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The lure of a gun’s shallow power


I am trying to write a story about guns, about their power.

I have talked to more than a dozen people who are passionate about this power. They collect it, they depend upon it, they draw energy from it.

But when I look at the blued metal barrel of a Smith & Wesson .38 or the molded black rhombus of a Glock’s grip -- all I feel is fear.

Desperate for a way to begin writing, I ask the photographer, who is a good friend and who is coping with the visual side of this story, what her impressions are. She admits that she, too, feels the recoil of a knee-jerk liberal who was raised to associate guns only with violence.

Then she looks at me sidelong. “The other part of it is I’m afraid that if I shot one, I’d enjoy it.” She tells me about an essay she wrote in college for a women’s studies course. The professor asked the students to describe a time when they felt “empowered.” My friend wrote about a road trip: being behind the wheel, driving fast, out in the middle of nowhere, unbound by anyone’s expectations.

But now, as she composes still-life photos of semi-automatic pistols, black powder rifles and pump shotguns, she’s guessing that firing one of them might give her the same sensation of power. Pure physical power. The adrenaline rush of commanding a potentially lethal force.

We laugh about how rarely we’ve felt such power. Neither of us is exactly a born athlete, nimble on a judo mat or easy in the saddle of a horse. Only by the joining of our soft, unruly bodies to a mechanized object can we transform them.

Later this conversation haunts me. Already bored by the guns, I pry apart the borders we’ve set, expand the definition of power beyond the physical. When have I felt any kind of power in my life?

Sex flies first into my mind. Not the physical aspects, but the psychology beneath them. I do not want to admit this. The power to arouse someone beyond rational constraints is the stuff of Eve and Satan. As a young woman chastened by Catholicism, I came fresh and eager to the lures of seduction, and I did not withstand them for 40 days in the desert. Arousing, then denying permission was a marvelous game.

It was followed, in short order, by the game of making someone fall in love with me. Granted, I succeeded only rarely, but when I did, I felt a cool rush of power.

Then I felt miserable. Because to win the game, I had to remain unmoved. And that meant guilt, one-sidedness and messy extrication.

Mean-spirited and fleeting, those early powers left an acrid, slightly chemical taste in my mouth. As though someone had added a drop of formaldehyde to a vat of cherry soda.

I outgrew them. And in the nine years since I met my husband, I have never once thought of our love in such terms. Only when we hear of someone’s spouse, lost young to cancer, and we turn to seek each other’s eyes for a promise neither can give -- only then do I realize how much power we wield over each other’s souls.

The rest of the time, love’s power is a quiet one, a joy resting deep in my bones.

I try to think of other powers in my middle years. My mind takes a while even to retrieve them, because by any usual definition of power, they are odd. Yet they surface with a sureness I can’t deny. I feel powerful when I can still my mind and keep it clear, wide open and receptive for 10 minutes. When I hold out my hand and an elephant slaps her trunk into my palm in a high-five. When I search for and find the right word, one that’s sturdy enough to carry understanding across a distance. When I lose my old shyness and say what I think, realizing that honesty, used without malice, is a form of respect. When I take the dog to a friend’s house and she sees their dogs, tenses and shoots me a look, like, “Is this OK?” and I say, “You’re fine, go play,” and her jaw drops open in a happy smile and she lopes forward, loose-limbed and relaxed, because she’s communicated her concern and I’ve reassured her.

In retrospect, these are all occasions of power for me, these times of clarity and mutual honoring. I laugh, knowing how ludicrous they would sound to someone caught by the rush of firing a fully automatic submachine gun.

That is a form of power. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit the small secret thrill that ran down my spine and jumped into my pocket when my editor told me to “burn some powder.” He wanted me to be able to explain how it felt to fire various guns. I wanted to know why it captured so many people’s imagination.

Experiential journalism is yet another form of power, because it allows you to be anyone, anywhere, and know you can return to your own life an hour later.

But both vicarious experience and guns are shallow powers. Akin to my early forays in false seduction, they offer eros and ego gratification without permanence.

The rush of firing a gun comes from the power you’re unleashing, and the attendant risk. A gun is lethal. Firing balloons or streamers from the same chamber would feel inane, even to me. Yet my intent doesn’t match. I don’t want to kill, any more than I want to really live all those alternate lives I use for fodder and grist.

There’s no commitment, no mutuality. And therefore, no joy.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is jeannette.batz@rftstl.com

National Catholic Reporter, April 12, 2002