Our Nation’s Culture Is Gun Culture
In the wake of the Newtown shootings, novelist James Boice became convinced that guns define our culture. The hard part was turning that realization into fiction.
The day after their suspensions are handed down, Lee steals one of his father’s Glocks and brings it to school in his backpack. Loaded. Not to hurt anyone—he would never do that—for self-defense. It’s only smart—not everyone will like what he has done, not everyone appreciates those who do what’s right. Walking around with the Glock, having the ability to kill any bad guys who threaten him, or more so having the ability, the option, of killing anyone at all whenever he feels like it but choosing not to, allowing them to live, makes him feel much better about himself. I am good, he thinks. He finds he feels warmer toward people, is more forgiving, even feels affection toward them. He is more polite on crowded stairwells, gallantly allowing others to go ahead of him. A cop, he thinks. A cop in New York.
—From The Shooting by James Boice
In the weeks after Newtown, I was riding the subway back and forth through Manhattan every day and walking through Times Square, thinking about those kids and what their last moments were like and how anybody who wanted to could just board the subway or step out onto the street beside me and start shooting and there was nothing anyone could do. This did not reconcile with our supposed rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. The easy access and sheer number of military-grade weaponry had created such a horrible place of our country. When guns were not killing our kids, they were turning the rest of us into anxiety-ridden paranoiacs. It felt like a kind of terrorism.
So I started reading about guns and gun politics and why such a horrible thing was able to happen and why nothing legislative happened in its aftermath to ensure it would never happen again. I read a lot of nonfiction, including Gunfight by Adam Winkler, Gun Guys by Dan Baum. Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist by Richard Feldman. These books, among others, helped give me an idea of the environment and history and politics behind gun violence.
I learned our entire culture is a gun culture. You have no choice but to have a relationship to guns in our country. There are 300 million guns out there and counting. More of us have been killed by guns than by all the terrorists and all our wars combined. Women are killed with guns by their domestic partners at horrifying rates. Mass shootings, accidental shootings, gang shootings, police shootings of black men—gun violence is a major, major piece of what it is like to live in America in the 21st century.
I’m a fiction writer, I write novels and short stories—I needed to write a novel that reflected the horror I was seeing around me.
What was interesting to me about gun culture from a fiction standpoint was its key mindset: fear, distrust, and faithlessness. Fear of other people, especially those who are different from you; distrust of authority; faithlessness toward the universe, which, gun culture believes, is indifferent to your existence, so it falls on you to protect yourself.
Gun culture provides such ripe material for literature. It’s darkly poetic: the difference between how we see ourselves—heroic—and how we actually are—tragic. People acting with one intention—self-defense, safety—but causing death, suffering. The Newtown killer’s mother, for example. Here was a tragic character right out of literature. Her child was mad, unreachable, but she saw him as simply unique, sensitive. She refused to get him help; instead, she indulged him. She liked guns, she bought the rhetoric the NRA had sold her about American values and self-defense, about an armed society being a polite society, about good guys with guns stopping bad guys with guns. When her son showed interest in guns as well, she was very happy. This was a wholesome thing they could finally bond over. She taught him how to shoot, seeing herself and him as good guys. She even bought him his own guns. She found meaning and connection in shooting guns with her son. It must have felt very good, to finally reach him, to be a part of something bigger with him, a culture of Americans exercising their sacrosanct constitutional rights—despite what she must have known deep down in her heart.
And hers was the body they found last, after all the kids. She was the first one he shot, before heading to the elementary school with those same guns they bonded over.
—There’s something on your face.
Lee’s worried. —What is it?
—Nothing, just a smile. Been so long since I saw it, I didn’t recognize it.
Puts his arm around his son’s shoulders and says, —Listen, something I wanted to talk to you about. That gun? It’s yours now… It’s always been yours, I’ve just been holding it for you. Take care of it. Protect it. And remember: you’re just keeping it for your son. It’s already his, just like it was already yours.
—From The Shooting by James Boice
Guns are our impossible children, they are our ++ Adam Lanza ++ [/content/dailybeast/articles/2013/11/26/we-already-know-what-adam-lanza-s-real-motive-was-at-sandy-hook.html]. They grew out of our flawed, well intentioned, frightened human hearts. We have them because we live afraid of death and of each other, we feel alone, we misunderstand each other. So we try to protect ourselves. We get a gun. Maybe a few. Maybe a lot. And things go wrong.
First I needed to read how our gun culture had already been portrayed in contemporary fiction. It’s important to know what’s already been done, so you can try to contribute something unique.
I was surprised that there was nothing out there. At least, nothing I could find. There have been countless American novels with guns in them, of course, but usually portrayed in a romantic or poetic way, symbols of fate or independence, and rarely in a way that questions them. And there have been quite a few American novels that involve mass shootings or school shootings (Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed; Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll), but they never get into guns, meaning our gun culture, this thing killing 33,000 of us each year, more than any terror attacks or wars. They tend to be more about the characters dealing with the trauma of the violence, as if it was a natural disaster. Project X by Jim Shepard was about two kids planning a Columbine attack and is more about adolescent angst than guns. We Need to Talk about Kevin is an excellent novel but one that goes so far to avoid talking about guns that its author Lionel Shriver has its mass killer use a bow and arrow.
What was missing from most fiction involving guns was gun culture, the convergence of those living in fear, distrust, and faithlessness with those living in faith, trust and fearlessness.
I did not use Adam Lanza’s mother as a jumping off point for my story because Shriver had already done a story about the parent of a mass killer far better than I ever could. I tried out many other storylines—shootings of one kind or another, but none gained traction, and the problem was I was writing fiction about the idea and facts of guns, the idea of shootings. It is not a good idea to write fiction about ideas or fact—it will turn out like thinly veiled fable or even propaganda, its characters mere archetypes or cliché there to deliver a moral. Fiction is about voices and characters, so that is where it is best to start—try and let them come to life, stand up, and speak. Which was a key thing to figure out about guns and shootings—though they might seem like the same story over and over, each shooting is its own, with its unique reasons why it happened and what comes as a result and what it feels like for everyone. There is no one story.
So I began again, trying to start with people, characters. I wrote about the world in front of my face, which was America in the 21st century, which means the rich crush the poor, the white crush the black, the powerful crush the powerless, the politics crush the people. It could be any time and any place, actually—what makes it ours are the guns.
Meanwhile, I heard about what happened to my brother’s friend down in Virginia. My brother’s friend had a 15-year-old son. He was black. One night he sneaked out of the house, went to a party, came home drunk, tried to sneak back inside—but he was confused and got the wrong house. He ended up in the house next door. The neighbor who lived there, who was white, did not even give the kid a chance. He was ready for this. Always had been. He was one of the NRA’s good guys with a gun, the kind who mowed his lawn with his gun on his hip. The kind who live in fear, distrust, and faithlessness. Here was his moment. He ran downstairs with his Glock and opened fire until the kid was dead. Didn’t care that it was the kid next door. Cops let the guy off, said it was the kid’s fault. And that was that.
I was consumed with this story—how tragic it was, how racist, how dehumanizing, how stupid, how unjust. It felt like gun culture was embodied in that shooting, as was the difference between how we see ourselves—a great nation—and how we actually are—one that kills its children—as was the human condition itself—a man trying to keep peace by arming himself in fact creates horror; a man seeing himself as a hero but others seeing him as a villain. A father sees his son as a good kid—a boy sees himself as a good kid—but the neighbor sees him as a dangerous thug.
All the shootings made me think what a myth America is—how free are we when we can be shot at any time for any reason, even for no reason? It made me think about the fragility of our lives, about fate and chance and the spiderweb-like structure of the universe—how we are all connected, and everything we do has an effect, how we all rely on each other whether we like it or not. How we have to trust each other just by living. And how sad it is that those who are afraid, who are distrustful, who have no faith in mankind can destroy everyone else and guns let them do it easily and cleanly, with minimal effort. The myth says that guns level the playing field, but the reality is that guns give the cowardly a disproportionate amount of power. Real bravery is being unarmed, prepared not to kill but to embrace the unexpected, the unknown, to let go of control. Real bravery knows we have no control, we are part of a vast tapestry of actions and reactions, yours and others’. A gun is about seeking the delusion of control to appease our fears, with deadly, terrible consequences.
I started writing about a man who believes he is all alone, fending for himself, and who does not imagine that we affect one another in ways we do not see, that good can come from bad or bad from good. And he lives devoted to a misremembered past. I wanted to follow this guy through his life, I wanted to show this man hurting somebody who did not deserve it, and I wanted to write about that person too, a boy, with no power and no gun but no fear either.
The two of them came to life and began to converge toward each other, and that, I knew, was the central story of The Shooting.
I wanted to show these two people affecting and being effected by other characters without even realizing it, as they converged. And I wanted to show so-called bad guys having unintended positive effects, and vice versa, and then those effects coming back around. I wanted to explore the bigger scheme of things, the connections the mindset of gun culture ignores. I called these sections Sheeple—kind of a thumbing of the nose at political rhetoric referring to unarmed citizens as mindless, helpless livestock who good guys with guns must protect.
No matter how much you love it, grief work will wear you down. The constant death and relentless tragedy, so much of it the same. We just do not think certain people matter. They are disposable to us. It is a virus that infects our entire society. I have been feeling like a fraud, reciting from a rote clinical script to these families, knowing there is this illness out there we are not doing enough to cure. I feel like I am selling timeshares.
—From The Shooting by James Boice
What I was writing became a novel called The Shooting. I felt like I had to write it, for my personal psychology, to understand the terrible realities of life in a gun culture and life as a human. One of my intentions, aside from writing well and telling an interesting story and creating compelling characters, was to write something to change things. I wanted to help, to do something to get us thinking seriously and differently about gun culture as a pathology in our society. Insane, maybe, but we live in insane times. Writing this novel was the best way I knew how to try.
James Boice is the author of three previous novels, MVP, NoVA, and The Good and the Ghastly, all published by Scribner. His work has appeared in Esquire, McSweeney’s, Salt Hill, Fiction magazine and Salon, among other places. In 2006 he was selected as the New Voice in the Esquire 100. He lives in Jersey City, NJ.