We gathered a few dozen friends at the Arts Center in Carrboro to film Abby Overton’s performance as Phoebe Ann, an American Enfield .30-06 rifle who reflects on her life and times in my monologue “Gunplay: The Rifle Report.”
Designed for military use, she saw service as a sniper rifle in WWI with the paterfamilias, going on to serve three generations of his male successors. While the 14-minute play stands on its own as my effort to contribute to the national discussion on gun violence in a way that’s entertaining, apolitical, and good-humored, I see it as the first act of a longer work that’s not about public policy but about human longing and grief, how we derange and damage each other, the nature of our species’ violent impulses that precedes the second amendment by a few million years, and how dysfunctional families work. Gun violence is just kind of an on-ramp for that larger theme.
But I anticipate. Putting this self-contained monologue out there on the Internet (once Jim McQuaid of Turnip LLC has edited the eight audio tracks and six video tracks his crew captured that night) is its own end, though eventually it will help us raise interest in and funding for the full Gunplay.
Having an audience for the filming, which we called a “private performance,” was important because the character has to interact with them, and I expect we’ll see them in the movie. It was also important because many fruitful discussions have resulted, included a lengthy exchange with my friend Bob Upchurch, who writes:
A “gun” is a crude tool of the malevolent members of the lower castes… while we rifles are the refined creations of manufacturing artisans, and are owned, appreciated, and loved by the elite who are passionate about the hunting sports and competitive marksmanship… Olympians…
There seem to me at least two gun cultures in our country, an old school represented by Robert Ruark’s The Old Man and the Boy (among many other milestones), and a postmodern school represented by Chris Kyle’s American Sniper. Guns are about family, ending life because we must end life to live, about honor and living well together, about reluctantly collecting ourselves to resist tyranny and liberate the enslaved. . . or guns are about a bigger bang, about dominating other species and other tribes because God wants that for us, about a coefficient of killing. They are a symbol of self against society, at once Romantic, Byronic, heroic, and a means to an end which has nothing to do with our selves. Kyle’s book (which is terribly written and terribly edited) exposes a chilling calculus. If you accept his premises, then his thinking is unassailable: for example, he dismisses the military’s internal discussion about the best weapon and best projectile for disabling a vehicle by noting, “The best way to stop a vehicle is to shoot the driver.” He’s right.
Bob goes on to tell his own hunting story–every guy has one, and his may sound familiar to a certain comfortable class of which I too was a privileged childhood member.
I did not grow up in a family which hunted, but I was once myself briefly enchanted by a romantic notion of duck hunting – until I learned what it entailed… rising at 3:00 am to go out into the cold, wet, mid-winter darkness to wade around in frigid waters setting out decoys. Then there’s the business of cleaning and removing all that (in those days lead) shot before storing or roasting. Grocery-store frozen ducks became a splendid idea, and satisfied my romantic notion by purchasing a do-it-yourself wood decoy kit to assemble and paint realistically. The resulting mallard drake (spruce, I think) rules over the living room, realistically surveying all below his bookcase-top.
But guns these days are serious business, and Bob quickly surveys the landscape and concludes:
Our societal gun problems arise from 1) crimes of passion where a gun is too handy 2) intentional pursuit of petty financial gain with no regard for human life and 3) deranged individuals who have become so disaffected as to be removed from reality and 3) deliberate assault in the name of a cause, perhaps political, sometimes quite sanely, but sometimes coupled with mental illness.
He’s led to reflect, as all good citizens must, on American history, including current history:
I fear that crimes of passion borne of greed, jealousy, or rage, involving those known to one another, will never cease; such crimes often involve strangulation, poisons, or other mechanisms as well as firearms. Trying to eliminate personal protective ownership from the all-sacred home will never succeed, and perhaps shouldn’t. In the rougher society of the frontier virtually everyone – the good, the bad, and the ugly – was perpetually armed as a matter of common sense. Are we returning to such a coarse society? The murder of Eve Carson (gun), a Duke graduate student (gun), and more recently – in broad daylight the killing of a pharmacology researcher at UNC (rock), a Durham priest (gun?), and two salt-of-the-earth elderly laborers killed in a “home invasion” near Holly springs last month (gun?) all raise that question.
Which leads inexorably to politics:
The widening gap between society’s haves and have-nots is very worrying. Does a future generation face real “class warfare” on our streets and in our neighborhoods – a new “civil” war? Our society has created a permanent underclass devoid of values and incapable of fending for itself economically in an increasingly more expensive world. If our national leaders don’t change course and return to more humane policies and attitudes I fear for that future. Our brightest hope may lie in the growing power of Latino voters, who seem more supportive of greater support for the common weal.
We are repeatedly told by psychiatrists – in the wake of mass bloody slaughter of innocents – that it is virtually impossible to make early identification of those who might commit such crimes. The problem is that any attempt to do so would cast far too wide a net, perhaps identifying one future scofflaw while rounding up a hundred for evaluation. Thus the sensible way of addressing this problem is by making it more difficult to murder many victims in a few moments. I’m afraid we’ll have to wait until a few congressmen and women lose children to crazed gunmen, but ultimately I believe we will have to make individual ownership on rapid-fire-large magazine weaponry illegal. These cannot be logically defended as necessary by sportsmen, ranchers, or anyone but law enforcement and the armed forces. I doubt that handguns or true rifles will ever be barred; the second amendment argument will prevail.
That way lies madness, which is why I have turned to theater. Until we put a trigger lock on the guns in our heart, trigger locks on the one in our drawer won’t help much. Another visitor to our private performance collared me at intermission (we ran the play twice to get more footage) to ask, “So are you pro-gun or anti-gun? I can’t tell.”
“I’m pro-thought,” I said.