[shorter version: guns don't kill people, people kill people; but, if we think about the psychology behind guns, we will come to the realization that guns are about power, not action]
The intake for the water line was clogged. This meant a hike 900 feet up into the hills behind our cabin in order to clear the intake filter. We brought the shotgun. It was pretty unlikely that we would encounter a bear, but better to have and not need, and all that.
Gun use and gun safety was one of the first things we ran through after getting off our float plane and dropping our bags in the fishing cabin, that would be our home for the next three months, on the south end of Kodiak, Island. I had grown up around commercial fishing, bears, and guns, but my long time friend and co-crewman had not. So a gun lesson was high on the list of to-do's before my father left, and the two of us were left to fend for ourselves.
Kodiak Island is home to the largest bears in the world. As salmon and berry eaters, they don't have to be dangerous, but as enormous wild animals they certainly are. I am a fairly large athletic guy, but the weight ratio between an average Kodiak Bear and me is the same as the weight ratio between me and a two year old toddler.
The short hike up our waterline was not bear country. The bears should be up at the streams, eating their fill of salmon. But, we had specifically switched to using black electrical tape on the water line instead of silver duct tape because the duct tape seemed to attact the attention of wandering bears, and result in bite damage, bears could wander to this area.
When we reached the water line I handed the shotgun to my friend and began clearing the filter. That's when he said it:
"I could kill any animal on earth right now."
I looked at him, and saw that the statement was made, not in bloodlust, but in astonishment. He was right. A 12 gauge loaded with 8 slugs packed a lot of potential punch. Now, I don't know how it would do against a bull elephant, or charging rhino, but that wasn't the point. The point with this simple tool my friend was transformed from a slow, awkward ape with a large brain, to a contestant for most powerful animal on earth.
There are a lot of fantasy stories which center around the corrupting influence of power. In the fantasy setting it usually takes the form of an item of great power which the good guys must destroy. Inevitably someone suggests that they use this item for good, to defeat the big bad. It is just a 'tool' after all, surely they could harness it. But the item has a corrupting influence, it cannot be used for good, not because of some innate feature of the 'tool,' but because of the influence it has in the mind of the wielder.
In the super hero setting the source of power cannot be destroyed. Instead it must be harnessed, and most super heroes get an early lesson in the corrupting influence of their power. Learning that they have to respect their power, and that there will always be a temptation to abuse it. Those who don't learn this lesson become villains, lured away by the corrupting influence of power.
Power is intoxicating, and meant to be used. Power wants to be used.
So you see, my friend wanted a bear to attack us, and so did I.
Throughout my life I've killed dozens of bears. I've rescued my family, friends and strangers from vicious bear attacks. My friend and I were charged by bears numerous times while cleaning the water filter, and each time I was forced to use my training and save us from the charging animal. Because, when you're warned that something terrible could happen, and when you're prepared, a part of you, sometimes a large part, wants that thing to happen. You see it, you picture it, you act it. It's part of being ready. Even if it never actually happens outside of your own mind, it happens.
I don't know what happened during the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. But I do know that Zimmerman wanted to be attacked that night. Because I know what it is to carry a gun. More specifically, I know what it is to fear something and to no longer fear it because you're carrying a gun. Zimmerman had shot Trayvon lots of times before that fateful night. He'd shot him to stop robberies and burglaries. He'd shot him defending himself, and he'd shot him defending others. He was ready. He had a gun. He was the most powerful thing on earth.
Spend time with people who spend significant time in rural Alaska and you'll find a common approach to nature: respect. The best bush pilots know not to test the weather, the best boat captains know when to stay in harbor and all Alaskans know that you don't mess with bear safety. The so called "Grizzly Man" was a source of fascination for many. But in Alaska he's a fool who lacked proper respect for the 'wild' part of 'wild-animals,' and his lack of respect got someone else killed. But this respect is just a recognition that you're dealing with something much more powerful than yourself and your tools.
Nature makes us feel our own powerlessness. Everyone in rural areas knows of someone who has fallen victim to the merciless cruelty of the great outdoors. A plane crash, freezing waters, and yes, the occasional bear mauling.
But there are those moments when nature makes you feel invincible. Standing strong in the path of something furious, something truly mighty, is empowering. Being at sea in a storm, having your tent hold up to powerful winds, reaching the peak of an intimidating mountain, and yes, facing down a charging bear - gun in hand.
Most of us, of course, do not live in anything that could be described as wilderness. But, we do live in just as intimidating environments. The truth is that life is fragile, and that many of us are powerless. A big city, a big nation, a crowded highway, a cruel economic system, can cast us aside or smash us under its heel as easily as a winter storm or 1200 lb. animal. An emperor, king or dictator wields impossible power, you can no more stand up against that, as a naked individual, as you can stand up against the ocean.
Guns are a tool. A tool designed for killing. That's their design, but their effect is to dramatically transform the power of the wielder. Hold a gun, and you are capable of anything. Therein lies the true power of the tool. There in lies it's corrupting influence. Therein lies the fantasy. When you hold a gun you secretly hope you're attacked by a bear. You secretly hope someone attacks your family. Because if that happens, you can stop it, you can stop it with your gun.
The intoxicating psychological effect of a gun is central to our discussions about them, and too often ignored. Guns are tools of power. Some tools are purchased to be used. You buy a table saw to cut wood. If you never need to cut wood, you don't buy a table saw. But a gun serves a powerful purpose without ever being used. In all those hikes up that waterline, we never fired a single shot. But in all those hikes up that waterline, the gun we brought served its purpose.
If you face a bear attack, without a gun, your best option is to play dead. Lay down, don't move, and hope the bear loses interest before inflicting too much damage. You cannot run from a bear, they run faster than quarter horses. You cannot out climb a bear, they are quite effective climbers. Running downhill from a bear will not cause it to tumble head over heels and facilitate your escape. Play dead, hope the bear buys it, and live. It's not the kind of scenario that allows for heroics, even in one's imagination. Bear attacks may be extremely rare, (until just last week there had never been a person killed by a bear in Denali National Park in Alaska) but they happen all the time in the minds of hikers and campers. You look into the brush around you and think "what if . . ." Without a gun, that imagined scenario should always end with you laying still, trying not to move, waiting for the danger to pass on its own.
You can't fight a revolution against modern military technology with an automatic rifle. But if you have a gun you're never forced to play dead when you ask the question "what if . . .." When you have a gun you can create any number of scenarios, any number of possibilities can answer that question. The gun has transformed you from powerless peon in an impossibly large system, to the most powerful animal on earth.
The low probability of needing a gun does nothing to change this psychology of power. If I tell a gun owner that he is extremely unlikely to need a gun to defend his home from burglars, his person from muggers, or his neighborhood from "suspicious" characters, how is that different than telling me and my friend, walking along that water line, that we really weren't in an area bears traveled. We weren't. But what will we think we ponder "what if . . ."
And if I point out to that gun owner that they are so powerless, so insignificant, that even with their gun, they could not stand against a modern military, that their tool of empowerment is futile, aren't I just reinforcing the very feeling of impotence in the modern world that the gun serves to counter? If the gun is a tool which primarily creates a feeling of power, how could I possibly undo the gun's hold on our culture by more emphatically pointing out just how powerless we all are?
Gun culture is not built on the need of guns. Guns are designed to kill. It's preposterously rare for any of us to need to kill anything, and yes, that includes bears in bear country. Gun culture is built on the feeling of powerlessness we all feel in the face of things larger than ourselves, be they mountains or be they governments.
Sometimes, late at night, I contemplate whether I should have a gun for home safety. Sure, I don't live in a dangerous neighborhood, but I'm responsible, I'm careful, and it's better to have and not need, than to need and not have, isn't it? What options would I have if someone broke into my home, if someone attacked my family, except to play dead, except to hope the danger passes without choosing to do too much harm?
The truth is that I haven't held a loaded weapon in several years now. The guns are safely stored, locked away, far from where I live. The ammo somewhere entirely different. But, you see, my gun makes me feel powerful. With it there is no danger on this earth that I couldn't give a run for its money. Sure, that's not technically true. But if it feels true, it doesn't really matter does it? It's not like I actually think black helicopters will come for me, or that armed criminals will assault my home, so it doesn't matter what my actual chances would be. It matters how I feel.
To change gun culture, we have to change the way people feel, not the way they think.