Gordon Wickstrom | Aug 19, 2010
“I sing of arms and the man”
— Virgil, The Aeneid
My daughters grew up upon the assumption of guns in the house. They had eaten more wild meat than maybe any school teacher’s kids should have to. And they grew up to want to fire their father’s guns — and their children too — in order to know what it’s like and how to be safe with them.
Now, here comes one of them back from scouting theatres in Palestine and Israel appalled, if not exactly frightened, by the armament she had to face and walk through everywhere. And so now she turns the tables on me and asks something like, “So what do you think of guns now!?”
I let the question pass, held my peace, until now when I can think about what I think of guns.
First of all, I like guns. Good guns are beautiful, their mechanisms highly satisfying to operate. I like the smell, the heft, the sound, and the care they require. I like that sense of reaching out so precisely and far with bullet or shot. I own only two guns but want more; for instance, a pistol. But I could never afford guns and fine fishing tackle both. You surmise how I chose.
And I should admit right up front that I was never a good shot; in fact, it has been a long-running joke among my hunting companions — and my wife — that I was apt to stumble-bum along and miss even easy shots.
But I loved it. Everything about it, even the grief and admiration for the creature I killed. I loved the ceremony of it all. And I have admired the splendid skills that the expert brings to his shooting bench. But it is essential to add that gun and hunting culture has been on a steady decline toward decadence and sheer violence, some of which is, I’m certain, a price we pay for our militarism. I despise it.
But, I hold myself to be still under oath to kill enemy people in defense of my nation. I swore that oath, long ago and no one has ever released me from it. So, I am ready to kill people in that defense yet today. I kill, and that is the problem.
In this matter of gun ownership and use, I don’t want to hear talk of the Second Amendment. I don’t give a damn about all that. Why, in something so fundamental to my experience, so essential to my self-definition, should I care what those Founders thought about guns! As though they ever agreed on much of anything anyway. Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Madison, Hamilton; et al, yes, even old Washington, each had his own bundle of ideas. They often differed violently with each other and were ready to call each other the vilest of names — but in the end they accomplished a monument of compromise, of give and take, of rational, enlightened intelligence, to settle on a Constitution that none of them much liked but thought might just work — and it did. And it has, with cultivation, weeding, and enriching along the way of its history, worked wonders.
“It is the epigraphical violence of our species, recorded in art, with which I have honed my mind and which in the end, defines and comforts me.”
More than the product of their compromise, it is the process of it and the Founders’ ability to co-operate that should inspire us today. We must envy their education and their discipline and come to a compromise on what to do about guns in our society.
Rather than doting on the Second Amendment we ought to consider who we are, what we are, we who own and bear arms. The answer lies in anthropology and genetics, not in judicial definitions and decisions. It is not a matter of what a person is allowed to do, but of what a person does, and must have done in the earliest experience of his humanity — as he stumbled out of Africa carrying fire, flint, and spear.
I believe that my native human condition is intimately involved with weapons and is genetic.
I am taken with projectiles of all sorts: bullets, shot, arrows, spears, rocks, apples, fly lines, foot balls, snow balls and base balls — you name it. And with their systems of delivery, even a water pistol, potato gun, and my favorite sling shot. As a human being, I have been in love with projecting projectiles. How elegant and beautiful they can be! They can be joyful.
As a human being, in my genes, I have taken up arms to satisfy my family’s hunger, as well as against the common enemies of man. And I have seen them transmuted into sport and the matter of art.
Sing, Arms and the Man!
Shall we, then, lose our right to bear arms? I think not: bearing them lies too deep in our nature ever to be cut out by any legal or legislative action. But, at the same time, we know and understand that something must be done about all these guns. There are simply too many of them in the hands of exploding populations. Too many of us are too poor and broken. Too many are crippled in family life, soused in TV horror, and these random, presidential wars. We are full of the hatreds of race.
There are simply too many guns of the wrong kind among us to stand the strains of our society. They are too easily got, too cheaply bought in the free market we so espouse. Many of them are technically advanced far beyond the needs of ordinary killing — ugly, brutalist things, good only for murder. Who would want an AK47? These weapons that have so degenerated into a monstrous companionship with drugs and their international, criminal traffic!
The more I write, the farther I feel from the Founders, and Amendment #2.
Still, I feel at home in the often shocking violence in literary and dramatic art. I believe knowledge of it to be indispensable to a full human life. I think of Virgil’s Aeneas carrying his father on his back, away from the destruction of Troy. I think of my fingers in Gloucester’s bleeding eye sockets. Or the hands in the current film, Winter’s Bone.
At the same time I remember those old folks of mine, killing their way out of Africa, but marking their passage with the graves of their dead, left behind with ever more ceremony, until the ceremony of death became the sublimity of art.
And so, faithful to them and given who we are, I am not willing, in these latter days, to renounce that legacy of arms in the name of any popular, soft-edged sentimentalism. After all, it is the epigraphical violence of our species, recorded in art, with which I have honed my mind and which in the end, defines and comforts me:
a killer, bearing arms, not by law, but by nature.
I am utterly opposed to any effort to disarm me. I’m dead set against any court’s attempt to denature the human being in this way. But I am ready to reach compromise — as did the Founders — and be controlled in my ownership and use of those arms. Just how, I don’t know. I leave it to younger, more flexible minds.
But, if I am by definition an armed killer, something must be done. I want us to proceed to discussion and debate based on a right definition of what the human animal is — and in a merciful spirit and clean politics.
How is my killing properly and humanely to be constrained? I’m ready to talk — but not with judges and lawyers in the room, talking Constitutional law at me. I want us to think of our old folks who walked day by day after day out of Africa, improvising their growing humanity, day by day, hoping one day to live safely and at peace, a time to turn their arms to sport and their killing to art.
Drawing above: Civil War cannon, Harpers Weekly, 1861
Gordon Wickstrom is a Boulder native, navy man in the Philippines, CU grad and Stanford Ph.D., professor of drama, director and sometime actor. He retired home to Boulder in 1991, fishes with his wife Betty, and writes books, essays and columns on the angling life and on theatre. He is the oldest living — in captivity — writer about fishing in English, and a member, for the sake of his obituary, of the Flyfishers’ Club of London.