Stephen King — best selling author of the very kind of violent books that gun advocates say contribute to gun violence — has penned Guns, a 25-page essay dismissing their criticism, while calling for universal background checks for gun purchases, and a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
A self-described “blue-state American” who also owns guns, King is no stranger to how individuals can and do turn to art as inspiration for violence. During the 1990s, no fewer than four shooters read Rage — an early work King wrote in high school years and published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman years later — entered their high schools with guns, held students and teachers hostage, and in some cases killed them. The book chronicles how Charlie Decker, a troubled high school student with a “domineering father,” brought a gun to school, killed his algebra teacher, and held his class hostage — only to see his classmates experience a “psychological inversion” and come to his defense.
After copies of Rage were discovered in the possession of multiple high school shooters, King voluntarily pulled the book from publication. He did so not because the thin tome inspired would-be killers to commit unspeakable carnage; rather it acted “as a possible accelerant” for boys who spent time in psych wards pondering suicide or endured the kind of bullying that results in severe medical paranoia. These boys found a “soul brother” in Decker. He gave them “blueprints to express their hate and rage” and for that, King decided, he “had to go.” “You don’t leave a can of gasoline where a boy with firebug tendencies can lay hands on it,” the author writes in Guns.
But while art that taps into the heart of a troubled soul can “accelerate” violence, there is little evidence that it causes it. Those arguments, often advanced by conservative lawmakers with A ratings from the National Rifle Association — and the NRA itself — “throw popular culture into the debate in the hopes that it’ll be distracting chum to piranhas hungry for scapegoats but reluctant to fight difficult battles to make America safer.” They also avoid any examination of the “state of our own popular culture and the profound fears about justice, disempowerment, and the state of civil society that are reflected in it.”
As King puts it, “To claim that America’s ‘culture of violence’ is responsible for school shootings is tantamount to cigarette company executives declaring that environmental pollution is the chief cause of lung cancer.” Americans consume relatively high levels of gun violence, but we’re not acting out in response to it. Nor are we completely saturating ourselves in it. For instance, King observes that only two of the 10 most popular works of fiction in 2012 featured violence. Just one of the top-grossing movies of 2012 (Skyfall) showed gun killings. Sports, dance, and Mario Brothers are the nation’s most popular video games, and football and detective shows consistently score the highest television ratings.
In the coming days and weeks, gun manufacturers and lobbyists will spend millions convincing American gun owners who actually support sensible regulations that they are “under siege” from President Obama’s government. They’ll argue that the administration’s proposed universal background checks for all gun purchasers and waiting periods are tantamount to big brother keeping tabs on Americans who own firearms, and say that limiting the availability of military-style assault weapons that can fire off tens of bullets in rapid succession without reloading would leave Americans defenseless from home intruders or a government takeover.
They’ll deflect attention from guns and propose expanding access to mental health services, stationing guards in schools, and of course clamping down on the media’s glorification of violence. “One only wishes [NRA Executive VIce President and CEO] Wayne LaPierre and his NRA board of directors could be drafted to some of these [school shooting] scenes, where they would be required to put on booties and rubber gloves and help clean up the blood, the brains, and the chunks of intestine still containing the poor wads of half-digested food that were some innocent bystander’s last meal,” King writes. Maybe then they’ll focus less on the make-believe death in media and the very real destruction that open access to military-style weapons can cause.