For our four-year wedding anniversary, my husband and I went to Las Vegas.
While we didn’t gamble much on that trip, we did thoroughly play tourist. We got to see the old Star Trek: The Experience attraction before it was shut down (my knees nearly buckled when I realized I was standing on the bridge of the Next-Generation-era Enterpise -- yeah yeah yeah, laugh all you want). We saw Penn and Teller. We saw the atomic weapon testing museum, which was curiously (but unsurprisingly, in retrospect) YAY AMERICA, WE BLOW SHIT UP GOOD and mostly lacking in attention paid to lives lost and real-life non-testing destruction wrought.
One day, we drove out into the desert, our destination the aptly named Valley of Fire State Park, and both of us were overcome by weird desert vertigo, like our optic nerves simply couldn’t process the vastness of the unbroken landscape stretching on either side of the highway, realizing if our rental car broke down in the extreme heat we may as well lie down and wait to die because there was no way we’d ever survive this place on our own, no matter how many episodes of “Survivorman” I may have seen.
We also went to a gun range.
I didn’t grow up around guns, myself. Neither did my husband. At that point in my life, the only handgun I’d ever seen in real life that wasn’t tucked into the holster of a cop or security guard had been the pistol belonging to the father of a middle school friend, which was kept in an unlocked drawer in their living room. My friend used to open the drawer and show it off to us. I never knew if it was loaded, which I didn’t really think about at the time but which turns my blood a little cold now.
My husband, though inexperienced in handling real firearms, is a veteran of a lifetime of first-person shooter video games, and possessed of a fairly extensive knowledge (by my standards, anyway) of World War II military firepower. So when he found the gun range advertisement specifying a special “WWII package” in a tourist magazine in our hotel room, I was pretty sure there was no talking him out of it.
The gun range in question was an unassuming little building. Hung over a trash can outside was a sign reading “Voting for Obama? Deposit guns here.” (It was 2008.) I found it frankly terrifying. Truth be told, I was surprised by how scared I was.
Inside, after all the safety stuff, the gun chaperone (a former cop -- seriously, every dude working there was either a former cop or former military) asked my husband to select his paper targets, and all three of us looked up at the variety of options over the gun-fetching counter.
There was the standard featureless humanoid target, but there were also some more creative options. There was a black dude done up to look like a 1980s drug-dealer stereotype. There were a couple of disheveled white dudes with “hostages” -- ostensibly you were not supposed to shoot the woman or child they were menacing. There was a dude in a ski mask. There was a Latino dude holding a gun sideways (“SOLD OUT”). There was an Osama Bin Laden, the enlarged photograph showing him holding some large automatic weapon and smiling in an eeriely benign fashion. There were numerous guys in vaguely Middle Eastern dress (“terrorists”). There was a ninja, randomly. There were no pirates or zombies.
My husband did his best to choose the least offensive options, but the candid racism of the available choices had already combined with my mortal terror to produce a toxic cocktail of disgust and dread that left me trembling. I spent my husband’s shooting experience trying not to get hit in the face by flying metal bits (I was only partly successful) and trying not to slip and fall, as the floor was awash with thousands of discarded shell casings, and giving side-eyes to all the other bros in the range peppering their problematic targets with bullets and happily admiring their work. Also trying not to throw up.
While I still wouldn’t say that gun culture itself is intrinsically bad or racist -- the inevitable diversity of human experience prevents such an assumption, as I know there are plenty of people in the world who like guns and hate racism -- the whole experience left me with a creeped-out feeling.
Who are these people coming in to gleefully fire guns at racist stereotypes as a recreational activity? Why were the non-racially-specific gun targets so limited? What does this say about American gun culture?
I’ve thought a few times about whether I would fire a gun recreationally myself, should I ever again find myself faced with the opportunity. I go back and forth on the answer. I will say that I can’t ever see paying money to a place that stocks such grotesque targets, and which even partially makes its money off of people’s desire to shoot bullets at offensive caricatures with no consequences. Call me touchy, but that just creeps me out.
In the very epitome of “TOO SOON”, last week an as-yet-unidentified person began selling “Trayvon Martin inspired” gun range targets on an internet firearms auction site. Trayvon Martin was the unarmed black teenager murdered by George Zimmerman, who claims he shot Martin, who was walking back to his dad’s house from the store, in self-defense.
The target features a black hoodie with a bag of Skittles in the pocket, and a can of Arizona iced tea in the hand, the two items Martin was carrying when he was murdered. It features a set of crosshairs on the chest.
The listing for the product -- which called George Zimmerman “innocent” and asserts he merely “shot a thug” -- has since been removed, but the seller told an Orlando TV station that he sold out in two days. He also said, "My main motivation was to make money off the controversy."
Some have argued it’s all a funny joke and anyone who gets angry is just being oversensitive. Because humor based on the terrible death of an unarmed black teenager is the funniest thing ever. But it is via the mingling of guns and racism -- be it literal or figurative -- that unthinkable things can happen. If George Zimmerman had been unarmed, Trayvon Martin might not be dead.
Shooting racist caricatures for fun does not make you more likely to shoot living human beings any more than playing a video game does; most people (the rare notable exception aside) are well aware of the difference between fantasy and reality, and are capable of demonstrating the self-control necessary to prevent themselves from committing murder.
However, I’d argue that racist gun targets do contribute to a culture in which violent racism can exist, even if they are not directly at fault for it. The Trayvon Martin gun target both makes fun of an unthinkable tragedy and erases the individual that Trayvon Martin was -- once a quiet teen, he is remade as a faceless stereotype on which racist gun-loving douchebags can vent their totally unfounded rage, or worse, can giggle about it.
While gun culture may not be all bad, that’s bad enough for me to not want to be a part of it. How about you?