On the toxicity of USian gun culture.

Feb 25 2018

I've been keeping quiet about the mass school shooting in Florida some weeks ago because it's such a hot-button topic, and many people speaking out are catching harrassment and death threats - even the students who survived the massacre.  Of course, the National Rifle Association went on the record as saying, quote, "The NRA doesn't back any ban."  Meaning, of course, they'll do their damndest to hamstring any new legislation that has to do with guns.  It's also worth noting that there were multiple law enforcement officers - trained and armed - at the school, and they did nothing.  Which isn't surprising to me; if they're anything like the police in the school I went to, they went out of their way to not do their jobs (the students selling both drugs and guns I graduated with did so with relative impunity).  Oh, and let's not forget what can happen if you play the part of the hero and disarm the shooter - the cops think the hero's the shooter, and open fire.  No good deed goes unpunished.

But that's not what I want to talk about.  What I want to talk about is gun culture, as someone who's part of it, but who stays as far away from it as possible.

I've been shooting guns for just a handful of years, less than ten.  I was originally taught by someone who is fairly hardcore and extremely knowledgeable of both handguns and combat.  By 'hardcore' I mean someone who regularly undergoes professional tactical weapons training of the sort law enforcement officers undergo.  I've been trap shooting on a private range as part of a sales pitch for a vendor I was working with at the time.  I have also gone through the State of California's firearm licensing program and have a current handgun license.  I trained on the Glock 17, and certified on the Glock 19, .357 Magnum, .22 rimfire, and 44 Russian (my favorite) when I took my test.  I'd love to shoot a Barrett M82 because the idea of a rifle that can put a round through an engine block amuses me greatly in the same way that DBAN amuses me greatly.

I say this not to wave my genitals around, but to state that I've gone through the process, paid the money, and both studied and sat for the exam, as well as gone to the range.  I am not an armchair firearms enthusiast.  I am not a gun bunny.  I wanted to learn about something and set about doing what was necessary to do so.  If you want to argue over which guns and/or ammunition are superior, bitch about not being allowed to own a fully automatic weapon (and there's a lot of that, and I do mean a lot), or grouse that it's hard to find extended capacity magazines for pistols because nobody's selling off their grandfathered in ones (they are illegal to make these days, but ones that already exist are legal), or brag about "being embarassed if somebody shot me with a nine because it's so puny" please close the tab and go away.  I really don't care.

Somewhat unnecessarily (but that's how I roll) I spent a couple of weeks studying California gun laws, reading up on different firearms and their histories, and studied a couple of owner's manuals.  To comply with California state law I took a class (only one hour-long class is required) from an NRA certified instructor (who I will not name because he'll be extremely upset if he reads this post.  So it goes.)  Among the things we were taught (I was part of a class of 15) was pretty much Guns 101 - what bullets are, what cartridges are (bullet + casing + everything else), they're magazines not clips, common calibers of firearms (.22 long rifle, .380, 9mm, .40, .45 ACP, blah blah blah, I'm not going to type up my notes), parts of guns, parts of rifles, basic safety, local laws, you get the picture.

Then things got intersting.  Guns are designed to take specific kinds of ammunition, and monkeying around with them is highly inadvisable.  The visual aide for this was what used to be a fairly common hunting rifle (I think it was a Weatherby or a Remington) with the bolt shattered, the barrel mangled, and the receiver blown out.  If I recall correctly, the rifle in question was wrecked when the user either tried to use the wrong kind of gunpowder when reloading cartridges, or had tried to modify the cartridges somehow.  End result: A destroyed gun and unspecified injuries to the wielder.  I can't be certain the wielder survived the experience.

My instructor talked a bit about accuracy and shot placement as part of the firearms safety part.  When you think about it, it makes sense: If you hit what you're aiming at, you're much less likely to cause collateral damage or injure anyone accidentally.  I thought it interesting when he pulled out a couple of used shooting targets and talked about shot grouping (nothing about dot torture, though) - practice, practice, practice.  He then held a used target over his chest - the shot grouping wasn't anything to write home about, but the holes corresponded to both lungs, liver, and possibly his aorta.

"If you're shooting people, just shoot for the chest.  Even if your aim's not perfect, you'll kill them."

From my instructor.  In class, getting ready for the exam.

Regarding getting a concealed carry permit: "You'll never get one unless you donate to the sheriff's election campaign.  About ten grand is enough."

What amounts to bribery.  Right.

I am not a lawyer warning: The following is a direct quote from class, not legal advice in any way, shape, or form.

On shooting people: "Wait for them to come into the house and then open up on 'em.  If they're outside, drag 'em inside to show personal danger.  Unload your weapon, put the gun on the kitchen table, the ammunition on the kitchen table, and call the police.  When the show up, let them in, tell them that your weapon is unloaded and not on your person, and you want your lawyer."

This was not on the exam.

On sitting for the exam: "I'll make sure every person in this class passes the exam."

There was a small number of students who finished, brought their exams up to be graded, and the instructor pointed out their incorrect answers and told them to go back and fix them.  He didn't say what the right answers were, but statistically speaking you'll only need about four trips to ace the exam.  I can think of a couple of calculus professors that I'd have been grateful to have taken courses from if they did that.

All of the things I said I was uninterested in discussing earlier in this article?  Full auto weapons and suchlike?  Those were all things that my instructor complained about at some length.  He derailed himself a couple of times with those digressions, which is probably why the class was longer than the amount of time we spent doing the practicals on the range (though the time of day may also have had something to do with that).  That said, these are strong currents in USian gun culture.

On the other side of things, I did not note anything obviously untoward going on, such as the presence of illegally modified weapons (then again, I wouldn't know if they were illegally modified unless a) I was a gunsmith, and b) I was allowed to examine them).  I did not see anyone shooting at human-shaped targets (some ranges let you use them, some don't, some only if you're a member, it's highly variable), nor did I see anyone using pictures as targets.  I did observe a great deal of something that I can only call "gun owner machismo," which is to say that being in the presence of live firearms seems to make some people act like action movie heroes, regardless of their backgrounds or actual experience.

Much of people's (USians', in particular) conception of guns comes from popular culture.  This is, in part, people thinking that just because something is shown on a screen it's accurate.  Some people love to prattle on about "explosive bullets" or using "armor piercing rounds."  90% of what is said is crap and the other 10% might - MIGHT - be accurate.  As one might expect, exotic ammunition is highly specialized and regular folks like you or I aren't normally allowed to use them.  Because "explosive rounds" means "explosives," not that this means much in police discourse.  Semi-automatic and automatic weapons are not the same thing.  Banning bump stocks is not going to work because you can do the same thing (fake full auto by using an aftermarket stock that lets the rest of the gun slide back and forth so that each shot's recoil causes the trigger to be pulled again, and not finger-power) with some rubber bands, the old-fashioned way.  Glocks do not give you magickal FPS powers.  They're sturdy, reliable, and trustworthy handguns and encompass a diverse array of calibers, and they'll fire bullets as fast as you can pull the trigger.  They make killing easier only insofar as they are very reliable weapons.  And while we're on the topic, gunshot wounds are pretty fucking horrifying things.  You don't just shrug 'em off.

It has long been my experience that gun culture has a strong conformist current - there are generally shared opinions and a great way of starting an argument is to disagree with them.  The legality of fully automatic weapons (or lack thereof) is a great one.  A hot button I stumbled across by accident early on was the issue of gun registration.  The number of people out there who are absolutely opposed to paperwork of any kind having to do with owning guns is a little unnerving.  And it is paperwork - warehouses full of it.  The Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 (source) (local mirror) specifically prohibits the creation of a single searchable registry of firearms and owners.

Since I first started writing this article there have been six more gun incidents in schools around the US - North Broward Preparatory School on 15 February 2018 in Coconut Creek, Florida where a deputy shot himself in the leg; Jackson Middle School in Ohio on 21 February 2018 (which turned into a suicide, instead of a mass school shooting); Southeastern Louisiana University on 23 February 2018; Oakland High School in Takoma, Washington on 26 February 2018; Dalton High School in Georgia on 28 February 2018, where a teacher opened fire in class (the Florida state House then somehow discovered $67 million at the drop of a hat to train and arm teachers and decided that porn was a bigger threat to life and limb than getting shot); Central Michigan University on 2 March 2018.  The voices calling for gun control in the US are getting louder, and both the National Rifle Association and the firearms industries are throwing more money at lobbying to buy legislators.  And things are getting even crazier:  A school district in Pennsylvania suspended classes for the day because a community church held a public ceremony where people could basically marry their AR-15's (oddly specific, that).  Some people showed up in wedding garb or wore crowns made of rifle cartridges.  Somebody opened fire on the Las Vegas Lounge, a transgender-friendly club, in which at least two people inside were shot.  In Texas, Brandon McGill set up an ambush for police and killed two people.  During questioning, McGill's reason for doing so was, quote, "Because I wanted to."

I've been carrying out some social experiments since the shootings in Florida.  Not only have I been (somewhat unwisely) deliberately getting involved in the gun control discussions that happen at home, at the office, and around the city as I travel, I've been surveilling those same discussions in various fora around the Net (hey - if you publish it as openly as my blog is, it's fair game).  Some of the things I have observed:

People who by their own admission do not own any firearms, or admit no experience with them get just as heated in these arguments as people who do.  The overall emotional currents of the participants seems to feed off of each other.  The sides of the discussion that get heated up first appear pretty evenly split (pro- and against-).  The number of people who profess to be responsible gun owners in these discussions who speak in terms of self-defense instead of something less serious like, I don't know, liking to go to the range to go shooting to relax for fun is... well.... if I'm reading my notes correctly I seem to be the only one out of a sample set of 110 discussions on- and offline.  Of course, I can't count anyone with the good sense to not say anything.  As the arguments seesaw back and forth (anywhere from 10 to 17 minutes, or averaging around the 30th reply to a post mark), the arguments seem to boil down to "I want to be able to shoot someone, put them down and keep them down, and it angers me that you might have a problem with this."

This is around the time that I exeunt, stage left.

Therein lies the rub.  I don't know if it's an overall, generalized fear of how badly life in the States is going right now, latent xenophobia (and not-so-latent racism) or what, but... when you get right down to it, people are way more concerned about being able to kill someone before they are killed.  Some people do it.  Most don't.  But that appears to be the zeitgeist.  It's long been a meme in certain parts of the community that gun control means confiscation of guns, which is done immediately before some kind of takeover.  I leave it as an exercise to the reader to guess what part of the community to which I refer.  This "I need to be able to get guns!" meme is both virulent and pernicious, and chances are you're infected with it, too.  Want to find out?  Get in a discussion with someone about any of the shootings in the last month and watch how you act.  It's eye-opening, to say the least.

Last weekend, I was sitting in a coffee shop in the Bay Area working on this post (and thinking long and hard about whether or not it would be a good idea to even post it) when someone behind the counter dropped the pitcher from a blender on the floor, making a nice "crack!" that echoed through the shop.  Three people dropped their stuff and hit the deck, covering the backs of their necks with laced fingers as they did so.  At the same time I turned around in my chair and held my hand out as if I could actually stop an incoming round in any meaningful way.  "When falling into madness," right?

The barista apologized profusely and held up the pitcher - no gunshots, just a simple accident.  We went back to what we were doing, respectively.  I think I speak for everyone involved when I say it was quite the relief that it turned out to be a false alarm.  It's also a good demonstration of just how on-edge we all are these days.

If I sound fatalistic, that's because I am.  I've more or less come to terms with the possibility that I might die without warning because some jagoff could open fire wherever I happen to be.  That's the US for you these days, and it's not going to change anytime soon.  A shit ton of money is being spent to ensure it doesn't change anytime soon, and as they say, money talks.  The threat modeling I've been doing has been taking the possibility of "J. Random Jagoff opens fire near me" into account with a higher priority, informed to no small degree by Bayesian reasoning (local mirror, presented without permission).  At the office I'd say it's only 0.15 likely (out of 1.0) that one of my cow-orkers might open fire; it's less likely (0.05) that someone would storm the office and do so because they'd have to navigate the physical security measures in place, and all things being equal they'd be more likely to go for the shopping center nearby, the (relatively insecure by design) lobby, or the bus stop outside where the corporate shuttle-buses pick up and drop off (which have a history of being targets in recent memory) - I give that possibility about 0.20 out of 1.0 during the normal work-week and business hours.  Given recent events closer to home, I unfortunately have to crank up the probability of gunfire a bit, roughly 0.25 to 0.30 out of 1.0 because I have to factor in that police are unlikely to be of assistance and the presence of possibly armed friendlies in the vicinity won't be helpful, either.

So, what do I do?

I kiss my family goodbye when I leave for work or my friendly local coffee shop.  I have a last will and testament and life insurance policy.  I back myself up regularly.  My medical history is on a flash drive on my person at all times in ASCII so just about any computer with a USB jack can read the files.  I make a point of memorizing floor layouts for places I go regularly so I can punch out if I need to.  If this sounds absurd to you, living in the US is absurd these days.  There are no heroes.  There are no white knights.  There is only living until we don't anymore.

And now, music.