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The Gun Fetish Is Not Normal
Is it "normal" for guns to be central to your identity?
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1. Galaxy Brain
I imagine you’ve seen pictures recently showing people posing with large number of firearms. Like this one:
Those shots are taken from a book by Italian photographer Gabriele Galimberti, who set out to understand the well-springs of America’s gun fetish. Charlie Warzel interviewed Galimberti for his newsletter last week and their conversation is worth your time.
Galimberti: The success of my photos at the moment is because my photos are really easy to understand. You don’t need to be an expert in photography or even guns to understand the message. It’s impossible to look at these images and not see what’s there. And that makes my photos so easy to share and to be used for a certain, sometimes negative, communication. But I think when people use my photos to judge the people in them, that is a mistake. The real judgment in my work is on the society that allows this. The real problem isn’t these 40 people I photographed; it is the regulations and the culture that permits it.
When you look at the last two mass shootings, it is absurd that kids celebrating their 18th birthday can go buy guns but couldn’t go to a bar and drink. It’s probably far too easy to buy guns in this country. The focus should be on the regulation and not on these people. These people I photographed are buying guns because they can and are free to do so. And so if you are shocked by seeing this family with 200 guns, then maybe the real problem is there are no regulations that would keep them from obtaining these guns. And I want to be clear that it’s not only guns I photographed, but also people with bazookas and flamethrowers, all legally obtained. They’re free to buy them. . . .
Warzel: An important element of your work seems to be not to judge people, but rather to document the intensity of this culture. What do you think The Ameriguns illustrates about our relationship and obsession with guns in this country?
Galimberti: Some people won’t agree, but I didn’t photograph crazy people. What I photographed is actually what seemed like reasonably normal behavior in the U.S. And my subjects were not anywhere close to the stereotypes of American gun culture. I didn’t only photograph white people in cowboy hats in Texas. I went all across the country to places like Hawaii and found all kinds of people. I photographed people who told me they voted for Obama. What I think my project does is that it shows how deep this relationship to guns really is. . . .
Warzel: You traveled to almost every state over the course of a year. Often, you met these people at gun stores, and they allowed you into their homes and you interviewed them at length. I imagine you established relationships with these people that might even continue to this day. What surprised you during your reporting and shooting of the project?
Galimberti: First, there were some positive surprises. I was imagining only meeting a certain type of person—super-fanatic right-wing people. And so the good surprise was to meet nice people who invited me to dinner and on walks and for ice cream. It was surprising to learn that owning a gun does not mean you’re unstable and bad. Coming from Italy, we receive only bad news about guns. Nothing we see about guns is good. I’m not saying that there are good things about guns, by the way. But it was a surprise to see families that seemed so normal, living in normal neighborhoods.
The bad surprise for me was seeing how easy it was to find guns everywhere in the house. Most people said, “Oh, my guns are always locked in the safe.” But I didn’t always see that, to be honest. Quite a lot of times, guns were stored everywhere, and sometimes they were loaded and ready to shoot.
I am . . . not certain I would agree with Galimberti that someone who collects several hundred firearms is “normal.”
Believe me, I understand the collector’s impulse, whether you’re talking about stamps, coins, comic books, cars. Everyone has a hobby.
What’s not normal is when a hobby or a collection becomes the central fact of your identity and the lens through which you view society, politics, and the world around you. Example: Jay Leno is really into collecting cars. Way more than most collectors are into their hobbies. Cars are Leno’s thing. But his thing is not the central fact of his identity. Jay Leno is an entertainer who collects cars; not a car collector who tells jokes.
When your thing turns into the central fact of your life, it’s no longer and interest or a hobby. It’s a fetish.
And fetishes are neither normal nor healthy. They warp your perceptions. They are toxic.
2. The Ankler
Richard Rushfield covers Hollywood, not public policy, but he stepped out this week to note that part of our gun problem is a culture problem. And the people who make the entertainment culture aren’t helping. I’m going to give you a long excerpt, because it’s so powerful:
The great thing about having a villain like the NRA is the immensity of their obstructionist evil sucks all the air out of the debate that might go towards other angles in this problem. The necessity of getting around the NRA barrier leaves one feeling like bringing up anything else is a distraction from the fight against the NRA . . .
There's truth to that but, we can't live that way.
The problem of people shooting up schools in this country, on a regular basis, is too horrific, raises too many questions, to not look at some other factors.
Starting of course with our national fetishistic gun culture, which clearly plays some outsized role in this horrific phenomenon.
But that brings us to the question: who is in charge of culture in this country? Who has influence over it? Culture isn't something that we have to defeat the NRA to deal with. We don't have to overturn the filibuster, or appoint extra justices to the court to change the culture.
In fact, now that you mention it, there's a bunch of companies right here in Los Angeles, California that have a toe in the culture business. “Studios” they call them. . . .
But take a step back and eyeball the culture for a sec. Where is the biggest, highest production values celebration of gun culture on Earth happening? It's not at an NRA rally; its right on your screen, put there by your good progressive friends in Hollywood. Who can’t wait to tell you in the next breath how appalled they are by the gun culture and how Something. Must. Be. Done.
I recognize that many to most of our shoot ’em up actioners have moral compasses in place, more or less — senseless violence is depicted as evil, that the images above are mostly of the good guys trying to stop that senseless violence. Or the portrayal is satirical; or fantastical. Or whatever you want to call it.
I love the John Wick movies. I think they are great, powerful pieces of creativity. I think they work as fantasy release valves rather than conduits to violence.
Mostly. Mostly they do.
But I also have to think about how my 10-year-old is inundated by violent images, constantly, even with parental controls on everything, even with never having been to an R-rated movie, he's probably seen a few million people shot to death on his various screens. And he hasn't even gotten to first-person shooter gaming.
To put it another way — 50 years ago, young people weren't fed these images around the clock and 50 years ago young people didn't go shoot up churches. I don't think the one directly caused the other — but I don't think it's totally irrelevant either . . .
Again, to knock down some more straw men, I'm not attacking these movies individually. But we've got a case of competing goods here. On the one side, there is the good of creative freedom and artistic expression using graphic and violent images — and I completely admit that is a good that I haven't just supported but enjoyed in its various incarnations.
But on the other side of that is the good of — not having schoolhouses and other peaceful gathering places shot to hell and dozens killed in our society every goddamn week. . . .
I'm not going to argue whether American society is “sick” or not, but I think we can all agree, whatever the general diagnosis is, there's a strand of sickness running amok now and affecting a handful of young men in catastrophic ways that is inflicting horror on our world. . . .
And the good thing about it is, on those rare occasions when Hollywood has made an issue a priority, it can move mountains; it can change the culture in ways that seem unthinkable. And instead of waiting for public policy to give us a new country, Hollywood can create a new consciousness that public policy will fall in line behind. We've done it.
Smoking was the national pastime, a symbol of cool on-screen and off, and the power of Big Tobacco was untouchable when Hollywood first made an attempt to remove cigarettes from the film and TV in the ’80s. Thirty some years later, the percent of Americans who smoke has fallen by two-thirds, with a mere 8 percent of youth smoking cigarettes today compared to 36 percent in 1995.
The general acceptance of marijuana owes, probably everything to the substance's persistent appearance in the hands of screen stars from the 1990s onward.
There has probably been no issue on which public opinion has turned harder and faster than gay marriage, which as recently as the beginning of the Obama administration was an issue that very few even progressive politicians dared touch, to less than two decades later it stands as the law of the land, in most quarters with little controversy. The change owes everything to Hollywood's persistent normalizing of gay characters and stars.
So on guns, there is nothing we can do?
Here's a crazy notion: how about just for say five years as a trial period, we say we're not going to make any films in which the protagonists brandish firearms. How about we try that and see what happens?
It's not even necessarily that hard. Marvel is pretty much there from the start. A movie like Jurassic World... it wouldn't be that hard to clear the bar.
I mean, we've got a lot of creative minds around here. If we put our heads together and focused really hard, there have to be some ways to entertain the masses besides people shooting each other with guns. If you want to make action films... how about karate fights? Aliens with laser vision? Marauding dinosaurs? Sword fights? Motorcycle races? Hitting each other with big sticks if it comes to that.
And as for the question of — if we don't sell gun violence someone else will and you'll lose the business... That's a problem why? This being an emergency with children dying and all.
I know, crazy talk. And yes, it won't change everything all by itself. But isn’t this a nice moment for Hollywood to start thinking of itself not just as the platform, the firehose as our would-be Silicon Valley overlords would have it, but creators of culture and dreams; and acting with the sense of responsibility, the sense of purpose, that that mission implies?
Or we could just pound on the table and feel good about ourselves by pointing fingers at others.
3. Range Widely
Passion is infectious. So even if you’re not into running, this conversation between running super-fans David Epstein and Malcolm Gladwell will get your heart going:
David Epstein: My favorite all time runner, though, is also the one I call the GOAT: Haile Gebrselassie. When I was a kid I wanted to be either an astronaut, baseball player, or Carl Lewis. I played football, basketball, baseball in high school, and only got into track late. And, of course, I thought I was a sprinter, but ended up running the 800 in college. I don’t think I even knew that was an event before I started running it. So just as I was getting interested in middle distance and distance running, Haile was shattering records, and I was hooked. He set 27 world records! From 2K up to the marathon.
But beyond that, he was racing in a way I’d never seen before. He’d break into a full sprint at the end of a fast race. I remember when he set the 5,000-meters world record, he ran the last lap at like 3:45-mile pace. That just opened my mind to what people can do.
I also liked that I’d see him on a starting line, smaller than everyone, and the only one with an ear-to-ear grin. I recall an American runner commenting on that, saying something like: “Yeah, I’d be smiling too if I knew I was about to kick everyone’s ass.” . . .
What is your favorite running memory?
Malcolm Gladwell: There are many. But it would have to be one time when I went for a run, somewhere unknown, and it turned out to be magical. This has happened to me many times. But most recently I was in Porto, Portugal, for a conference, in a big hotel on a drab commercial strip. I went for a run down a busy highway, thinking this was better than nothing… and stumbled on this weird, beautiful, ancient park with soft running trails that ran for miles, with big pine trees and crumbling stone walls and rolling hills and the smell of damp moss in the air. Magical.
DE: That’s primal and beautiful, love it. Meb Keflezighi—the other Boston winner who made you cry—once told me that beyond competition, running is just a great way to experience the outdoors. I totally agree.
Nonetheless, my favorite running memory is indoors. It was running a leg of the 4x800-meter relay that set our university record, and it was on the anniversary of the death of my grandmother—my dad’s mom—who I never met. My dad flew out to Boston at the last minute to see it. It was personally meaningful in a lot of ways: doing something cool with friends; going from walk-on to record-setter; and on a meaningful day.
What were your thoughts after the first time we ran together, back in 2014?
MG: The first time we ran together I killed you. The next 20 times we ran together you killed me. My thought after that first time turned out to be accurate: this will never happen again.
DE: Haha. I’m not sure that’s totally true. But you “killed me” is an understatement. I tried to jog home and my knees were buckling, so I had to sit down on the curb for a while. Nothing like sitting on the curb in Brooklyn, telling passersby that you’re ok, to motivate one to get in shape. But more importantly, when we were running together, you entered a Merlene Ottey phase and ran 4:54 in the mile in your fifties.
What lesson have you learned from running that transfers to the rest of your life?
MG: Training is all about faith and patience: you go for a run one day and the next—and over and over and over again for weeks and months—in the hopes that one day you will be able to race as fast as you could possibly race. And—more often than not—that’s exactly what happens! I think we all need reminders that if you persist at something difficult, something of value will result. Running does that for me.
DE: For me, I think it’s the idea of setting short-term, actionable goals. For years I set time goals. But those didn’t really help me, at least in the 800. The race is done, and you look at the clock, and you either got it or didn’t. If you didn’t, you’re sad. If you did, you’re happy. So what? It didn’t help me get better. Eventually, I ditched that, and made actionable goals for experiments. “Move with 350 meters to go this time,” or “Run the first lap under 54.”
MG: I love how casually you drop the “run the first lap in under 54 seconds” bit, as if that is something the rest of us can easily duplicate.
DE: Dude, didn’t you run a 4:05 1500 (equivalent to a mid-4:20s mile) when you were 14?? A quick Google says you did, despite the wind resistance from your hair. Obviously there were many years where you could’ve run the first lap of an 800 under 54. But anyway, I try to take that same goal-setting approach with other projects. Set actionable, short-term goals and experiments, not just an end goal.
And take that last part—about having actionable, short-term goals and experiments—to heart.
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