Baby wants a gun – what does your son want this year? – words Brian Edge
The passage is calm, the skies are clear; it’s still a full month before I have to drop anchor in Birthday Cake Bay. Conditions are otherwise fine. Taking a deep breath I decide to call ahead.
”Oh, hi Dad. ”
“So, what do you want for a present this year then?”
“An air rifle,” says my youngest son.
“Oh.” Meaning, “oh crap, how on earth do I get out of this one?”
Immediately, it sets a red light flashing. It is yet to go out.
It’s not that I haven’t heard this request before, it’s just that it has remained unspoken for several years. Like smallpox or macramé, I thought it had gone away for good. Hence his wish now falls with a resounding thud right into the middle of my day. Alec, dear sweet Alec, has pitched me headfirst into the worst kind of parental briar patch: one with a moral dimension. Thanks a bundle. By comparison ordinary dilemmas are almost benign, even expected in a rites-of-passage kind of way, milestones we’ve all clattered into with scarcely a graze to the shins – ”Can I get my nose pierced?” “Can I go to the Festival on my own?” – that sort of thing. And although the plea for an air rifle is less troubling than, say, “Can I have a motorbike?” or “How about some wingsuit lessons?” I would have far rather heard an apathetic craving for a smart speaker or a sat nav or some other piece of must-have millennial technology instead of a, uh, weapon.
To put it in perspective, when he blows out his candles this time around my son will be nearer 30 than 15. He could perfectly easily nip out by himself, buy one and not embroil me in validating any gun nut latencies he might be concealing. Saying yes I can rationalise pretty quickly: Alec is essentially harmless. When one of the cats died and had to be buried in the back garden, Alec was the one who made Otto comfortable in his box with his favourite blanket. And when asked in Year 6 if he wanted to transition to the local all boys school, he didn’t have to think twice:
“Nah. Without girls around, boys can be complete arseholes.”
But I also carry the knowledge that his great great uncle David died in France in World War I at the Battle of Arras, a single bullet ending his life at the age of just 19. He was one of the 888,000 Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red ceramic poppies planted in the Tower of London’s moat.
It’s at times like this that life is plain blunt about being a bloodsport, its thin layer of Laura Ashley peeling away all too easily. So for me, the quandary ricochets between the rocks and the hard places, and won’t stop rebounding. I want to duck the issue but I can’t. I guess I really want to say no, but nobody loves a killjoy. So what should I do?
Saying no to guns when he and his brother, Joe, were little was easy. In those days I still had authority. And as we didn’t live on a farm – therefore had no vermin to control (neither, thankfully, did any of their friends) – the subject remained closed. So in order to make war with one another they had to make do with whatever came readily to hand.
When is a stick not a stick?
The concept of repurposing was still decades away from being a thing, but boys being boys, my little darlings would invariably find a loophole. They didn’t really need to be paragons of resourcefulness. Irrespective of its shape or size, a stick quickly evolved from quarterstaff to sabre to M-16, no matter the amount of imploring from either me or their mother.
“Why don’t you pretend you’re fishing for giant squid?”
Bemused looks would pass across their faces before the red-knuckled duelling recommenced. Sigh. The caveat “it’ll end in tears” always went ignored. The tears, when inevitably they appeared, couldn’t be. That’s not how the parental covenant works.
Apart from the jaw-droppingly awesome Johnny Seven gun – complete with spring-loaded grenade launcher and side-slung plastic missile – kindly popped down our chimney by a red-suited, white-bearded arms dealer one Christmas (was I meant to assassinate Enoch Powell or Yoko Ono?), my childhood armoury of cap guns was pretty average. Not that anything remotely similar can be purchased these days, on account of their undeniably lifelike appearance. Nevertheless, my total refusal to weaponize my own offspring didn’t for one minute strike me as hypocritical. There was an overarching desire to be good, progressive parent. Simple as that.
At this point my children were about as dangerous as the crazy-faced boy in Diane Arbus’ monochrome classic Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, though to my mind they had long since wriggled free of their widely-held characterisation of sweet. This was brought home to me on a family walk one afternoon whilst crossing a field above Box Tunnel, the inspiration for Reverend W Awdry’s Thomas The Tank Engine and Friends, and whose house was barely a hundred yards down the hill. It was also the chief underground railway access point for the Government’s vast (and at that time still classified) 35-acre Cold War command bunker, codenamed Burlington.
Joe (8) had spied a rabbit by the fence. A swift, silent hand gesture to his brother propelled Alec (6) into a flanking position, running to the left half-crouched in a wide arc. I stood there utterly transfixed. Not a word had passed between them. They just knew what to do. It was pure instinct. The pair of them were Natural Born Hunter-Killers. I felt so proud. If the balloon ever went up I knew I’d be able to rely on these two hardwired predators bringing home a decent supply squirrels and pigeons. I didn’t doubt it for a minute, even though on this occasion their prey made good its escape.
Their guile ratchetted up several notches in their early teens. Whilst on holiday in Croatia mes enfants terribles became fledgling gun runners. This was several years after the cessation of hostilities between the putative Greater Serbia and our hosts, but the atmosphere wasn’t always that relaxed. The men especially seemed to be permanently on their guard. Impressed as Alec and Joe were by towering Tito-era hotels sporting massive shell holes, they had other things on their minds. Buoyed by the success of having previously smuggled French bangers back from the Continent in the boot of their grandparents’ car, they coolly sloped off into town, bought, boxed and mailed a pair of replica BB guns back to themselves in dear old Blighty. All this whilst their parents terribles watched the sun go down atop the old city walls.
Back home these authentic-looking ‘toys’ were tested to destruction. At the time, all their friends had them, along with Super Soakers – basically water pistols on steroids. Take a stroll through the nearby woods and you wouldn’t have to look too hard to find hard yellow plastic BB pellets among the leaves. Model recruits for the Woodcraft Folk they were not. For an uneasy period Shooting At Each Other At Close Range For Fun With No Eye Protection Whatsoever became the preferred birthday party activity. In time, all this hardware was surrendered under a general parental amnesty, neatly coinciding with the advent of shoot ‘em up computer games. Which isn’t physically dangerous. It’s just entertainment. Isn’t it?
I might have marvelled at their low cunning but I was more than staggered that their package hadn’t been intercepted by The Powers That Be. Maybe we weren’t safe in our beds after all. Or maybe we were? Maybe real life resembled an entire season of Postman Pat far more closely than it did an episode of Spooks. Live without Netflix melodrama and Sky News for a fortnight and that rolling boil of fear and anxiety we seem to live with nowadays quickly evaporates.
As any parent knows, children are a weakness. We indulge them wholesale, so we only have ourselves to blame as their shine tarnishes. Just as a trip to the Natural History Museum or Tate Modern comes under the virtuous umbrella of A Family Day Out, so does taking them to Fairford Air Show. So we believed. Once the picnic-laden crocodile had shuffled past the event marshals on the gate it was presented with its first magnificent exhibit: a matt black Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk – a Stealth Bomber to you and me. Not only was this menacing beast cordoned off by high vis tape, it stood protected by intimidating armed police. To press home the point, USE OF DEADLY FORCE AUTHORIZED warning notices were positioned every few metres. Granted their smiles and short-sleeved shirts spoiled the effect slightly, but this was no idle threat. It goes without saying that Alec immediately ran up as close as the flimsy barrier would allow. Standing within touching distance of one of them, he said in a loud but complimentary voice: “Nice gun!”
Subtle as mouthwash that boy.
“Is it a Heckler & Koch?”
Where did he learn this stuff? Marginally less of an indulgence was the cinematic game dreamt up to replace I Spy. Even in more recent years whenever they got tetchy waiting for holiday flights or sluggish table service, playing Give Me Ten – as in give me ten Jason Statham films [or similar] – always managed to lance the boredom.
“Ok. Give me ten films with a one word title.”
“Oh, come on. Transformers is crap.”
“You didn’t say they had to be any good.”
Girls like sunbathing, boys like lists. And drinking lager of any nationality. Which also feeds into their competitive streak.
“Okay then. Name three films in which Bruce Willis doesn’t use a gun.”
“The Sixth Sense!”
“Yes – and…?”
Maybe Clint Eastwood would have made for an easier question.
To say that guns are a cinematic icon is a .44 Magnum of a cliché. Whether it’s the parochial, almost gun-as-farm-implement shotgun – as sported provocatively by a naked Michael Caine in Get Carter – a romantic wild west Winchester, or 007’s Walther PPK, these sexy props endow our heroes with instant power.
As Australian writer Tim Winton says in his autobiography The Boy Behind The Curtain, “There is no shape or image in modern culture to match that of the gun…. In our time the image of the cross has lost its potency, the national flag is debased and divisive. No, the gun is the supreme image. Only the dollar sign can rival it for the visceral response it produces, the power it radiates.”
This omnipotence is taken to levels of parody in The Matrix, and as for sniper movies they are little more than superhero-with-special-powers tales. Thrill to the spectacle of them meting out righteous, natural, surgical justice! Though they always seem to find themselves hobbled at some point by their own brand of kryptonite, typically an inflated sense of honour. Sorry, honor.
The other Carter – John Charles Carter a.k.a. Charlton Heston – was President of America’s NRA (National Rifle Association) when he gave his infamous from my cold, dead hands speech. Shame he was in deadly earnest; shame he wasn’t actually satirising Edgar the Bug in Men In Black.
For myself, I far prefer the light relief of a young Albert Finney as the insolent Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, shooting the ample behind of a vexatious neighbour with an air rifle. So too the SWANT (Special Weapons And No Tactics) cartoon strip in Viz.
There again, I was brought up in the UK.
Back in the early Eighties I shared a house with a few students, one of whom would calm himself down chain-smoking cigarettes. He would pacify himself yet further by constructing Airfix kits. Pride of place was a startlingly realistic 1:1 scale model (i.e. life-size) AK-47, the omnipresent Russian sub-machine gun complete with banana clip, or as Mexican drugs gangs call it, goat’s horn magazine. (For the curious, AK stands for Avtomat Kalashnikova.) I’ve checked on the world wide web: you cannot buy these models any more, other than in heavyweight paper. These have to be assembled a la score-and-fold-and-buckle-almost-immediately Lunar Excursion Module models printed on the reverse of 1970s Shredded Wheat boxes, (yes, even breakfast cereals were once caught up in the short-lived optimism of the Space Race). There are, however, die-cast metal 1:6 scale versions of this nearly seventy-year-old weapon available, complete with fitted bayonet. They are about nine inches long and entirely suitable as a novelty pickle fork.
Unless you grow up with cattle or dogs they remain unaccustomed, dangerous entities. Guns are no different. Like scores of millions of people in this country, I do not know the anatomy of a gun; I am unfamiliar with the argot of the gun user. I have yet to be invited to shoot at a clay pigeon, and as I wasn’t in the Air Cadets at school – it being a platoon of the decidedly odd – I have never fired a bona fide gun in my life. My own teenage experience of air rifles or woefully useless gat guns was so limited it had never even been documented on camera, with me striking some kind of sub-Malcolm McDowell If… pose. A shoebox of old family photos even has one of Joe and Alec’s mum taking aim in some cousin’s garden way back when: thereby she grabs all the kudos.
But this isn’t to say the opportunity has never presented itself. When by chance my then fiancée and I landed a dream job house-sitting in a very well-to-do north London suburb, the owner made it clear that security was priority No 1. Our tour of instruction finished in the master bedroom, where he handed me a shotgun. Unloaded, of course.
“Know how to use one of these?”
Ulp. “Yeah,” I lied. It felt heavy, serious.
“Ok. If the alarm goes off, stick a chair under the door handle. If you see it turn, blast the bastard through the door. Don’t worry, we’ll sort out a lawyer. Cartridges are in here…”
Removing the lid from a small wicker container on the bedside table, he rummaged through his wife’s tampons and fished out a shell. It had a brass end and a crimped orange casing. He shook it and grinned. Sorted.
Sure enough, one night the alarm went off and, in a sad reprise of Michael Caine’s role, I very nervously loaded the gun. Plop, plop. My heartbeat raced. It seemed to be saying, “What if? What if? What if? What if…?” To cut a long story short, the door handle never moved…
Far from making me feel invincible I’d felt completely vulnerable. What sprang immediately to mind was The Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson’s Bummer of a Birthmark, Hal, where one deer commiserates with another on the large target-shaped mark on its chest. Truth be told, I’d felt less exposed when, later the same year, I found myself at the pointy end of a gun, a .303 Lee-Enfield rifle to be precise. This came about as a result of the little red Swiss Army penknife in my trouser pocket setting off an alarm at Leh Airport in Kashmir, whereupon I was escorted at gunpoint out onto the runway to ensure I stowed it safely in my rucksack. Like the relic steam trains which had taken Commonwealth troops to the Burmese border to fight against the Japanese Imperial Army, the Lee-Enfields issued to the Indian Army were still very much in use in the 1980s. Anyway, the incident struck me as comical. I didn’t feel threatened at all, unlike a few years before when first going behind the Iron Curtain into Hungary. As a customs officer checked the passports of everyone in our sticky six-seater compartment, a stern faced soldier the same age as me blocked the doorway at attention, a scary sub-machine gun pressed to his body. This was such a shock, such an affront to liberty, to be hemmed in and threatened like this, like a fish in a barrel. A similar feeling came over me a few days later when I encountered armed guards outside a bank in Thessalonika when needing to cash a Travellers’ Cheque. Such were the perils of Inter-Railing.
Nowadays we are accustomed to seeing armed police officers at our airports and occasionally at metropolitan railway stations. They have appeared like poisonous fungi as our culture slowly decays from within. Likewise we step around them.
Inevitably, in a docile nation like Great Britain, bad things happen. Appalling things. The massacres at Hungerford and Dunblane are the most obvious, the most painful. Mass shootings have occurred in continental Europe too: a school shooting in Winnenden, Germany, left 16 dead, at Jokela and Kauhajoki in Finland it was eight and ten; though not at a school this time, 14 were killed in Zug in Switzerland, and in Puerto Hurraco, Spain, nine. In the States these occurrences are supernumerary, disfiguring the nation. Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas and, earlier this year, a modern St Valentine’s Day Massacre, in Parkland, Florida. These are just the ones which stay in the headlines, in our collective conscious, so unbelievably shocking is the intention and the result on each and every occasion.
None of the above is related to terrorism, that is to say they are without either a political or ideological dimension. Neither are they of the family-related murder-suicide ilk. They’re just slaughter. There is no need to reiterate a single detail. It feels distasteful to even document it.
In the wake of Hungerford, the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 prohibited ownership of all semi-automatic weapons in the UK which, as far as the average British person was concerned, only belonged in the hands of the military in the first place. Then following Dunblane the Blair Government acted equally swiftly to ban all handguns as well.
The Firearms (Amendment) Acts 1997 were far reaching. As a consequence of these new laws a work colleague and Territorial Army reservist was soon queueing alongside 57,000 others to surrender around 162,000 handguns and 700 tons of ammunition. He fully understood the reason for the legislation, but commented somewhat forlornly that apart from the actual business of shooting at targets, gun club members would otherwise just sit and chat in a blokish way about their beloved pistols much the same manner as if they were discussing lawnmowers or power tools. There was no craziness.
Society has moved on. Candy cigarettes are no longer on sale at the newsagent, the Golden Shred Golly has gone on gardening leave, and Omo washing powder was last aired as a double entendre in My Beautiful Laundrette over thirty years ago. Time then to bring in the Internet, and the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006. This piece of legislation set about regulating the sale of imitation firearms (for obvious reasons) and explosives detonators (I should hope so!) It also curtailed mail order and online purchases of new air guns. Although it still permitted them to be ordered over the internet, the transaction now had to be concluded face to face via a registered firearms dealer. All very dry and prescriptive but I guess this is how it ought to be. Knowing what the boundaries are – isn’t that what they say?
Next came the wide-ranging Crime & Security Act 2010, encompassing everything ugly in modern British society from ASBOs and domestic violence, to the private security industry and gang-related violence. It also included amendments regarding ownership and use of air guns by under 18s, surely a nod to the escalating problems with gangs. Accordingly, using an air gun as if it were a ‘real’ gun now found the alleged perp subject to the Firearms Act 1968, e.g. robbery or threatening behaviour with such a weapon, either loaded or unloaded, henceforth carried the same penalties as with, say, a black market Gulf War trophy: a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for the first offence, seven for subsequent offences, with a maximum of life imprisonment. Severe.
Rowing back a touch, air gun legislation in England and Wales focusses mainly on a gun’s power (still measured arcanely in ft/lbs), and hoary old issues involving armed trespass, where the rules are very similar to metal detecting inasmuch as they orbit around illegal usage on private land, i.e. get the permission of the landowner first. The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), an oxymoronically named organisation sure to have all the Guardian-reading Townies clattering at their keyboards, has helpful guidelines on the subject, particularly on under age use.
North of the border even stricter edicts have been passed. Plinking – taking pot-shots at tin cans – has required a certificate since January, pretty much bracketing it with discharging a shotgun. The Scottish Police Authority must be revelling in all the extra paperwork.
Paintball guns do not fall under any of these directives as they are deemed unlikely to cause serious injury. Those who have taken a fluorescent round to the buttocks whilst on a team-building exercise in the depths of a conifer plantation may take issue with the lawmakers on this one.
If an Englishman’s home is his tidily bordered castle, then an American’s is his heavily defended fortress. Front Toward Enemy, as it says on a Claymore anti-personnel mine. Hence it will surprise no one and their highly obedient gun dog that America tops the gun ownership league, clocking in at 113 per 100 citizens. These figures are from 2007 when the world average was 10 per 100. The UK? A timid 7. Hugh Grant exemplified our own panicky unfamiliarity with guns by tucking one into his waistband in Mickey Blue Eyes only to have it drop oo-er down his trouser leg onto the floor.
In contrast to the United States, gun control in Great Britain has had a fine, albeit less libertarian, history. In 1594 Good Queen Bess, fearing assassination by Roman Catholics, outlawed possession of wheel-lock pistols [a single-shot pre-flintlock device as waved around by Robert Carlyle in Plunkett & MacLeane] in or around any Royal Palace. To avoid being murdered by similar partisan hands, William of Orange actually restored gun ownership to Protestants in the 1689 Bill of Rights, on the grounds that Catholic King James II had, “by the Assistance of divers evil Counsellors, Judges, and Ministers employed by Him, did endeavour to subvert and extirpate the Protestant Religion…”
The ink on the 1707 Act of Union was barely dry when, in order to emasculate troublesome Jacobites, Parliament passed the Disarming Act. No mere piece of parchment, it included a period of active confiscation right across Scotland. A hundred years went by before the Vagrancy Act 1824 sought to further limit gun ownership, the nation now being roamed by a frightfully large contingent of [poor] persons equipped with firearms brought back from the Napoleonic wars.
From there things became even more political. To the great benefit of the nation’s landowners the Game Act 1831 was written into the Statute Books, followed by the Poaching Prevention Act 1862, which which made it an offence to shoot game illegally using a firearm. Just eight years later the Gun Licence Act was created to raise revenue! At ten shillings a time this was roughly a week’s wage for a farm labourer (in mid-Victorian Britain wages in London were generally less than elsewhere), so it was clear where Liberal Gladstone had set his sights.
The Firearms Act 1920 sought to do what the Vagrancy Act had done a century earlier, this time in response to returnees from WW1 with their Webley service revolvers. Tellingly, an Act of the same name was passed just before the outbreak of WW2 on the grounds that, as the Conservative Home Secretary of the day proclaimed, “firearms cannot be regarded as a suitable means of protection and may be a source of danger.” This then was the first official acknowledgement that when it came to gun ownership, self-defence wasn’t an argument that really held water.
So, the upshot of four hundred years of law making in the United Kingdom has meant that, for the most part, we have been weaned off guns, that they have become a cultural sideshow. Except for bagging a brace of pheasants or marvelling at the Judge Dredd precision of Olympic skeet shooters on sports highlights programmes for about two minutes once every four years, the normal place for your average Brit to lay eyes on a gun is during a disputatious scene in Peaky Blinders.
In the UK we simply didn’t grow up with anything as constitutionally totemic as the Second Amendment. It declares the right of the people to keep and bear arms (or the right to arm bears, depending on your viewpoint) shall not be infringed. Instead we had the grief of relegation to the Second Division of one’s favourite football team, the demise of the Second Post, the anxious confidence of a second marriage, a second class degree becoming insufficient to fulfil one’s expectations in life…
The US Right to Bear Arms has its origins in 12th Century English common law when, in Old English, bear meant wear, as well as possess in the service of the King and defence of the Realm. Since being enshrined in the American Constitution over two hundred years ago the Second Amendment has gone materially unchanged, despite the US Supreme Court habitually wrestling with it, much in the way Medieval Bishops would argue about the number of angels to be found on the head of a pin. Even background checks for any individual buying a gun is struck out. And so the strophe and antistrophe of gun rights and gun control rages on. We might wryly enjoy the clause about safeguarding against tyrannical government and appreciate that for many Americans the gun is emblematic of freedom, but with some States actually observing 2nd Amendment Day, we should expect no clarification soon.
Incredibly, the body count doesn’t seem to enter the reckoning at all. One final volley of statistics: gun death rates per 100,000 in more than half a dozen Central American countries are higher than in the United States, but these are excused by perceived lawlessness. Nonetheless US annual gun murders top 8,000, with the total number of gun deaths routinely exceeding 30,000 when suicides and accidents (the stories of toddlers shooting mom are not apocryphal) are added in. In the UK it’s 90. As for Japan, it’s 2. As a New York Times article following the San Bernadino killings pointed out, an American is more likely to be hit by lightning (1 in 10 million chance) than get shot in Japan.
What other country could possibly be the birthplace of that patriotic standard Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition? Where else in the world could the National Rifle Association be defined as a civil rights organisation? (Remarkably the NRA is not the most pro-gun group in the land.) Can you imagine if we had an active, grass roots pro-knife lobby?
The US population seems strangely mollified by the thoughts-and-prayers platitudes which shadow each mass shooting, although after the Las Vegas massacre authorities did say publicly, and very pointedly, that whilst the thoughts and prayers are appreciated, the most effective way to help was to give blood. Childish Gambino’s This Is America video better articulates the state of his assault rifle-addled nation than any pious gun control advocacy or even Barack Obama’s tears of sorrow and frustration whilst President, obliged to take to the lectern after yet another bloody event. Today, young people take to the streets as much in protest as in memory. Perhaps the mood is finally changing.
Last year, the London-based charity Action on Armed Violence estimated there are 875 million firearms in the world, three-quarters of which are in civilian hands. That translates as roughly one for every ten people across the entire planet. It’s hard to then get a sense of proportion after that.
The world is seriously screwed up about firearms, particularly when some sources tease the above estimate up to an uncool two billion. Society’s approach epitomises what George Orwell termed doublethink – the ability to hold two contradictory opinions at the same time without apparently noticing any contradiction. Guns are dangerous; guns keep us safe. We just have to live with it.
My decision? Quite likely a reluctant and only partially trusting yes. Please don’t be cross with me. After all, are Alec and I not like the father and son protagonists in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road?
Are we not the good guys?