We all like to pretend that emotion is not part of our political beliefs, and that we (but not the other guy!) are driven by nothing but the cold hard facts. In recent years, the concept has arisen that emotion is not only a big part of our decision-making process whether we like it or not, but that emotion is a necessary part of our decision-making process. I think of this as the "Spock Was Wrong" hypothesis. And that would be the title of my future bestselling book on the subject, if Antonio Damasio hadn't beaten me to the subject:
Damasio's name for the hypothesis also lacks any mention of Spock; he chooses to call it the "somatic markers hypothesis". I think it's clear science would have been better off if I had come up with and named this whole thing.
Probably the most famous finding of all this is that a person who has their emotions completely removed from the decision-making process, thanks to brain injury, becomes incapable of making a decision. They dither endlessly, unable to weigh the costs and benefits of the various options.
This all leads to very interesting questions of the nature of self and how we experience the world, and how the body and brain are inescapably intertwined such that the Futurama-style "brain in a jar" thing doesn't work out so well in reality.
But that's not what this post is about. This post is about guns.
There's something funny about guns. The topic brings out strange qualities in people. Emotional qualities. It seems very difficult for anyone to discuss guns without a strong emotional undercurrent.
So this post isn't exactly about guns. It's about the emotional underpinnings of my reaction to guns.
I've had three defining gun-related instances in my life.
#1: In which I could have been killed by my father's gun.
My father took me deer hunting once. I must have been twelve or older. This was an unusual occurrence because my father was not a hunter, knew nothing about guns, and wouldn't have known what do do with a deer if we managed to bag one. But, in the same way he pretended to want to watch football while actually falling asleep on the couch (but awake enough to yell at us each time we tried to change the channel), going hunting was some kind of way to engage his manly side in the socially acceptable manner.
On this trip he had a rifle. I don't know where he got it, or whether it was a particularly powerful rifle. That didn't matter, though, because the chance we were going to locate, shoot, and drag back a deer was exceedingly remote. It was an excuse to trudge through the forest, drop into sudden silence because maybe there was a deer over there, and use improvised hand signals. When we got tired of this, we headed back to the car, and it was time to unload the gun.
I was sitting in the passenger side seat waiting for my father to get the gun unloaded. He was having trouble getting the cartridge out. He manipulated the rifle bolt, moving it back and forth, trying to work the bullet loose. He was standing outside the driver-side door with the rifle pointing in, at me. I watched the barrel move around, rotating in an unsteady circle that had it pointing at my legs, then my chest, and my twelve or so year old mind envisioned the trajectory of the bullet in those moments and wondered if this was such a good idea. But I said nothing, because he was my father and must know what he was doing, and because, of course, things like that only happen to other people.
Then my father jammed the rifle bolt and the gun went off. The bullet trajectory at that instant turned out to be a couple of inches past the seat I was leaning against, and the bullet went through the floor of the car, behind me.
I couldn't hear. A great ringing sound filled my universe. My body, without bothering to check in with my brain, opened the car door and jumped out, hands over ears, jumping up and down. Every particle of me knew that I had just escaped death by centimeters. People from nearby rushed over to see if I was okay. I couldn't hear them. There was just ringing. I said something, but I couldn't hear myself.
The ringing and the adrenaline rush went away and things returned to normal. I don't recall if my father and I said anything to each other at the time. We certainly never talked about the incident later, and from my perspective I never particularly blamed him and I went on to forget about the whole thing.
Except, 25 or more years later, I found I haven't forgotten. This incident pops up in my mind here and there, triggered by something I'm watching, or if I happen to think of my father. There is something there. I think I've come to realize I never forgave my father for the carelessness that allowed him to almost shoot me.
#2: In which I could have killed someone with my father's gun.
A few years after the almost-shooting, my father decided to buy a hand-gun, I guess for household defense. The day he bought it I wasn't around, and he took my younger sister to a firing range where they both tried out the gun. I was jealous of this, as it sounded fun, and I had missed out on a father-bonding moment.
My father kept the gun in my parents' bedroom. Some months after he bought the gun, I was home with my best friend, studying, when we noticed a car loitering at the end of the road near the house. This house was located at the end of a road in a suburban area, with a big patch of forest behind the house. Recently we had noticed a lot of odd car activity at the end of the road -- it seemed that drug dealers or some such had discovered this nice little out-of-the-way area that was perfect for private dealings. Or maybe it was horny teenagers.
My friend and I decided to investigate. Unbeknownst to him, I went to my parents' bedroom and retrieved the hand gun. In a spurt of sort-of-maturity, I pulled out the clip and put it in one jacket pocket and the gun in the other, to ensure I couldn't fire the gun without having time to contemplate my action. At this point I don't recall if I knew to check if a bullet had already been chambered. I hope so.
As we made our way outside I ran through possible scenarios and wondered if I would actually be able to fire the gun. I kept a hand in each jacket pocket, cradling the contents.
The car was gone by the time we got there. I told my friend about the gun and he was not happy that I had kept this little fact from him. From time to time I've wondered just what would have happened if the car had still been there.
#3: In which any of us could have been killed by my father's gun.
A few months passed after my attempt to be T.J. Hooker.
The family was sitting at dinner and odd little things kept coming up in the conversation. I complained that someone had moved stuff around in my bedroom. My sister asked who had locked our little dog in her bedroom. After the third or fourth such little item came up, I got a flash of realization and excused myself to go check on something. Indeed, the $200 I had stashed in my desk was gone. We'd been robbed.
Well, not robbed, as an exasperated 911 operator complained when I called to report the situation. "How many were there?" she asked. "Did they have weapons?"
No, I explained, no one was home when the robbery occurred.
"Then it wasn't robbery," she said with contempt. "This was just a burglary."
Well, excuse me. Anyway, the burglars must have been intent on their goal, as it seems likely our feisty little dog was probably making a racket at them. We determined that they had used a pillow to push the dog into my sister's bedroom so they could lock it in.
It turned out the burglars were armed. Or, if they weren't when they arrived, they were by the time they left, because they had found my father's hand gun. So if any of us had come home while they were still there, we had just given them the means to shoot us.
Score another one for the gun. As I recall, some time later the burglars were caught, and my father's gun played a role in proving what they had done.
I know people passionately for gun ownership and people passionately against it. I've been on both sides of the issue myself. I find I lack the ability to particularly care about gun rights, though, or to romanticize gun ownership. I try to tell myself that my opinions are fact-based, and rely on statistics of how guns are likely to be used.
But whatever I tell myself, these stories provide the emotional underpinning for any opinion I have, and I cannot escape them.