymous with being a tough, virile guy. Likewise, if you’re opposed to guns or, dare I say, afraid of guns, you’re considered girlish or — heaven forbid — gay. From a very early age, men are taught that guns are a manly-man guy thing. Hunting and shooting are manly activities, we’re told, and any dude who’s packing heat is a total badass because guns are badass. (Killing animals for pure sport is another issue for another day.)
That’s exactly why politicians often stage photo-ops in which they’re trucked off to a gray field somewhere in garishly-colored regalia pretending to shoot at something that lacks the brain stem and opposable thumbs to shoot back. I’m old enough to remember John Kerry’s photo-op in 2004, which, next to his windsurfing photo, was nothing less than another Dukakis-in-a-tank photo. In fact, there’s another one: Dukakis in a tank. Good Lord. He went all out on that one. His staffers thought of the biggest, heaviest metallic penis he could find and plunked Dukakis inside of it wearing a helmet that actually made him look like a penis. Of course, his intentions were good and, at the time, Republicans had falsely tagged Democrats as being soft on the military. But Kerry didn’t need to go hunting because he was a decorated and thrice-wounded Vietnam veteran. He did his duty with a firearm in Southest Asia, unlike badass chickenhawk Dick Cheney or badass chickenhawk Rush Limbaugh or badass chickenhawk Ted Nugent. Leave it to the Bush era Republicans, led mainly by guys who dodged the draft, to accuse a war veteran, Silver Star and Purple Heart recipient, of being effete, “French” and unpatriotic, to a point when that veteran had to go out and pretend to hunt in order to make himself seem tougher. (Every time I recall that era, I can’t help but to think how badly all of America was in the throes of a totally batshit nervous breakdown.)
And you know what? At the end of the day, conservatives who were inclined to believe Kerry was kind of gay (the ultimate message of Karl Rove’s campaign against him) didn’t think he was any less gay because he went hunting. In fact, they thought he was cartoonish and awkward. And still kind of gay.
Which leads us to this past weekend when President Obama stepped into a similar trap. In an interview with The New Republic, there was this exchange:
FF: Have you ever fired a gun?
Yes, in fact, up at Camp David, we do skeet shooting all the time.
FF: The whole family?
Not the girls, but oftentimes guests of mine go up there.
And then he segued into a thing about respecting the traditions of hunting. Obviously the skeet shooting remark was a pander to gun owners but, like Kerry and Dukakis, gun people thought it was fake and weak. Hell, I’m as anti-gun as they come and I thought it sounded weird. It’s like saying, “I respect rock music. I sometimes listen to Nickelback on my Bose Wave Radio when I’m playing tennis at the country club.”
Naturally, though, the far-right had a blast with it today. Drudge and Breitbart.com posted photos of the president shooting a water gun at a backyard pool, and the general right-wing reaction was that he was lying. Plus, they suggested, is skeet shooting supposed to make him seem more pro-gun when he’s clearly plotting to take their guns away? On one hand, there’s the president saying he occasionally shoots skeet at Camp David. On the other hand, there’s this rampant myth that the president is a tyrannical overlord who’s going to seize everyone’s firearms just before declaring himself to be the new Soviet Premier. The latter is way more powerful than the former, and so the skeet shooting thing seems a little silly to gun people who don’t view the Second Amendment as protecting hunters or sportsmen; it’s about self-defense against the government. (It’s not about that, but that’s what they say.)
Yes, I realize there are responsible gun owners in the middle who have one or two firearms for hunting or sport. The president addressed those people by saying, “And I have a profound respect for the traditions of hunting that trace back in this country for generations. And I think those who dismiss that out of hand make a big mistake.”
“Profound” is a little much, but that’s fine. He can win some support from moderate gun-owners with this kind of talk, but there’s simply no need to toss in the look-at-me-I’m-shooting-stuff-with-a-gun imagery.
We simply have to get beyond this expectation that the phallical over-compensatory gun fetishists need to be appeased and won over with stunts and pandering. In fact, the masculine equivalence of guns and gun ownership needs to be phased out, which is to say manhood and firearms must be divorced from each other if we’re going to get beyond the deadly gun culture. Guns should eventually be regarded as nothing more than a tool — stripped of mystique and Freudian symbolism — for people who need to hunt their own food or to defend themselves in law-enforcement or military situations. Nothing more.
It’s not going to be a quick or easy task. But the anti-tobacco people accomplished amazing things in just two decades, marginalizing the “coolness” of smoking and turning smokers into societal refugees. The same can be done with firearms. The first step is making it clear that a rifle isn’t a “gun” (in the Sgt. Hartman sense), and if you have a small penis, no firearm will ever make it bigger, Mr. Nugent.