(Down and Out)

If we can’t get guns out of our cities, let’s at least get them out of our crime stories.

That seems to be the idea behind a curious anthology called “Unloaded: Crime Writers Writing Without Guns.” Among the two-dozen contributors are Joyce Carol Oates, Reed Farrel Coleman, Alison Gaylin, Joe Lansdale and Kelli Stanley. Together they offer plenty of deaths by hammers, subways, knives and (of course) insane clowns — but no firearms.

All the writers provided their stories for free, and the proceeds from the anthology will be donated to States United to Prevent Gun Violence, a nonprofit organization that supports gun violence prevention groups across the country.

The collection, forthcoming in April, is edited by Eric Beetner, who announces in the introduction: “I’m a hypocrite. You see, I use guns to kill people. A lot of people.” But he’s speaking of murders and mayhem in his novels and short stories. In real life, he’s not a gun owner. And though he doesn’t want to take guns from law-abiding citizens, he’s fed up with the epidemic of mass shootings and accidental deaths in the United States.

“I was feeling a little conflicted in my own writing, feeling that I was glorifying everything that I stand against,” Beetner says from Los Angeles, where he works as a TV editor. Sensing a similar conflict in other crime and thriller writers, he decided to reach out and see if they could assemble an anthology that removes guns from the creative equation. “I thought, ‘What if we banned together and made a statement that even those of us who do glorify these things in certain ways, we also want it to be known that in the real world, we advocate a little more reason and sense?’”

When soliciting stories, Beetner insists that he tried to avoid anything that felt overtly political. “I didn’t want any gun screeds,” he says. “Just give me a straight-up crime story that happens to have no guns.”

If not overtly, then certainly implicitly, this is a pro-gun-control collection, but ironically, it seems to confirm the old NRA bumper sticker: “Guns Don’t Kill People. People Kill People.” But Beetner says that slogan rings hollow. “It doesn’t speak to the 5-year-old who gets the gun out of the cabinet and shoots his sibling or himself. There are so many examples of gun violence that exist strictly because guns are so freely available.”

He recalls an ordinary day from his childhood when one of his friends got a hold of his father’s gun. “There we were, an 8- and 9-year-old. We went to the woods, second-graders wandering around with a loaded firearm.” (Eerily, I was about the same age when a friend of mine across the street accidentally killed himself with his father’s gun.)

“If we could have those things that reasonable people are in favor of — gun locks or fingerprint technology — we could easily prevent a range of accidents without restricting anybody’s right to own a gun,” Beetner says. “But you can’t even have the discussion in this country . . . without the wall that comes down from the NRA.”

Maybe this collection will help — in some very small way — to spur discussion.

In any case, Beetner noticed there were also creative benefits to taking firearms off the table: “When people were freed up from not having to write about guns, the crime is sort of implied. It’s interesting to see some of the authors stretch in that way.”

But there’s no getting around this grim note in the introduction to “Unloaded”:

“During the time it took to put this book together, more than a dozen mass shootings took place, including killings in schools, churches and movie theaters.”

Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.

Unloaded
Crime Writers Writing Without Guns

Edited by Eric Beetner

Down & Out. 266 pp. Paperback, $18.49