Before I arrived in Texas, guns were bad. Those who kept guns in their home were backward, uninformed and quite possibly insecure. Those who advocated for the legalization of guns politically were dangerous, cunning and manipulative. They were obstacles in the way of law and order, not campaigners in support of it and wherever possible, it was the rest of society’s quasi-moral ‘duty’ to oppose them. We should disdain the lobbyists who blocked the intervention of proper controls and condemn state governors who failed to use their position to denounce their use. It was popular and it felt fashionable. Just as fashionable as denouncing Nigel Farage as a simple sideline looney, or hating on Katie Hopkins for moaning on GMTV. Britain doesn’t have a gun problem. We don’t border countries with a gun problem and airport security means that smuggling firearms is rarely an issue. We trust that our police will be at the end of the line when we call 999 and we believe that they’ll be powerful enough to support us, so why would we have guns, and why would we ever hope to comprehend the arguments of those who believe in them? They’re not relevant to our society, so we can get away with few skirmishes (and quite possibly some accolade) for hating on them and those that uphold them.
It was only once I got to Texas that I began to realize the extent of my naivety and oversimplification of the issue.
Don’t get me wrong- it’s not that a trip to the gun range has meant I systematically support guns. In my mind they still cause more harm than they do good. In a society where the monetary cost of a gun is virtually the only thing controlling who owns one, they’re far too easy to get hold of and far too difficult to monitor. Instead of warding off the culture of fear and self-sufficiency so prevalent in the South, they add to it- often leading ‘normal’ people into crime almost by accident, simply due to the lack of effort it takes to take a shot. Ideologically, I’m still opposed to guns. I wouldn’t dare to buy a gun. I wouldn’t vote in favor of them and I certainly wouldn’t feel any safer keeping one at home. But when you begin to understand things they’re always less clear than you first thought. Guns aren’t a black and white issue. There’s too much tied up in the mix.
I wasn’t expecting shooting at a gun range to be my new favorite activity, nor an opportunity for deep psycho-political analysis. It’s a popular weekend activity here. Most people own their own guns although rarely get an opportunity to use them. The Lone Star Gun Range offers gun hire, the purchase of ammunition and firearm classes to top up your skills. I was there largely for the novelty of holding a gun.
I was a medium sized establishment. There were a choice of four ranges to shoot from; a shotgun range, a children’s range, pistol range and rifle range. In theory the targets were different distances away, although actually they all seemed to be a bit interchangeable. Along a dusty track an ‘office’ held the guns. Bulky men with bit beards and tattoos hovered between cabinets and wall mounts, keys clanging in jean pockets as they waited patiently for the weapon to selected. Its a big moment of course (especially for the newbie), whether to fashion yourself on a Lara Croft type quick snap boom, or more of a forest hunter with the long tunnel at the end and bigger bullets. They came in black, brown, gold, grey, muddy green or Texan flag, and knowing nothing about guns I was even strangely excited to see something that resembled George Bush’s own from his mighty tour to Afghanistan in 2006. Maybe I’ll steer away from that one. Stick to Lara Croft.
I got outside and started setting up the target. It was a wooden frame, a bit like an easel that you stapled a sheet of paper with the outline of a human on. Specific areas were pointed out – the head, the heart, the lungs, the hands and feet. Hoping for balloons or colored blobs, I asked if I could use a children’s target. A guy pointed to a pile of reduced-sized silhouettes. I took a moment to think. I was choosing between shooting a bright pink paper adult or a bright pink paper child. I turned to look at the shooters. They all looked fairly normal; a day off with the family or an afternoon chilling with friends and pop tarts. No doubt they shopped at Walmart and paid their taxes. No signs of criminal records or recent prison escapees. Get on with it Holly, you’re over thinking. I went for the adult pink human. Thank God the bullet predictably spun off into the white paper behind.
Lara Croft I wasn’t, but shooting guns is exhilarating. The charging of the bullet and steps as you take aim, the pounding bang and drifts of smoke that liken you to a true woman of the Wild West all add to the strange notion of power that you come to thrive on. Its easy to forget that an onlooker from the sidelines would find it difficult to understand the fun, spending money to stand in the sweltering heat and dust loading up rounds and mutilating a static paper sheet.
I took a break to get water. A 30 something year old couple and their child were standing nearby. Hearing my non-native accent (very rare in much of rural Texas), we started talking. We went through the motions of them loving the english accent and asking what I thought of the Queen, I asked them how often they went shooting. They proudly informed me they were Lone Star members, meaning for $100 a year each they have free access to any Lone Star gun range. I tried to look like I found that impressive and asked if they usually bring their son. The dad confirmed that 8 year old Cody had apparently been shooting since he could walk, and was well versed in the safety implications. His aim was so good, he had even won competitions in the under 10s category.
I felt myself slipping into that all too common terrain of totally disbelieving what I was hearing, but also desperately trying to comprehend it. These were friendly people. They weren’t trying to kill anyone or out to start a gun war. They weren’t training up their child in any suspicious Texan militias, nor did they have tattoos giving away allegiance to a notorious gang of outlaws. I was highly aware that to them, the idea of me opposing the use of a gun on your own personal property probably seemed just as strange as I found their enthusiasm for it. If my time in Texas has taught me anything, it’s to not make it obvious that you think a person’s crazy too soon. If you don’t hear them out, they’ll probably always seem crazy. If you go along with it for a bit sounding vaguely empathetic in your questioning, you’ve at least got a chance. These are the moments you’ve got to walk the line without giving yourself away.
As far as I understand, they explained guns in terms of two necessary functions in society. First and foremost is the social aspect; the ownership of guns forms a central part of their culture, and family gatherings are rarely complete without a hunt. Unlike in Europe, few rural Texans don’t own vast swathes of land, and with the ownership of land comes the ‘ownership’ of any creatures that inhabit it. Instead of driving to the Walmart or HEB 30 minutes down the highway, they can hunt deer, rabbits or boars to supply the barbecue, equally central to any get together. With so much land, so many animals, so few people and such a deeply ingrained sense of property rights, even for the most ardent opponent it’s not difficult to recognize that the social, geographical and economic structures that make up Texan society orientate it towards a culture of hunting.
But more important than that is the idea of protection. If us Brits had any vain hope that our Guardian columnists and Green Party campaigners could single-handedly take on the gun-crime culture of the American South, we can stop now. It’s not going to happen.
Texas is a rural place. Almost two-thirds of its landmass have less than ten residents per square mile, far from Sheriff’s offices, Town Halls, or neighbours. Even if they did live within reach of a Sheriff’s office, (effectively a police station), it may be so small an ill-funded that it would of little additional benefit in case of a home burglary. Either the homeowner uses a gun to ward off the intruder then and there, or they wait up to half an hour for the police to arrive and do the same. Furthermore, as isolated and obtuse as we may portray the state in Europe, Texans are highly aware of the issue of police brutality in their own nation. Perhaps it comes under a respect for human rights. More probably it’s a manifestation of the general skepticism of authority and idea of self-sufficiency, but images of the incompetence of the police are widespread, and who can trust someone that does’t have a vested interest in protecting you and your family? They’re just doing their job. If the criminal runs off into the plains, its another sheriff’s county office that’ll deal with them. For you, your livestock, homestead or children have been under threat and who knows if they’ll return. Under Texan law (as well as many other US states), if you kill someone in the act of defending your own property, i.e. an intruder, it is considered an act of self defense. The intruder, if not dead, is accountable to the full force of the law. If a group comes in together and one is killed, the fellow intruders can be found guilty of the murder of their friend and sentenced to life imprisonment, or in some cases execution; if they hadn’t collectively trespassed on the property, their friend wouldn’t have died. The factors of geography and the law therefore inherently favor the gun owner and encourage them to take security into their own hands.
But it doesn’t stop there. Gun ownership is as much a political as well as practical issue. An estimated 1 in 26 people in Texas are illegal immigrants, and fear of the Mexican border is very real. If people can get in undocumented, guns can too, and banning them among law-abiding Christian Americans would only leave the Texan population at the mercy of genuine criminals and criminal gangs of Central America. If guns therefore can’t be eliminated from Texas, at least they can be distributed to those who will use them for their own defense, as well as those who will use them for aggression.
And then it comes to the children. A central part of any parent’s responsibility is in ensuring your child feels safe and capable on their own. And I could totally empathize with this – the most valuable thing you can give your offspring is surely the confidence to feel they don’t have to be reliant on others. To make their own choices, believe in themselves and act on their own accord. And this holds very true in Texan culture. The parents I met at Lockhart weren’t proud of their son because he shot the pink human’s heart out of the paper it lay on; they were proud because they had succeeded as parents. They had prepared him for the world as a capable individual who didn’t have to be scared of Mexicans, or criminals, or put up with the police. He could hold his own family gatherings and source meat from his own land. He was aware of the dangers involved and how to be safe, and really, to them it would only be irresponsible not to introduce him to the culture of weaponry so essential to his heritage and surroundings.
The congressional debates surrounding gun legality are always complex and often contrived. They encompass and touch upon so much – party politics, money, political and economic goals and the interests of influential and regularly out of touch individuals. They’re messy debates that one wishes were unnecessary and we are well within our legitimacy to dismiss them as absurd. On a person to person level, however, the prevalence of guns is more difficult to refute. The arguments are too deep, thought-out and frankly relevant to downplay the way we’re used to – unsuccessfully. As I say, I’m certainly no gun supporter, but my first and last experience as a patron of the Lone Star range has undoubtedly left a mark. If our trans-atlantic struggle against guns laws are to get anywhere, we don’t have a hope or a right to focus our condemnation on the small town Americans that buy into the industry. For them, owning a gun is being responsible. It’s being patriotic, a provider and an individual. It’s looking after your family and securing your own interests- just as we seek to do in Britain and anywhere else in the world. The task is much greater than simply typecasting, condemning and blaming. It’s not just an industry to bring down; its the political, social and economic infrastructure of the state itself, and that’s no easy battle to fight and not one that should be jumped upon naively.