Recently, I was at a barbecue at my brother’s house with some friends who had just moved to the area from Massachusetts. As we sat around the table catching up, the conversation eventually made its way to politics and the recent election. Because our politics didn’t align, there was potential for conflict, but I was pleasantly surprised by the calm, rational, and thoughtful way arguments were presented, and how respectfully they were received…that is, until the subject of gun control came up.
My more liberal-minded friend admitted she had never actually been in the presence of a gun, and was happier for it. She just didn’t feel the need to endanger herself in such a manner, and though she could appreciate that some might enjoy hunting or target shooting, it was simply too dangerous to carry a firearm with you for any other purpose.
It was at that point that two of us at the table produced our own concealed carry firearms, unloaded them, and set them on the table in front of us. Unbeknownst to her, she had actually been in the presence of not one, but two firearms throughout the entire evening. Again, to my delight, she was not horrified or angry—she was curious.
“You mean you’ve just had that with you? This whole time?” she asked, smiling like a teenager that had just found the key to her parents’ liquor cabinet.
This isn’t an uncommon sentiment among open-minded, liberal-leaning Americans. Although party lines clearly separate gun owners from environmentalists, the truth of the matter is that many conservatives are concerned about climate change and many liberals don’t think the government should confiscate my guns. Political extremes, as depicted in the media, would have us believe we have nothing in common, when in reality, our differences can often be attributed to something as simple as exposure.
I purchased my first firearm by myself at 18 years old. It was a 12 gauge shotgun that I kept in the trunk of my Mustang for a year because my mother wasn’t comfortable having a gun in the house. Since that day, I’ve owned and carried firearms consistently in my personal and professional life. To me, the 1911 on my hip is no different from the pocket knife in my pocket: It’s a tool with a specific function. My rifles, each different in their caliber and furniture, serve their purpose as well. I keep the tools I use to work on my car in one box, and the tools I would use to defend my home or blow off some steam at the range in another one. Beyond that, I make very little distinction between the two categories.
For my friend, however, her entire perception of firearms was based on how the media depicts them. She believes that one carries a pistol in order to shoot others, while I attest that I carry one in order to protect myself and others. She believes that firearms are inherently dangerous because of their potential to harm, whereas I recognize that a teenager with a cell phone and a driver’s license is a lot more likely to kill her than my lovingly worn-in .45.
The difference between how we see the same object is all based on our own forms of familiarity with it. I’ve seen my gun every day for years; she’s only seen them in the hands of killers on TV. Our perceptions are based on incongruous data.
My friend spent the next hour or so asking questions and learning about our firearms, how we train, where we can carry or fire them, and what kinds of hurdles we needed to make it over in order to do so legally. She has since gone to a range herself and completed a firearm safety course. That isn’t to say that I successfully “converted” a liberal into a gun lover, but it is certainly a credit to her character that she was willing to accept that her own view may have been skewed by her experiences.
This left me thinking: Just what are those experiences that so solidly established the idea of guns being “bad” in her mind? We both consume the same American popular culture, but I had always been watching through the lens of a gun owner. So for the past few weeks, I’ve been making notes here and there when I spot the ways guns are shown on TV and in movies. Mind you, I wasn’t looking for heavy-handed stuff with a clear agenda, I mean the things we watch when we’re trying to escape such things. Action movies, crime dramas, science fiction, and comedies all play a role in how many people subconsciously perceive the world around them, particularly in regard to things they’ve never experienced for themselves.
The first trope I came across more than once was the classic “gun drop” scene. You know the one: Someone drops a loaded weapon and it immediately goes off, killing someone or something nearby with the discharge caused by the impact. In “True Lies,” Jamie Lee Curtiss drops an Uzi down a flight of stairs, which then fires consistently all the way down each step, killing a dozen enemies along the way. In “Boondock Saints” (required watching for any self-respecting Irishman such as myself), Rocco pounds his fist on a table, accidentally landed the strike on his pistol, and obliterated his girlfriend’s cat with the round his fist somehow punched out of the chamber. These aren’t movies with a liberal agenda, they’re simply movies with a poor understanding of how firearms actually work.
The reality of the matter is, guns are subjected to drop testing by the manufacturers, in large part because accidentally killing all of your customers is a crummy way to stay in business. Gun makers don’t want to kill you, or to make it easy for you to accidentally kill your cat, so they design weapons not to go off when they fall out of your holster or are the victim of a wayward fist. Ask any cop who’s worn a pistol during a scuffle. There’s a reason they don’t lose their toes every time they have to subdue a suspect. Guns simply don’t work that way.
The second trope I came across time and time again is a bit harder to articulate. I’ve taken to calling it the “magical destructive property of gunpowder-propelled lead.” According to movies and television, a stray bullet in your car’s gas tank can will engage the C4 most of the body is made of, causing your car to instantly explode in dramatic slow motion. In reality, bullets aren’t made out of fire, and usually won’t ignite gasoline. They also don’t travel very far through water (they lose most of their kinetic energy at the surface and often break apart), but that’s a topic for another article.
Movie studios needed a reason to incorporate more explosions into their films, otherwise Michael Bay wouldn’t have a job. Thus, the exploding bullet was born. Thanks to its use in nearly every movie and television show of the modern age, those who have never seen the fairly disappointing (by comparison) hole a nine millimeter pistol puts in a sheet of target paper are left to assume that just about anything a bullet touches could potentially explode, making those dreaded accidental discharges caused by stairs and lively conversations that much more dangerous.
The third trope I have to address doesn’t come from movies and TV shows, but rather the mainstream media. It’s a subject many gun owners have already spoken at length about on social media and in opinion pieces, but somehow the understanding hasn’t permeated upward into the popular consciousness. “Assault weapons” are not inherently more dangerous than other guns. “Assault weapon” isn’t even a strictly defined term, but rather something newscasters use to describe any gun that looks scarier than Elmer Fudd’s wabbit-hunting shotgun.
In terms of dangers to society, a semi-automatic hunting rifle will kill you just as fast and just as good as my AR-15. In fact, depending on your hunting rifle, you may be able to do so from a greater distance and with a greater degree of accuracy. You can also purchase it in more places, find ammunition more readily in many cases, and can get one without any kind of permit or waiting period in a number of states. The biggest functional difference between my AR-15 and my hunting rifles is the rail system I could feasibly use to mount a deadly flashlight onto my handguards. Beyond that, it just looks “scarier,” and the media has done all it can to take that “scary” appearance as cause for a concerted push for bans on “assault-style” rifles, despite the absolutely negligible statistical likelihood that one would be used to actually commit any sort of crime.
I’ll be honest: Had my friend responded to the sight of my pistol in utter repulsion and anger, both of us would have walked away without any additional understanding of one another’s points of view. Thanks to her willingness to learn, she has a newfound appreciation for firearms and I have a much better idea of why so many liberals hate them so much. Now that I can’t help but notice how firearms are presented in the media (even by content I don’t believe to be “anti-gun”), I can see why so many people would be terrified of something I consider to be pretty similar to a hammer or power drill. If I’d grown up seeing guitars make cars explode on TV every day, I’d be a lot less psyched to have one in my living room—especially if they were always going off with random, fiery G chords every time I pounded my fist on the table.
Like so many things in our society, the gap separating one mindset from the other only appears to be a great and impassable canyon. In reality, it can be bridged easily through friendly and respectful conversation, a willingness to broaden our perspectives, and an acknowledgement of our own preconceived notions. When we talk politics, we talk differences, but our similarities are so much more immense than the party titles we cling to.
But until more people are willing to listen to one another, I should probably stop pulling out my pistol at dinner parties.
Feature image courtesy of The Nation