Michael S. Rosenwald is a Washington Post staff writer who frequently writes about guns.
The point of view of “Arms,” A.J. Somerset’s history of gun culture, might be more important than any of the stories he tells.
Somerset traces firearms history back to frontier times, through old westerns and battlefields (actual and, later, cultural), and onward to the National Rifle Association, mass shootings, fantasies of a zombie apocalypse and the white picket fences of suburbia, where housewives squeeze off rounds at the range with pink guns. (The color white plays an important role in this history: Somerset writes that “race war has long been the drunken uncle of American gun culture.”)
But what makes his book entertaining, often funny and ultimately an important addition to the limited canon on guns is that Somerset is a gun guy. He owns them, shoots them and loves them. And yet he is exasperated because gun owners, along with their culture and rhetoric, have increasingly “grown more radical,” leaving “anyone who breaks ranks” as a “traitor to the cause.”
Which means Somerset will be considered a traitor.
A former soldier who is now a technical writer in Canada, he skewers the gun industry, particularly the NRA, for convincing many gun owners that the Second Amendment is “the single most important sentence in the entire Bill of Rights” and that any threat to expanding gun ownership — universal background checks, for instance — is “an attack on Mom, apple pie, democracy, and Jesus himself.”
The effect can be chilling, particularly on moderates like him, who own guns and acknowledge their danger to society, as mass shootings now shake the country with terrifying regularity. The loudest voices in the ensuing debates tend to be those at each extreme, leaving out the important middle, where solutions often emerge. “As the treetop squawking and screeching begins, the loudest monkeys take over, and the moderates find better ways to spend their time — partly because, as moderates, they don’t worry too much from day to day about apple pie, democracy and the AR-15,” Somerset writes. “And so the podium is left to the radical, the only one who really wants to stand at the mike and rant. The thing about living in a septic tank is the nasty stuff floats.”
And the nasty stuff can get real nasty. I’ve seen this in my own reporting on gun culture, a phrase gun industry people deplore and perhaps rightfully so. When a Rockville, Md., gun store owner last year announced plans to sell the nation’s first smart gun — it answers wirelessly to a watch that must be worn to fire it — protesters, fearing that the technology would be mandated, supposedly curtailing gun rights, called the store to announce that they would burn it down. The owner relented. “I thought what I was doing was right,” he later said. “I’m really sorry I got involved in all of this.”
In today’s gun culture, that store owner — even though he sells other guns, including high-powered semiautomatic rifles — was viewed as an “anti-gunner,” the gun world’s term for anyone, even gun owners, who waver from the cause even by an inch. The message from the gun lobby, Somerset argues, is clear: Your very identity depends on your absolute unwillingness to bend on the Second Amendment. But as he writes, “Not everyone wraps his identity around his gun.”
There are other gun owners like him, willing to give an inch or three, except they are unwilling to openly criticize gun culture. People at gun ranges regularly tell me that they disagree with the NRA, that they wish there was more gun control and less theatrics, but they almost never want go on the record. They are a little more willing with pollsters, hiding behind their phones.
A recent Pew poll found that 49 percent of gun owners favor a ban on assault rifles and 61 percent favor a federal database of gun sales — propositions the gun lobby vehemently opposes. And almost 90 percent of gun owners favor background checks at gun shows. Of course, all of those numbers are even higher for non-gun-owners, but they show that at least half of gun owners are moderate — or as Somerset would say, sensible — in their view of gun laws. But when was the last time we heard from these people? Somerset has a harsh (and perhaps too harsh) answer: “Culture war favors the blowhard, and by framing gun control as culture war, the NRA distracts us from the serious policy questions while silencing internal dissent.”
Somerset is great at describing the culture but short on solid ideas for changing it, which is not so much a criticism of the book as an observation about how difficult it is to alter human behavior, especially when fear is involved. The gun industry has bred successive generations of new gun owners. And once they get guns, political radicalization is easy, and those with softer views learn to keep their mouths shut.
Somerset is particularly critical of the gun industry’s appeals to women, which he calls a strange nod toward feminism by the men in charge of the heavily male-dominated gun industry. The message is this: Women need a gun to be safe and strong, and it is their sovereign right to defend not just themselves but their rights. Somerset writes about Victoria Rutledge, a woman in rural Idaho who had a loaded handgun in her purse at Wal-Mart and was shot there with it by her 2-year-old son. “The finger of blame here points not at [her],” Somerset writes, “but at the armed-camp vision of America, the culture of complete preparedness that insists you must go armed, that you must at all times have a loaded weapon within reach, with a round in the chamber, ready to fire. Veronica Rutledge’s death was not the tragedy of a young mother’s negligence with a loaded handgun. It was the tragedy of a culture of negligence.”
By A.J. Somerset
342 pp. Paperback, $17.95