Guns on the Playground, Guns over the Hearth

“Dad, do you have a gun license?” 

“Nope.”

“Would you please get one?”

“And a gun?”

“Of course.”

“You’d feel safer that way?”

“Yes.”

That was my 10 year-old daughter as we walked to her youth group meeting from our home in a Jewish enclave in a mostly Arab section of Jerusalem. I never had that conversation with my father growing up in a suburb in Fairfax County, Virginia.

The US is arguing about guns, and the debate, although partisan, is rational and utilitarian. Both sides want a guarantee of safety – on the one hand a guarantee of not getting shot, and on the other a guarantee of defenses against criminal attack and tyranny. But there is more to a gun than the bullets it can shoot.​

In my southeastern Jerusalem neighborhood, the Jews and Arabs don’t interact much, so usually there aren’t problems. Sometimes, though, there are.

Not far from our playground Arab neighbors incinerated a Jewish neighbor’s car with a Molotov cocktail, attacked one of our teenagers with rocks, and tried to gun down a Jewish mother. On the playground, we wonder if the Arab kids playing there are the same kids who tried to burn down our synagogues. Usually at least one of the Jewish fathers will be carrying a gun in his belt, so we can afford to try our estranged cousins with greetings and smiles.

In America the gun could signal suspicion and be interpreted as a provocation. That’s understandable in a land where diverse people are supposed to be one nation living together in peace. But in my neighborhood, no one on any side doubts that we are two nations simmering over the question of who belongs where. It’s because we can fight back that we can also reach out.

In short, this is Israel’s gun policy: No one should carry weapons. But we need police and soldiers to deal with the ambient threat. But they can’t be everywhere. But we might need them anywhere. So some citizens may carry. So if you are a citizen in a high-risk area, you can easily acquire a permit and gun.

The policy is effective. Most terror attacks in Israel which are stopped, are stopped by armed civilians, not by law enforcement. That’s not a dig at law enforcement. They just can’t be everywhere at once.

To quote Arutz Sheva: The terrorists in the 2016 Sarona market attack were stopped by armed passersby. A pistol-carrying tour guide put an end to the 2017 ramming attack in Arnona that left four soldiers dead. In Israeli eyes, guns are a valuable deterrent against terrorism. In fact, terrorists have told the Shin Bet internal security service that they often target haredi Jews due to the high likelihood that they are unarmed. … When terrorists attacked a school in Maalot in 1974, Israel did not declare every school a gun-free zone. It passed a law mandating armed security in schools, provided weapons training to teachers and today runs frequent active shooter drills. There have been only two school shootings since then, and both have ended with teachers killing the terrorists.

For Israelis, guns are an unfortunate necessity. Americans have no analogous situation.​​​​

Our sense of how much we would prefer to not carry weapons is summed up in a rabbinic dictum of the Mishnah, a legal text codified in Israel about 1,700 years ago (Mishnayot Shabbat 6:4):

[On the Sabbath] a man may not go out with a sword, nor with a bow, nor with a shield, nor with a round shield, nor with a spear. If he has gone out [with any of these] he is liable for a sin offering. Rabbi Eliezer [holds a dissenting opinion]: They are ornaments for him. But the Sages say: They are nothing but an indignity, for it is said [Isaiah 2:4], “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

To be armed, in short, is not just a responsibility, it is a burden.

According to Rabbi Eliezer, however, weaponry has an additional purpose – a purpose not foreign to the Hellenistic-Roman atmosphere of the Mishnaic period nor to the European-American tradition which has born forth that great culture: weaponry is also ornamental.

Think of Achilles’ shield. Think of superbly crafted chariots drawn by specially bred horses. Think of military parades and the sexy man-in-uniform. Think of Inigo Montoya’s unequaled sword. And think of John Oliver’s take down of NRA-TV in which he points out that people care about the aesthetics of their guns while mocking show hosts for getting “progressively more and more aroused by the guns they’re holding.”

Oliver used the metaphor of sexual arousal to denigrate aesthetic admiration of a firearm, but Rabbi Eliezer suggests that the connection between weaponry, beauty, and sexuality is so deep, it can change the weapon’s legal status from tool to ornament.

Ornaments are of concern in this chapter of the Mishnah because specific ornaments may lead to people violating the Sabbath prohibition against “carrying” things in the public domain. In order to determine which ornaments are problematic, the chapter distinguishes between the ornaments of men and ornaments of women. Then, as now, you use ornaments to enhance your appearance. And then, as now, you do so, not as a generic homo sapiens sapiens who enhances its appeal through health and hygiene, but specifically as a man or as a woman. The exceptions prove the rule: people who are transgender use gendered clothing, jewelry, and such to construct their chosen identity; and people who wish to defy the gender dichotomy may avoid items which mark gender or else hyper-signal with items which mark more than one gender.

Now how shall American men use personal items to embellish their masculinity? It’s hardly necessary to repeat that American masculinity is in crisis, or at least in contention. If one breaks hard left, there is “toxic masculinity.” If one breaks hard right, the “war on men” is forcing a “new world order” through “castration” which is at least symbolic and probably effected by the creeping presence of soy in everything. And if you are a normal person involved in the lives of young boys, you probably find yourself nodding frequently as you read Christina Hoff Sommer’s The War on Boys. With masculinity in contention, how men signal masculinity bifurcates. They may tergiversate but their signals will be calibrated to the field lines between the polls marked by the Left and Right. Either their masculinity must be proven non-toxic and benign–hence the emergence of the metrosexual and feminist beta males, or it must be distinct and strong–hence the rise of beards…

… And perhaps also the insistence on guns.

Yes, women too own guns. Yes, guns on a basic level are just tools with a function. Yes, second amendment rights.

But the second amendment does not account for the uproar about guns. Everyone can sit down and have a rational discussion about how gun policy can best ensure safety–about how to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them and how to keep them in the hands of others who can be trusted to wield them with flawless ethics. But instead there is hysteria. The people attached to their guns and those opposing the policy to date are hunkered down in their rhetorical bunkers and firing. Why?

The Mishnah rules that weapons are not ornaments but indignities, and this is how the men in my neighborhood experience their guns. Gun owners in the US, however, defend their right to bear arms as something other than the foregone conclusion of the inalienable and self-evident.

Consider what is at stake just in the tone of the debate. The gun control movement is fighting a strident battle to legally restrict or culturally belittle guns–and, by implication, gun owners. In casting this as a battle between the rightous enlightened and deplorable hicks and rednecks, it is engineering its own backlash. Will vanquished legions of gun-owning conservatives push back against liberal’s perceived (but perhaps not merely perceived)  condescension less than in the 2016 presidential election?

The anti-gun movement does trigger fear in gun-owners that tyranny is goose-stepping closer–whether a tyranny of the anti-gun movement itself or of others able to exploit it–but gun-owners are not merely concerned with possessing the guns needed to defend against an oppressive state. Tyranny of that magnitude remains hypothetical. But immediate and real is the attack on the ideal embodied in the gun: rugged independence on the frontier and individualistic self-reliance. Without such personality traits, one cannot aspire to to become, as Henry Clay put it, the quintessentially American “self-made man.” Note, Clay said “self-made man,” not “self-made American.” This is the foundation stone of American masculinity.

Of course there are alternatives. But it’s no coincidence that the men of the “Mommy Party” are less inclined to an “America First” worldview. Al Gore tells an inconvenient truth about global climate change; Barak Obama would “lead from behind” and arguably weaken America’s authority in the “international community”; even Bernie Sanders, for all his concentration on local and domestic issues, draws his vitality from socialism, an international movement. Their masculinity is not the traditional masculinity of America, and this becomes evident in the kinds of criticism they draw. Whereas George W. Bush and Donald Trump are mocked for not really being the self-made men they would represent, Gore was mocked for his showy kiss at the 2000 Convention. No one criticized John Kerry for not being self-made. But he did try to balance his image by running with the son of a textile mill floor worker.

It would be shocking if the meaning of the gun in America were separate from its history in America and in particular on the American frontier. History makes all the difference to connoisseurs of every sort, and that includes gun connoisseurs. The proof is that shows on NRA-TV which Oliver mocked, showcase guns which are part of a museum collection and use them as windows into the times they came from and the experiences of the people who wielded them. One may quibble about the quality of the historical explorations, but if your curiosity is not aroused by the story of how the loading mechanism of a particular rifle affected the way the British empire grew and how it inadvertently set in motion the movement for Indian independence, it is not the absorbed gun-owner who is the empty-headed troglodyte.

The same ideal of rugged independence, individualistic self-reliance, and the self-made man is not foundational for masculinity elsewhere–not, for example, in Britain, in Italy, in Japan, or in Israel. So, whereas for the Jewish man of the Mishnah, the gun is an indignity, for the American man, it is his key to penetrating the frontier–and it remains vital as the representation of that idea. And whereas in Israel not a single gun have I ever seen displayed with pride in a home, American guns are so much more collected and displayed than they are actually carried for hunting or security, it is undeniable that, as Rabbi Eliezer said, the gun is also ornamentation–ornamentation of the bearer’s image and enhancement of his image specifically as a man. So it is not merely second amendment rights which are under attack but the ability to ornament and celebrate masculinity.

Now since America’s frontier has closed, there may be good reason to bring to a close the American frontier pioneer narrative. (I come not to praise Caesar but to autopsy him.) Nevertheless, a grab at America’s guns is a strike at American masculine identity. So, it is no coincidence that contention surrounds guns at the same time it surrounds gender roles, sex distinctions, and masculinity.

Nor is it coincidence that the arguement about guns was sparked by the actions of young men coming of age and trying to define themselves. Nor is it coincidence that these young male murderers have received wildly disproportionate attention. If the sound and fury were about rationally calculating risk of death according to cause, the discussion would focus on numerous other things before guns. And if this were merely about the horror of shootings, we would not find it so remarkable when a woman is the perpetrator.

School shootings are covered to death in the news not because there is a conspiracy of the leftist media to turn America against guns but because the market is transfixed by the debate. Americans feel that there is far more at risk than the details of how precisely to regulate guns and enforce those regulations. It is time to acknowledge that the debate about guns in America is not only about physical danger, it is also about what guns represent to Americans and especially what they mean for the concept of the American man.

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