In approximately 90 days, walk into any bar in the US state of Ohio. If there aren’t any signs stating otherwise, feel free to carry your concealed weapon in that watering hole. But don’t order a round. You can’t legally drink if you are packing heat.
“It scares the crap out of me because what if there is a bar fight?” bartender Jill Morrissey recently told Ohio paper The Oxford Press. “It’s going to end badly.” Ohio is not unique. This latest law brings it in line with 43 states that permit concealed carry in establishments that serve booze.
American popular culture has a gun fetish. Look at our video games. Look at our movies. Look at our television. Look at our music videos. But guns don’t just exist in video games or movies. In America, guns are very real, yet completely abstract. Their intrinsic meaning – the ability to protect, the ability to kill – are a birthright.
Guns had been a thing that every American kid experiences in some way. But many kids today don’t grow up shooting each other with plastic guns like they did a generation or two ago. Compared to cartoons of the 1980s, which were pretty much wall-to-wall guns (and awesome bears that could shoot beams out of their stomachs); not so today. Toy guns are a rite of passage – were, rather.
These days, it can actually be controversial for an American parent to let their kid play with a toy gun. This feeds the fetish of guns as this exotic element of US culture. “I let my boys play with toy guns and swords,” noted attorney and columnist Jonathan Turley wrote in USA Today earlier this year. “With many parents and schools enforcing a zero-tolerance policies toward toy guns, such toys are producing an increasing divide on playgrounds and play dates.” To illustrate the zero-tolerance polices, Turley referred to a seven-year-old Tulsa boy who was disciplined for pointing his finger like a gun and a second grader who was suspended after drawing a stick figure squirt gun. These zero-tolerance episodes are hardly pro-gun, but they are so hyper sensitive that they actually end up fetishising guns in a bizarre way. Everything about guns becomes taboo, including gestures and drawings.
Pure gun fetishism in its truest sense is aimed at adults, the majority of whom grew up in an age with it was totally cool to have a toy gun, when it was a rite of passage. There are calendars featuring women in bikinis posing with guns, video after video of topless women firing assault rifles, and there are even websites directly catering to this fetish. That’s the vanilla stuff with the more extreme end of the spectrum occupied by fledgling porn stars like Foxy Jacky masturbating with a revolver, creating a deadly, if not shocking, phallus.
This week as the country celebrates its Independence from Britain, one of the driving forces that made it possible for America to do was was, well, guns. It wasn’t guns themselves. In the years and decades following the Revolution, it was America’s innovations in designing and manufacturing guns – its gun tech, if you will.
During the 19th, Americans made weapon innovation after innovation, either pioneering new advances or perfecting them. In 1835, Christian Sharps developed the first successful breech-loading rifle, which changed the Civil War and became the preferred weapon of buffalo hunters. That same decade, Samuel Colt developed the first practical revolver, made from interchangeable parts. The Winchester rifles used metallic cartridges and could be fired repeatedly. The Deringer, created by Henry Deringer, was a marvel of compact mechanical engineering.
But by the 1980s, American gun innovations were lagging. The country was being surpassed by Europeans. The Austrian-made Glock pistol became the late 20th century’s answer to the Colt. “I believe the reason is that accountants, not engineers, run American gun manufacturers,” blogged Cameron Hopkins at American Rifleman. “As a mature industry, gun companies can’t count on millions of new customers like mobile phone manufacturers.”
Not all Americans own guns. Not all Americans like guns, for reasons that range from personal to philosophical. There are well over 200 million privately owned guns in the US, according to various reports. For me, guns were a part of growing up in Texas, ingrained in the culture, whether that be rifles, handguns or semi-automatic assault weapons. I have no desire to own one. But I understand their place in American culture and the national psyche. For many, so much of being an American resides in the right to owning a gun. In America, the gun, like the katana in Japan, is a physical manifestation of both beauty and brutality.
Guns won the revolution. Guns won the West. Guns also assassinated four US presidents. Just a gun rights advocates have data to back up their claim that armed Americans make the country safer, gun control advocates have data that they make the country more dangerous.
Don’t assume all Americans think deeply about guns or own guns or even encounter them in their daily lives. Guns are both a given and a fantasy. In movies and video games, guns are rarely realistic. Their depiction is more what they represent – they’re symbols, icons. Even games like Modern Warfare 2 that fetishise real weapons allows players to do unrealistic things like fire shotguns akimbo. Other games, like Borderlands, have made-up weapons – in Borderlands‘ case, millions of them. Filmmakers and game developers know the difference between real weapons and phony in-game ones.
According to game developer John Romero, who’s responsible for popularising first-person-shooters with games like Doom and Quake, he’s afraid of guns. “If there’s a gun around, there is the possibility that someone’s going to get killed or shot,” Romero told Kotaku last year. “I just do not want to be around them. Those are real. The ones that are in games are fake. They’re fun.” That sense of fun is keeping that rite of passage alive – toy’s toy guns aren’t made of plastic, but digital polygons and pixels.
In the US, it’s so easy to buy and own guns. The country grapples with things like how to protect the Second Amendment, yet strengthen background checks, and deal with questions like whether mentally ill people have gun rights.
If you believe in gun control, does that make you unAmerican? The Constitution’s Second Amendment puts the right to bear arms up there with freedom of speech and freedom of religion, these are.
Yet, at the same time, weapons are being glamorised by the country’s pop culture, they are being used in crimes – and to stop them. In a country where the right to bear arms is intertwined with perceptions of freedom, these are unique and complex issues for America and her citizens. When is a gun not just a gun? When it’s in America.
What Is America’s Fetish This Week? is a regular, obsessive look at the trends and topics, from mainstream to niche, that catch America’s fancy. WIAFTW alternates bi-weekly with its sister column, What Is Japan’s Fetish This Week?
Top photo: Joe Raedle/Getty