This week, this image features TV, online newspapers, and social media. Yes, this scene captures the tragic moment when a 9 year old girl on a gun range in Arizona handles a gun, loses control of it, and kills the gun instructor standing next to her.
This story reminds me of Richard Wright’s excellent story “The Man Who was Almost a Man,” published in 1961 (You can access the full text here: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~DRBR2/wright.htm) . In this story, the protagonist Dave is a black boy, working in a farm in the South. The story begins, as Dave goes to his white master to borrow a Sears catalog. What he wants to see in the catalogue and ultimately purchase is a gun. He wants a gun so badly. And he buys a gun. It is a top secret known only to himself, of course, so he keeps the gun hidden during the day but goes out to the field in the middle of the night to practice shooting alone. Nobody teaches him how to use a gun, and Dave has to learn through trial and error. But his attempt to master shooting ends with a catastrophe. The young black boy misfires and kills a mule whose value on the farm exceeds the one of Dave himself. Recognizing that he should slave all his life to pay to his white master the value of the mule, Dave decides the leave the farm. The story ends as Dave hops on a train, to leave the town.
I am thinking of this story today, because juxtaposing Wright’s story and the Arizona incident makes it crystal clear how gun possession is totally out of control today. In Wright’s 1961 story, a gun is not portrayed as such a highly threatening weapon. A careful reader of “The Man Who was Almost a Man” will notice the multi-faceted cultural meaning of a gun. A gun represents everything that Dave is not but wants to be: a strong man (not a young boy), a rich person (not a poor farm hand), and a white person (no black in the farm owns a gun, and all men who own a gun are white). Hence, when our black boy misfires the gun and understands that he is more securely enchained to where he is, I read Wright’s criticism of society which prevents a black boy from joining the rank of “white” “middle class” “men.” In this process, however, Wright focuses on the cultural meaning of a gun and pays little to no attention to the meaning of a gun as a fatal weapon. Even when Dave kills the mule, we readers are not led to think that it could have killed Dave. Also, in Wright’s story, all the white middle class men who own a gun all seem to thrive in their gun culture.
This makes a sharp contrast with the situation of 2014 when guns can turn against anyone, regardless of one’s age, gender, and class. I think that guns in 2014 still mean all that they used to mean in Wright’s time, but gun possession becomes so widely spread that the victims of gun use are no longer limited to blacks who want to join white culture, the poor who want to get rich, or little boys who want to prove their manhood. Guns literally can kill anyone.
Reading about the Arizona incident, I think that this is a high time to seriously think about what guns really mean in our society. Since 1961, the meaning of guns has changed dramatically, to the extent that they even indicate a form of recreation. But using a fatal weapon for a recreational purpose? Where are we?
(To be continued in the next post….)