UNRAVELING THE KNOT

ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG

Planes Don’t Fly and Guns Don’t Kill

There are so many multiple murders these days that it’s hard to keep up. I have written elsewhere about the manhood/gun angle to all of this, and it’s time now to look at the guns themselves. The NRA tells us that guns don’t kill, people do. As someone with some experience of using guns to kill, I have a few things to say about that.

I was seven when I killed the family cat, although that was ruled an accident and did not involve a gun. The cat was going out and then back in with me through a heavy back door that opened onto a porch, well, make up your mind, and being only seven and unaware of what a door can do, and thinking the cat was out for good and then going in and letting the door close behind me of its own considerable weight, and then a sickening thud and a muted scream as the door caught the cat in the middle of its body and I turned and watched it fall down the stair to the smooth stone of the porch and thrash about in the light dusting of snow and then lie still.

I went out and bent over the cat. I didn’t know about death and the dead, but I knew something had happened and that it had to do with me and that I would be sorry, which I was without fully comprehending why.

I had a better idea some years later when I stalked the back yard in the early hours of the morning before the neighbors were up, my BB gun in my hands, listening for the sound of crows high up in the trees, the crows my mother had granted me license to kill any time I should get so lucky. She had no use for them, she said, her coming from the farm and knowing them only as marauders in the corn. I got pretty good at it, but they were up so high and the gun so lacking, that all I managed to produce was a dull thwack of a BB hitting home and then an outraged squawk as the crow took off for a safer and more congenial place. Until one morning there was no squawk, only the soft choppy rhythm of a body falling down, its descent slowed by branches and leaves as it passed by on the way to earth, landing with a thud on the ground.

I was stunned. I wondered if anyone had seen, especially as it fell in a neighbor’s yard which seemed to me at the time to be the greater transgression.

I went into the house and watched from the kitchen window, but no one came to see.

I waited throughout the day, stopping from time to time to glance over the fence to the shade of the neighbor’s yard where the body was barely visible against the dark surface of the grass. I told no one what I’d done, knowing instinctively, for all my mother’s permission and encouragement, that I had done something wrong, which I could tell from the way the crow just lay there in silent reproach, knowing that sooner or later I would have to come and get it.

I waited for dark and took a shovel from the garage and crept into the neighbor’s yard where I retrieved the crow, feeling the weight of its body, more than I thought it would be, it being so small. I carried it to a sheltered space behind the tall spruce in the back corner of our yard, aware all the while of its black, upturned eye visible even in what little light there was. I buried it, quickly and furtively, not pausing long enough to honor the bird or allow my shame to blossom into anything like real regret.

A few years later—I was probably sixteen at the time—I bought myself a .22 rifle which I took to a sportsman’s club outside of town on weekdays when no one was around. I spent the afternoon at the outdoor bench rest where I shot at paper targets I ordered through the mail from the NRA. I liked being outside, and I liked the solitude, being on my own, the smell of powder, the feel of wood and gunmetal and brass casings, the sense of ease I felt in handling the gun.

And then, one day, like any other, while I was reloading the magazine, a small bird happened out of the woods and landed on the corner of the wooden frame that held the target. It stood there for a moment to preen itself before moving on, which it would have done were it not for me, seeing it there as I swung the rifle back into position and sighted down the barrel first at the target and then, so easily, up a little and to the right.

I killed that bird and I was old enough to know why, although not in time to make a difference. I killed it because I wanted to and because I could, to feel the power of the gun in my hands to do what guns are meant to do, to exercise absolute control over whether a being dies or goes on living.

For how long did I want? Only the fraction of a second that it took to give the slightest backward pull on the trigger, and then, suddenly, so suddenly, and pathetically, the sharp report and the bird seeming to fling itself off its perch and onto the ground.

I instantly regretted what I had done, my heart sinking in my chest. I put down the rifle and ran the length of the range. I couldn’t find it at first, it was so small, and then, there it was, still and silent, a hole in the side of its breast, bits of feather rustling in the breeze.

In that moment, I knew that I had committed nothing less than a murder, a killing without just cause. At first I tried to comfort myself that it was a very small murder, the bird no bigger than my fist. But, then, no, it came to me that there is no such thing.

I took the rifle back to the sporting goods store and handed it to the man behind the counter, telling him I didn’t want it anymore. He asked if there was something wrong with it. I said no, I just didn’t want it. He explained about returns and refunds, used goods, shaking his head, holding the rifle in his hands, like a small corpse. I looked away, not wanting him to know, wanting only to be gone.

The National Rifle Association tells us it was not the gun that killed the bird, it was me. While I have no quarrel with claiming my responsibility, it seems an odd rhetorical trick to define the problem as having to choose between one and the other.

It is of course true that if I had not had the impulse to kill, it never would have happened. And yet, at the same time, consider, on the one hand, the difference between pulling a trigger a small fraction of an inch, that tiny distance it takes to get from the impulse to the act, and, on the other, strangling the bird to death with my own two hands or beating it with a club.

In which case would the impulse to kill have been most likely to result in death?

To separate the gun from the shooting is like telling carpenters that it’s they and not the hammer that drives the nail, or pilots that it’s they and not the plane that flies. Have you ever seen a pilot fly?

We are also told that guns are necessary for self-defense. I find this confusing. If guns are irrelevant to mass murder, it being people who kill and not the gun, then how can guns also be essential for killing people who might kill you? Which is it? Do guns protect people or do people?

If weapons are irrelevant to the cause of violence, then I suppose we should save ourselves the trouble of trying to halt the worldwide proliferation of nuclear weapons, which some nations claim the right to possess in their own defense.

I was just fifteen years old when I killed that bird and yet old enough to understand what happened that afternoon. I killed a bird on the sudden impulse of wanting to. And the gun allowed me to do it faster than doubt could enter my mind, and then the silence of no taking it back.

23 responses to “Planes Don’t Fly and Guns Don’t Kill

  1. Louise Lovdahl Friday, June 13, 2014 at 1:26 pm

    And even with these revelations you had to go to Nam. Oh, my, that must have been so hard for you.

    Many years ago I was sitting in my house by an open window when a voice whispering obscenities came through the window. Filled with shock and fear, I jumped up and ran to another part of the house to call the police. Later I realized that if there had been a gun in the house, I would have shot the person on the other side of the window…..a sudden impulse that would have killed a person, perhaps one of my students playing what he thought was an innocent trick.

  2. Will Mingus Friday, June 13, 2014 at 1:27 pm

    Hear, hear.

  3. alreadyalwaysis Friday, June 13, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    No matter how much you want to, no matter how much you would give, there is no taking it back. Ever.

  4. feminist83201 Sunday, June 15, 2014 at 2:18 am

    I agree. There’s no doubt guns make murder easier; that implies they make it more common. That’s it.

  5. Anne Batterson Monday, June 16, 2014 at 10:52 am

    By narrowing down this polarized issue down to one very human, regrettable moment, you make a strong statement for gun-control. Thank you.

  6. rami ungar the writer Thursday, October 16, 2014 at 11:52 am

    I agree with you on so many points, especially on the contrradictions of “guns don’t kill people, people do.” It’s like saying toasters don’t toast the bread, but the bread does it all by itself. Makes no sense to me. thanks for your post.

    • kochamericanlit Sunday, October 19, 2014 at 7:57 pm

      I disagree, guns are tools, just like any other inanimate object. If he didn’t want to kill an animal, he didn’t have to. He wanted to feel the power of taking a life, wether it was by the gun or any other means. And on the whole gun control debate, if you take means of adequate protection away from law abiding citizens you are trying to protect, what happens when the citizens without proper protection are killed at the hands of criminals who acquired guns through back channels and did not turn in their guns? Guns are tools. If you take away the tools from the good guys, they won’t be able to defend themselves against the bad guys with them.

      • Michael Monday, October 20, 2014 at 4:41 am

        If you take the guns from the “good guys” they will probably shoot themselves and/or family members by accident much less frequently, something they are anyhow much more probable to do than shooting a “bad guy”.

  7. Stuart M. Perkins Thursday, October 16, 2014 at 1:20 pm

    I agree on many points as well!

  8. julieallyn Thursday, October 16, 2014 at 2:12 pm

    Reblogged this on A Sawyer's Daughter and commented:
    Sharing…

  9. allthoughtswork Thursday, October 16, 2014 at 2:40 pm

    “Planes Don’t Fly and Guns Don’t Kill”

    The title immediately brought to mind 9/11 and the World Trade Center towers. I just know some moron out there is thinking, “So, what, should we ground all the planes, too, because they can destroy buildings?”

    To that moron, and you know who you are, read the following slowly. Airplanes were imagined, designed, and rendered as a means of transportation. Yeah, you can attach a gun to them but you can also attach a gun to a child’s tricycle–still not what that trike is about.

    Guns, on the other hand, were imagined, designed, and rendered for one and only one purpose: taking life as quickly as possible. Yeah, you can attach gold filigree to the handle and call it art, attach personal safety fears to it and call it a deterrent, or attach an event to the Olympics and call it sport–still not what that gun is about.

    An airplane is a faster, more powerful way to travel like a gun is a faster, more powerful way to kill. They both work with a person at the controls, that’s their design, they are an extension of that person. To attempt to separate, even philosophically, the operator from the tool is a little like trying to convict a shovel of the crime of digging a hole.

    • zangramarsh Monday, October 20, 2014 at 4:13 pm

      Good job on creating a false argument. I’m for gun control but your argument is a general statement that can best be explained with the simple “X is bad because it was meant to be bad.”
      For example: The knife was imagined, designed, and rendered for one and only one purpose, to take life as quickly as possible (cavemen started with sharp rocks but upgraded to shaped sharp rocks to kill animals faster). You can attach a golden handle and call it art, attach a sheathe and warnings and call it a deterrent, or attach a swiss army symbol and call it survival-still not what a knife is about.
      If you take each statement, they will all be technically true. What is being argued can be boiled down to purpose versus intention, with false logic as its reasoning. So before calling anyone else a moron, learn to craft a statement better or better still, take the easy way out.

  10. J.P. Hern Thursday, October 16, 2014 at 6:02 pm

    Guns make murdering easier but that does not stop the murderer. If guns become illegal, and a criminal is in your house with a gun he got on the black market along with drugs and whatever else he wants, what do you use?

    These are just a couple thoughts I would like to hear more about.

    • ravensmarch Friday, October 17, 2014 at 11:45 am

      Let’s try a setting in which there are no guns; the burglar has a baseball bat. The householder my apply his own baseball bat as a counter-force… if he can get to it in time. The criminal already knows there’s a crime going on while the householder is deciding what to watch on TV, or pondering whether it’s worth flossing tonight. At this point, does it really matter whether there’s a gun in the house or not? You’ve got to get to it and get it out, while the criminal is already at action stations.

      A murderer bent on murder will certainly find a way. One even hears of knife- and hammer-based frenzies in countries where guns are essentially unavailable. But the numbers killed in such frenzies are smaller than in the firearms frenzies in the US, because it’s easier to stop the lunatic and because their arms get tired. The plotting murderer won’t be stopped by their victim’s owning of a gun; the plot will take it into account. How does packing heat stop a salt-shaker full of arsenic or the cleverly concealed anvil?

      The majority of murders, too, are not matters of long plotting. They are a moment of heat, like the forking of a spouse’s hand to the table because they’re about to take the last drumstick, a brief stupidity that an instant’s thought would halt. That’s what the author is on about here– the difference between killing someone because it takes the same effort as uncapping a pen and not killing them because after the first punch you have time to realize the avalanche of consequences that pressing on can unleash.

      • J.P. Hern Friday, October 17, 2014 at 12:51 pm

        Thank you for your response, I appreciate it. you have great points, and I definitely like your last point on the moment of heat.

        I also wanted ask:

        Like many things that have become illegal, wouldn’t a criminal also find an access to these guns? Guns will still be produced through other nations and through illegal operations, and there will still be a black market for them. I don’t see criminals not buying guns. They would have an advantage also by having one. So if a criminal has a gun, what do you do?

      • ravensmarch Friday, October 17, 2014 at 1:15 pm

        This need not be an academic question, as there’s a lot of civilized places in which this is the case. Looking at Japan or England, where there’s a high degree of gun control (and England is especially instructive, because that’s a recent development), you don’t see a lot of gun violence by average criminals. There’s probably something of the law of supply and demand in this, in that the standard mugger can’t afford the black market price for a gun, so only the relatively organized criminals have them. They tend to not use them much, as the police tend to work much harder to deal with the higher threat firearms present, and since they’re less distracted by a relatively high background count of someone gunning down his cousin for taking too many beer the police have more time to give to someone who does haul out a gun.

        From a personal and academic standpoint, since I live in Canada and don’t have a gun in the house, if faced with a gun it’s acquiescence to demands and no foolish heroics. But it doesn’t happen much. Never, in the past fifty years, to me or anyone in my family; the closest I’ve come to injury from firearms is shooting on a range with a friend’s properly registered CZ75 (and that wasn’t close at all).

  11. gliderpilotlee Thursday, October 16, 2014 at 9:07 pm

    Very good, Sir, oh yes, the first death of innocence. I had hunted for years, there had been a plague of starlings and sparrows in our farm community and I thought zero, nothing of killing several a day if possible. Then a moment arrived when the dogs presented a rabbit only injured but soon to die. (or be eaten alive shortly) Now, never been after cruel, but not a rifle within 10 seconds reach (the easy killing tool) It took less than 3 seconds to beat it to death – no more pain. The dogs had lunch, and I ached for a few moments, but remember it to this day.

  12. lawschoolissoover Friday, October 17, 2014 at 11:24 am

    I could identify very closely with your story–I had a very similar experience.

    When I was around 10, we had a BB range in the back yard, near a barbed-wire fence that separated our yard from a hill that sloped down to a lake. One day, after a friend and I had been shooting a targets made out of paper and Tinkertoys and Lego, a small bird landed on one of the fence posts behind the targets. I cocked the BB gun, aimed, fired, and the bird tumbled from the fence.

    I went into the house and cried; my friend later came and told me the bird had only been stunned, but I didn’t believe him then and I don’t believe him now, nearly 50 years later.

    I have never since aimed a gun at a living creature, and I have no special desire to fire a gun. Once was enough.

  13. victoriathameswrit Saturday, October 18, 2014 at 4:04 am

    There’s something very disturbing when people say they didn’t think before they killed something. Whatever happened to think before act? Whatever happened to self-control? Or maybe it’s me, I think about everything before I do it. Of course, I did not like all my choices afterwards but I always, always think before I act.

  14. The Sound of Summer Saturday, October 18, 2014 at 5:36 pm

    An excellent and thought provoking post. The whole ‘Guns don’t kill people’ argument always makes me snort in derision. The facts are clear!

    A study released in late 2013 reported that the United States had 88 guns for every 100 people, and 40 gun-related deaths for every 400,000 people―the most of any of the 27 economically developed countries surveyed. By contrast, in Britain there were 6 guns per 100 people and 1 gun-related death per 400,000 people.

    In the UK our Police are mostly unarmed and yet our crime rate is much lower than in the USA. I think those facts speak for themselves.

  15. christianliving2014 Sunday, October 19, 2014 at 8:32 pm

    I never thought of it that way. I’m sorry these things happened. Very thought provoking.

  16. hmalapanis Tuesday, October 21, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    I love this very personal dismantling of a popular argument. It hits home for me, too. When I was about ten, living in a remote area of British Columbia, a neighboring homesteader’s son – my age – shot his six-year-old brother. He’d been talking about it for months, it turned out, telling his parents he hated the little boy and was going to shoot him. In a place like that, where people subsist on what they hunt and often encounter dangerous animals, he had easy access to a gun. The parents didn’t take it seriously, thinking he was just being dramatic. But one day he took the family’s hunting gun, and shot and killed his little brother. Of course, it was his choice, his desire to kill – but there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that if his parents had locked the gun away, they wouldn’t have lost a son.

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