When I was growing up, playing with (toy) guns was daily reality. I had a pair of six-shooters, a white hat, cowboy boots, and spurs that jingle, jangle, jingle. Later I got a Fanner 50, then a Rifleman rifle.
We usually shot imaginary bad guys. The TV shows we watched (Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp) didn’t involve shooting Indians. The bad guys were usually white settlers like us.
We didn’t usually shoot each other, as that involved too much argument/negotiation – “I got you!” “No, you missed!” “Did not!” “Well, you just winged me!” Then I’d have to pull out my red bandana, fold it into a sling, tie the knot with my teeth, and play one-handed for a while.
We had a backyard shack that served as a hideout, fort, or saloon to fit the scene we enacted. We were too young to realize that Miss Kitty was a madam and all those saloon girls were prostitutes, so they didn’t figure in our adventures.
When we went to the doctor and got a shot, we’d wear a sling and pretend we’d been shot in the arm. If it didn’t actually hurt (only tetanus shots hurt), we’d punch each other in the arm to make it hurt so it felt more real.
I also had an M1 with wooden stock, steel barrel, and rubber bayonet. The next door neighbor dug a foxhole in his garden so we could hide out to shoot Germans. We threw dirt clods as grenades. Our WW II education was mostly from the TV show “Combat!”, which took place in Europe, so we never fought the Japanese. I had a helmet and olive drab fatigues.
Most of my toy guns were cap guns for realistic noises. Since caps cost money, we usually made noises with our mouths instead. Caps were a special treat. The kids who could make the best shooting sounds were admired. My M1 replica had a metal strip in it so, when you pulled the trigger, it made a clicking sound like a dog training clicker. This meant no money need be spent on caps and we could save our mouth noises for exploding grenades. As for shooting real projectiles, I had a pump action gun that shot ping pong balls and a dart gun that shot ducks on a rotating tripod. While I inherited a couple of BB guns from older sibs, I hardly ever shot them. They tell me that dad set up a range in the dining room of our old house and they shot there. We moved out of that house when I was a year old and the new house didn’t have an acceptable shooting gallery. The back yard was forbidden for that.
When I became a conscientious objector and met with a draft counselor, he asked about my history with guns and if I’d thought about what I would do if I had children. We discussed how kids can make a gun out of anything, so forbidding toy guns may just drive gun play underground. He told me of a family that treated their house like a saloon in some of the old westerns, where you had to check your guns at the door. That way their kids, and all the neighborhood kids, would be a bit more conscious, but firearms could still be incorporated into their play. When the time came, my kids had little interest in playing with guns.
Real guns didn’t enter my life until later. My best childhood friend moved away. I went to visit him and we went outside with a BB gun – he and I and his neighbor. The neighbor shot a songbird. We saw it fall from the tree; all of us astonished that he’d hit it. As we bent over the dead bird with one missing eye (an amazing shot), I felt sad. The excitement of hitting something was replaced by the realization of the senselessness of it. We had killed without reason. I did not enjoy the rest of the visit.
When I was 18 I worked a job with overnight shifts. I was in the office with one other person. Just before quitting time, several things happened in close succession. I felt the heat of something passing closely over my forearm. I felt the sting of bits of plaster striking my arm from the wall just behind me. I heard a gunshot. I saw my co-worker, .32 caliber revolver in hand, with a shocked look on his face. I looked at the hole in the wall and realized he missed me by about an inch. I hadn’t known he was armed.
Later that same day we were hanging out at someone’s house, drowsy after our sleepless night. I was reading. I was roused by the sound of a gunshot. I looked up and saw an acquaintance with a neat little hole in his chest, just to the left of center. A shocked look was on his face, matched by the look on the face of the person facing him with a gun in her hand. She later told me she pointed it at me first but, since I didn’t look up, she turned and aimed at R as he came through the doorway. That got a better reaction.
R headed straight for the stairs and down to the street. I caught up with him and a voice from behind yelled, “Make him lie down and wait for the ambulance!” I soon heard sirens. When I asked where he was going, he said he knew where my car was parked, so he was walking to my car, figuring I would follow him there and drive him to the hospital.
After exploratory surgery and removal of the bullet, he returned to his parents’ home in another state to recuperate. He was recovering slowly, since they had cut open his ribs to trace the bullet’s path to check for damage. (It had grazed his aorta and punctured his lung in several places as it rattled around inside him, bouncing off ribs both front and rear.) I moved out of state and it was much later that I learned no one had been charged in the shooting. The shooter was a minor, as was the victim. The weapon owner was a paid informant for the police and FBI, so she was not charged. The person who had nearly shot me that morning was also a paid informant, so he was also not charged (having been the person who left a loaded weapon accessible to minors). It seems the lack of charges should have blown their covers, but I wasn’t around so I don’t know how they explained that. The upshot is that people being paid to keep track of potential violence on the left and in the anti-war movement (this being 1971) were actually responsible for the only violence that affected me personally.
A year or two later I was at the home of another acquaintance who wanted to show me something he had just gotten. It was a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol. I started to shake. He removed the magazine, inspected the weapon, then tried to hand it to me. I left instead.
Another year went by. I was at a friend’s house and we were in the backyard. Over the fence I saw folks in the next backyard. One was the former co-worker from above. He had a firearm in hand. I told my friend I was going inside and would explain when we got there. I did not want him to see and greet me, thinking I was his friend, nor did I want to witness another “accident”.
So that’s one reason I’m not a big fan of firearms or unfettered access to them. [For those who would recoil if I were to compare the requirements to operate a car vs operate a firearm, by pointing to the second amendment to the Constitution, let me just emphasize the beginning of that amendment, the part that people conveniently ignore: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”] As for whether toy guns inure us to violence and lead to real violence later on, I’ll leave that to someone else to figure out. Didn’t work that way with me.
is another topic too big for me, but we’ll touch on it anyway. I am currently studying the history of the cold war with Professor Alfred McCoy. We’re looking at the CIA’s change from gathering intelligence (its original mission under President Truman) to covert operations (under Director Allen Dulles during the Eisenhower and Kennedy presidencies). Lest you beatify the Kennedy brothers (President Jack and AG Bobby), it was on their watch that the CIA expanded its covert ops – from 170 major operations in 8 years under Eisenhower to 163 of them in 3 years under the Kennedys. See “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA” by Tim Weiner (2007).
It was in this environment that we were greeted with the TV show “Mission: Impossible” in 1966. The IMF (Impossible Missions Force) was a covert operation that took down enemy governments in the way the real CIA took down elected governments in Greece, Guatemala, Iran, the Congo, and Chile; and attempted for years to overthrow the Cuban government, including multiple plots to assassinate Fidel Castro (with poisons in his food, exploding cigars, prostitute assassins, a Mafia hit order, etc), not to mention an armed invasion.
In 2001 (the year of the World Trade Center bombing), when the US needed to justify torture, “extraordinary rendition” (kidnapping for the purpose of torture to be carried out in secret sites), and “enhanced interrogation techniques” (torture), we were presented with the TV series “24”. The premise was a fascinating one – a series that took place in real time – each of 24 one hour episodes covered one hour of a single day. Each season used the “ticking time bomb scenario”. This is a philosophical/moral question in which you are asked, “If a person has knowledge of an imminent threat and will only give up the information if tortured, is torture justified?” You can probably guess the show’s answer. There is one glaring problem in the scenario: torture doesn’t work. People who are tortured will tell interrogators what they think said torturers want to hear in order to stop the torture. Truth has little to do with it. This has been covered extensively by Professor McCoy in works such as “A Question of Torture : CIA interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror” (2006) and “Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation” (2012).
When we are greeted with real news footage of police killing people during traffic stops, TV responds with more cop shows than I can name or count, showing officers as always the good guys, looking out for Special Victims and going the extra mile to stop the bad guys, using the latest technology. Any time they use violence, it is justified. There is the occasional “bad apple” to make a plot point, but he is quickly rooted out by the good guys. If real cops shot as many people as TV cops do…
TV police shows have the subtle side effect of normalizing what we see. Every week on every show, bad things happen and the police save us. Soon we start to see the world that way. Bad things happen every day. We begin to think that violent crime is much more prevalent than it actually is. We welcome intrusion into our private lives to protect us from that violent crime. We think the police always shoot the right person. The charged are always convicted, the convicted are always guilty. We like to think we are too sophisticated to be fooled by this but the statistics tell a different story. Per the University of Michigan School of Law, more than 3200 previously-convicted people have been exonerated since 1989. (The Innocence Project was founded in 1992.) 134 of them had been sentenced to death.
What we see from the two graphs above is that crime (both property crime and violent crime) has been on a downswing for the past 30 years, while we believe that crime is on the upswing – with the caveat that we tend to believe crime is up nationally, but not so much where we live. That certainly looks like TV is working. By showcasing crime, we believe that crime is on the increase and, therefore, increasing surveillance and policing is a good thing. It also shows that we have some knowledge of where we live and we know that what we believe isn’t true in our own lives – or that we think we live in a great city and the rest of the country is going to hell in a handbasket.
And, of course, TV cops solve all crimes. The same Pew study shows that fewer than half of all crimes are reported, and fewer than half of those reported are solved.