How Not To Write About Gun Culture

Iain Overton’s book on gun culture completely misfires

Chris Lehmann

Marine patrolling the town of Al Nasr Wal Salam near Fallujah 28 March 2004. (Patrick Baz/ AFP/ Getty Images)

As easy as it is to caricature the sloganeering of NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre and the Bundy militia, the cult of the gun without doubt represents more than a fixation on the firearm as menacing status symbol or Tea Party fetish. The gun symbolizes an American imperative not to be messed with that all too easily gets conflated with the idea of American freedom, tout court.

Instead of penetrating the true heart of the gun culture, The Way of the Gun inadvertently serves as a brief against the brand of reportage that’s called, with just derision, “parachute journalism.”

That’s why you almost never hear Second Amendment fundamentalists discussing what their holy writ meant by well-regulated.” That language evokes an 18th-century social world where loaded firearms could not be stored in public, and militia captains regularly conducted inspections of ordnance. The right to bear arms was envisioned as something far more complicated than the frontier justice of a John Wayne or latter-day vigilantes like Bernhard Goetz or George Zimmerman. A far-seeing critique of gun culture would help explain how an ahistorical, mock-heroic and singularly destructive justification has spread from America’s uniquely bloodstained frontier to conquer the world. 

So readers might well turn to Iain Overton’s The Way of the Gun: A Bloody Journey Into the World of Firearms as a fresh entry into the well-flogged question of gun control. With a globe-trotting survey of the ruin wrought by guns, Overton, a former BBC documentarian and now an official with the London-based charity Action on Armed Violence, sets out to weave a complete tapestry of the impact of guns on our world.” 

Alas, however, The Way of the Gun is anything but that. Overton never manages to dig beneath the most superficial questions. Here he is, for example, recalling his hellish tour as a TV correspondent in Basra, Iraq, in April 2004, as the city was erupting into terrorist assaults on U.S.-led coalition forces:

When the gun’s impact is so extreme, nothing will properly describe or explain it … Looking back on those days, it feels futile for me to try to explain at all the role of the gun in the war — at least from those few grasped experiences. Just as witnessing a dozen wars would lead me to a dozen different conclusions … in each and every one

So, seeking clarity, he announces his intention to focus on a place where the gun’s role was more unequivocal … a place born from gunfire and existing by gunfire: the state of Israel.”

Yes, you read that right: The U.S. occupation of Iraq being too complicated for words, the grindingly oppressive Israeli occupation of the West Bank beckoned to Overton with the siren call of simple, gun-based living. Only once he’s on the ground there, he is appalled to learn — you guessed it — that guns in Palestine and Israel had only wrought the agonies of torment.” 

Readers trying to parse just what makes the agonies of torment” something more than the name of a bad death-metal band will also be forced, glumly, to conclude that The Way of the Gun is not just a shambolic travelogue masquerading as social analysis, but also a specimen of truly terrible writing. Overton has a TV personality’s weakness for sloppy diction, portentous cliché and breathless hyperbole. Poor kids acting as gang lookouts in El Salvador are called, for some reason, young, soul-stained boys.” America, from Atlantic to Pacific, is a broad and windswept land.”

Instead of penetrating the true heart of the gun culture, The Way of the Gun inadvertently serves as a brief against the brand of reportage that’s called, with just derision, parachute journalism.” Overton not only scampers from one traumatized foreign destination to the next with little evident sense of what he’s looking for; he also concocts aimless interviews — as when he pointlessly queries the porn star Stoya who plays a sniper in one of her films. Her response: Playing a sniper had nothing to do with me” and “[Guns] frighten me.”

All of which is a shame, since there’s a crying need for a book that goes beyond the rote sloganeering of the gun debate and delivers a compelling explanation of just how and why the overlapping worlds of politics, criminal justice, finance and entertainment remain so stubbornly enthralled to the violent fantasies of gun worship. The only real mystery plumbed by The Way of the Gun, by contrast, is why we entrust serious questions of cultural, political and policy debate to television professionals.

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Chris Lehmann, is editor-in-chief at The Baffler and a former managing editor of In These Times. He is the author of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).
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