My friend Paul tells a story about riding his motorcycle through rural Oregon, where he stopped one afternoon at a craft sale. While perusing the wares, he discovered that he was being hawk-watched by one of the proprietors: a young woman with a pistol on her hip. Being Canadian—i.e., red-blooded if necessary, though not necessarily red-blooded—Paul blurted the obvious question: “Um, is that a real gun?”
“Um … is it loaded?”
As A.J. Somerset observes, it is a Canadian reflex to exclaim incredulously at the excesses of American gun culture. He utters a good many such exclamations himself in Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun, while rejecting the consoling assumption that we are immune to gun nuttery here at home. The book sets out to document the rise of gun culture on both sides of the border, and ultimately to track down what he calls the wellspring of crazy: the root cause(s) of the obsession with firearms. And Somerset—a Canadian novelist, journalist, former army reservist and passionate hunter—approaches the whole roiling issue from the perspective of a gun lover who deplores gun nuts. The result is part history lesson, part sociological study and part jeremiad; it is timely, important, audacious and intermittently maddening.
Somerset is not above cherry-picking his facts, or indulging a fondness for the sweeping generalization. But the book’s strengths are considerable. Somerset takes us on a riveting tour through the lunatic fringes of contemporary gun culture: those swamplands of paranoia where survivalists prepare for TEOTWAWKI (The End of The World As We Know It) according to the precepts of such gurus as John Wesley Rawles, who founded the American Redoubt movement and blogs from a secret ranch somewhere in the Rocky Mountain West—or possibly, as Somerset observes, from a suburban basement in New Jersey—and whose disciples understand the vital imperative to prep your BOB (Bug-Out Bag) and your EDC (Every-Day Carry), knowing that you may have to leap at any moment into your GOOD vehicle (Get Out of Dodge) when the SHTF (Shit Hits The Fan) and we are all left WROL (Without Rule of Law).
Somerset skewers the adolescent fantasizing that informs so much of this, and he is excellent as well on the evolution of the bizarre logic that underpins even mainstream U.S. gun culture, by which vigilantes stand their ground and the Second Amendment comes to guarantee the sacred right of the individual to carry an AK-47. Along the way he makes an intriguing argument for consumerism itself as one of the feeder-streams of the wellspring of crazy. (Loving guns means buying gun gadgetry; and once you own all that cool stuff, you cannot just leave it locked away.)
Somerset insists that Canada has an equivalent gun culture, although here he is less persuasive. To populate a gallery of domestic crazies he finds himself pointing to the likes of Marc Lepine. But it is hard to see mass murderers as the equivalents of, say, the Open Carry Texas adherents, who go to the mall with assault rifles slung over their shoulders in order to acclimatize nervous suburbanites to the notion that this is sane and normal. It is also hard to know what to make of Somerset’s assertion that “the notion that Canada has no gun culture died shortly after seven o’clock on the evening of June 5, 2014, when a twenty-four-year-old man [Justin Bourque] dressed in army-surplus camouflage and carrying a Norinco M305 rifle and a Mossberg 500 tactical shotgun went for a walk in Moncton, New Brunswick, with no plan of ever returning home.” This is a powerful sentence and a chilling image: the Canadian Grendel emerging out of the fens. But what does it actually mean?
Incensed by liberals who lump all gun owners in with the lunatics, Somerset casts himself as a lonely voice calling for “compromise” in an increasingly bitter battle between two cultural camps. But given that he is a Canadian living in Canada, it is unclear what compromise he is actually seeking. Far from opposing Canadian gun control laws, Somerset would in some ways make them more rigorous, suggesting more extensive and intrusive background checks to keep firearms out of irresponsible hands.
This informs his reaction to the tragic death of Veronica Rutledge, the young mother who was accidently shot in the parking lot of an Idaho Walmart by her two-year-old son, who tugged her loaded pistol out of a purse holder. Somerset argues that Rutledge’s decision to take a loaded pistol on a family outing can, in fact, be straightforwardly explained: she came from a family and a community with a tradition of gun ownership, in which carrying firearms was normal. A valuable insight, this ties into his larger point that gun ownership has much to do with personal identity and tribal loyalty: Veronica Rutledge was proclaiming herself one of the Gun People.
While Somerset condemns the anti-gun moralists (and internet trolls) who jeered at the tragedy, he also scorns the gun lobbyists who viewed it as simply a tragic accident, with no culpability attaching to anyone. On the contrary, he argues, such tragedies could and should be prevented if gun owners observed basic rules of firearms safety; a gun poses no threat to anyone so long as it is—like A.J. Somerset’s gun—securely stored and properly handled.
Beyond the debatable premise that accidents do not happen to sufficiently responsible people, this comes down to deciding where on the spectrum “safe” slides into “not safe,” and such a decision is inevitably arbitrary and subjective. Someone who does not share Somerset’s fondness for firearms—me, for instance—might assert that “safe” begins and ends with a gun that is hanging in a museum with its barrel plugged.
But Somerset’s passion comes through loud and clear, as does his distress at the level of invective that poisons the debate—although he is no slouch at invective flinging himself. More than a jeremiad, Arms is a cri de coeur at the manner by which guns have become totems in an increasingly fraught and polarized culture war. We all end in choosing one side or the other, Somerset laments, and none of us can be objective: “I say, ‘I like guns’; you hear your own assumptions.” And of course he’s right. I’m guilty as charged, alongside all the rest of the “soy-latte-drinking, yoga-loving, man-purse-wearing … nanny goofs,” just as much as the “mouth-breathers and nutjobs” across the chasm. We have made up our minds, and nothing is likely to budge us—including Arms. Somerset knows it too, which explains the despairing note that creeps into the final pages, where his pain at being stereotyped and dismissed is surprisingly moving.
In the end, it would seem that there is no single wellspring of crazy—and it would be churlish of me to seek it in a corrupted extension of Somerset’s own belief that guns are “cool” and shooting is “fun,” or his conclusion (after some wavering) that the right to take a handgun to a shooting range in downtown Toronto boils down to a citizen’s inviolable freedom to express himself or herself by living the lifestyle that person enjoys. But by golly the man can write, and this book comes at you like a cavalry at the charge, banners streaming and sabres glinting in the sun.