July 4, 2017
I met a local author named Joe Peterson a few years ago at an author event here in Chicago. I remember feeling slightly put off; he gave off a vibe like he felt like he was an underappreciated local genius. Then I read his book Wanted: Elevator Man and realized he was, in fact, an underappreciated local genius.
Since then, Joe and I have become great friends, and we’ve had many wonderful conversations about writing and publishing. I did some advance reading for his great collection Twilight of the Idiots; I solicited a submission from him for a story anthology.
About a year ago, we met up for lunch, and he told me about the manuscript that would become Gunmetal Blue. He said it was about gun violence, and he told me about his personal connection to the topic, and I knew I wanted to be involved.
22 years ago, I arrived at West Point for R-day for the Class of 1999. It was, for most of us, an anxious day, as hazy apprehension about hazing and training materialized into sweaty reality—yelling upperclassmen, uncomfortable uniforms, strange new rituals of drill and ceremony. I wondered what the hell I’d gotten myself into. Just about the only thing I looked forward to was the weapons training, and the chance to fire an M-16 for the first time.
I’d grown up a bit of a gun nut. When we lived in Florida I got a rifle for my 10th birthday, and somewhere in there my dad purchased a 9mm pistol for my mom for self-defense, and we spent many Saturday afternoon out at the range amidst the palmettos and scrub pines, pumping round after round into paper targets. But for a true gun aficionado, all of these things are vaguely unsatisfying compared to the prospect of actually shooting true military hardware.
One of the things that impressed—and still impresses—me about the Army was the culture of respect and accountability and safety when it comes to firearms. We didn’t get to handle them for several weeks after R-day; there were many unpleasant days of shoe-shining and brass-polishing and close-order drill and room inspection in the meantime, many orders given and received between the first day the military issued me a uniform and the first day they handed me a rifle.
During my four years as a cadet, the number of days I spent at the range shooting live ammunition were relatively infrequent, but I took many opportunities to increase them—once Beast Barracks was over and the academic year had started, I spent some Saturdays at the range with the Infantry Tactics Club; during my last three years, I competed in the Sandhurst military skills competition, in no small part because it had a marksmanship component.
I was medically discharged from the Army after graduation (narcolepsy, if you’re curious), and unexpectedly found myself living with my parents back in the Chicago suburbs, but I kept up my gun enthusiasm for some time; I’d purchased a class pistol, a Colt .45, and I’d go shooting at the range with my brother and one of my drinking buddies. Soon afterwards, I moved to New York City for grad school; I was a pretty proud conservative, and I took a certain perverse pleasure in going to the bar, getting carded, and seeing the bouncer’s eyes widen when I’d pull out my Illinois Firearm Owner’s ID in lieu of a Driver’s License.
It took some years for my attachment to guns to fade; in some ways, Chicago itself was responsible. When I moved back after grad school, it wasn’t legal for residents to own handguns. I thought about defying the law, and even flirted with the idea of becoming an NRA test case, the Rosa Parks who stood up to what I believed were unjustly oppressive laws. (Yes. That does sound ridiculous to me now.) In the end, all of that seemed like too much hassle, so my guns remained in the suburbs at my parents’ house, and my trips to the range got fewer and farther between.
It was just as well, for I went through some dark times personally in the early 2000s—some blackout drinking, where I’d make it home with only a frame or two of imagery about the trip home from the bars, and a LOT of brownout drinking, where I’d remember where I’d been and who I’d seen and how I’d made it back home, but I’d have to reconstruct the details of the night with help from friends. There were plenty of good times in there, but the bad ones were really bad—some relationships that turned ugly and angry, and one incident where I got physically violent with a woman I loved. But all that negativity usually turned inward rather than outward, and it manifested itself in some very dark thoughts. In retrospect, I’m pretty glad I didn’t have easy access to a handgun in those years.
I eventually quit drinking, and started taking steps to stay sober. Among other things—meetings with other alcoholics, spiritual work, etc.—I did a lot of reading. In his Confessions, St. Augustine says to God, “…by my own sin Thou didst justly punish me. For Thou hast commanded, and so it is, that every inordinate affection should be its own punishment.” This statement seemed to perfectly fit my experience with alcoholism; I’d certainly loved alcohol over and above almost everything else in my life. (It was part of the reason I moved downtown, and therefore one of the things that separated from my guns; I moved downtown because it seemed like in the suburbs I ‘had’ to drink and drive, but in a city with abundant public transportation and many taxis, that wouldn’t be the case.) In a sense, I’d viewed alcohol as a god. It was an idol I looked to to solve my problems—to relieve my stress at the end of the workweek, to get me talking to women, to ease my feelings of alienation and angst. And it seemed clear in retrospect that alcohol had been its own punishment: using it to numb the pain only increased the pain, and left me with some ungodly hangovers, too.
It wasn’t until after the Newtown massacre that I started to see guns in similar terms—as something that many Americans have loved inordinately, to the point that they’ve become their own punishment. I wrote an op-ed about my own gun experiences for the Chicago Tribune, and I started to read a lot more on the topic, and it didn’t take much digging to find stories where the addiction model seemed to fit. Take that of Chris Kyle, a brave man who perhaps saw guns as the answer to too many questions, and ended up shot to death by a man he’d enlisted for “gun therapy.” Or the case of Philando Castile—a man who bought a gun for self-defense, behaved responsibly with it, but was shot to death by a panicked cop who made a snap decision he wouldn’t have needed to make in a country where guns are less prevalent. Or that of Curtis Reeves, the retired Tampa police captain who shot a fellow theatergoer to death in a confrontation over texting during the movie previews and then sought the protection of the state’s “Stand Your Ground” laws. And the hallmarks of addiction are there, too, in the national conversation about guns—in the voices of the gun addicts who deny or shift blame any time any tragedy happens which can be directly attributed to our nation’s lax gun laws, the voices which claim that the media is engaged in some sort of conspiracy to suppress “good” gun stories (homes defended, mass shootings prevented, etc.) and play up the bad ones. For an addict lives in such a state of denial that they refuse to believe the problem is a problem—in fact, they believe the problem is a solution. They will throw out major facts that don’t fit their narrative, and play up minor facts that do support it, until they are again comfortable that nothing’s going to interfere with their addictive behavior.
I’m writing this letter over the Fourth of July weekend. I made a family trip down to Kankakee to visit relatives, many of whom are longtime responsible gun owners. I have many classmates from the military whom I’d trust with 1 or 10 or 100 or 1,000 guns. I’m well aware that, for many people who live in the country, 911 response times are well into the double-digit minutes, and if anyone did break into their home, they would probably want to use a firearm for self-defense. I fully understand that guns are an integral part of our nation’s origin story, and that the right to own them is constitutionally protected. I’m not suggesting that anyone should pry any guns out of anyone’s fingers, cold and dead or otherwise.
But it would be nice to work towards laws and policies that are as healthy for city-dwellers as they are for people who live in the country, laws that pay as much attention to the “well-regulated militia” part of the Second Amendment as they pay to the “keep and bear arms” part—laws that put additional pressure on those who make and sell guns, to ensure that they’re only selling to responsible individuals, and to make it easier to sue them when they don’t. (When the government was allowed to study these things, back in the late ‘90s, they found that something like 2% of gun stores were responsible for the guns used in 50% of gun homicides.) When I was an active alcoholic, I remember going to an all-you-can-drink event at a bar, asking for a shot, and being told I’d have to pay for it. I got upset; I thought I’d paid for the right to drink anything in that bar, in whatever form I wanted, but the bartender explained to me that it was against the law to serve shots for free at an all-you-can-drink event. I remember thinking (before I proceeded to get brownout drunk) that it was a stupid law—and then realizing, years later, that yeah, it probably made sense. Nowadays I’m glad we don’t have alcoholics in charge of writing laws about alcohol; I’m hopeful for the day when we don’t have gun addicts in charge of our gun laws.
In the meantime, though, I’m happy just to contribute a different voice and a different perspective to the national discussion. The gun addicts tell us “an armed society is a polite society.” They are quick to point out countries like Switzerland where this seems to be the case, while ignoring the many many many more places where it isn’t. (Somalia in the 90s, say, or Iraq in the 00s, or Northern Ireland in the 70s, or Sicily in the 80s, or even our own Wild West, which—the gun addicts will never tell you—had a murder rate approximately ten times as great as present-day Chicago.) They are quick to badmouth Chicago, while ignoring the fact that the city’s murder rate (as opposed to raw number of murders) is below, say, Gary and Indianapolis in gun-friendly Indiana. They used to complain that Chicago was too violent because of our strict gun laws—but now that gun laws have changed in the wake of D.C. v. Heller and McDonald v. City of Chicago, and the murder rate hasn’t gone down, they are busy looking for other gun solutions to our gun problems. The voices of the gun addicts should not be the only ones heard on this topic, even though they are often the loudest.
Getting back to Joe Peterson.
Joe and I live at opposite ends of Chicago. Ours is a city divided, half Manhattan and half Detroit. There are prosperous neighborhoods where one is likely to never hear a shot fired in anger; there are others where it’s a regular occurrence, where the responsible course of action is probably to sell one’s home and move somewhere where you’ll never hear gunshots in the night, or find spent 9mm casings in front of your building, or step over a murder victim’s blood on your way to work. (All of which have happened to me.) It’s a disempowering feeling, in part because so much of it is due to lax gun laws in other states—an estimated 60% of guns used in Chicago crimes were originally sold outside Illinois—and in part because carrying a gun oneself wouldn’t make any difference, as it’s not violence directed towards you. It’s the type of violence that the leaves the average law-abiding individual physically unharmed, while steadily undermining their community, hollowing it out through the steady outflow of internal refugees to the well-policed safe spaces of the suburbs. This type of violence depopulates vast swaths of city until the only people left are the ones comfortable with lawlessness, or actively engaged in it—or simply too poor to flee.
When Joe sent me this manuscript, it read—like many of his works—like a dreamy urban fable, a fanciful tale of male gun fantasies gone horribly wrong. A lot of his gun-related scenes were wrong, too; I knew we’d have to tweak them quite a bit just to make them remotely plausible. To help him rewrite things, I offered to end my longtime gun hiatus and take him to the range. For it is a full sensory experience, covering everything but taste—the look of a proper sight picture, the feeling of trigger-finger pressure chemically converted to the quick kick of recoil, the muffled-but-loud sound of each round, the smell of gun oil and the whiff of spent gunpowder, and the sight, at last, of lead-shredded paper targets. (That’s part of the allure, I think—part of the reason the gun addicts are so reluctant to look elsewhere for their happiness. It’s a fun activity that stimulates the senses.) It seemed best to have Joe experience it, so as to write about it convincingly.
Joe never took me up on the offer. I did a bunch of editing, and I tried to keep things semi-realistic while still retaining the dreamy qualities of Joe’s writing. Still, we never made it out to the range. Knowing his personal history, I understand why.
But you’ll have to read the book to find out.
Although Gunmetal Blue won’t officially be up for sale until December, we got a few production copies ready in time for the Chicago Book Expo on October 1. Interest was very high; we sold all of those books, and even one of the advance reader copies we’d brought along to give away to prospective reviewers. I went to bed content that we’d done something good; I woke horrified by yet another worst mass shooting in American history, a title that’s been claimed and reclaimed far too many times in the last decade.
The awful thing about shootings like this isn’t just that they happen—it’s that they’re the only time when there’s even a semblance of a conversation about possibly making the smallest and most incremental changes to our nation’s gun laws. We are not the only nation to grapple with violence; we are not the one with the worst murder rate—but we are the main source of firearms for the nations that ARE, the countries to the south of us that are riven by drug violence and American guns. (87% of the weapons seized by Mexican authorities originated in the United States, for instance, according to one survey by the U.S. GAO.) And we are the one where a substantial portion of the population acts like events like this are as inevitable as the weather. So all I can ask is: What kind of freedom is this, America?
But in my outrage and disgust, I can at least take comfort in putting another voice out there, a serious story that somehow manages to be whimsical as well. Gun addicts rightly point out that much of the entertainment put out by the so-called Hollywood liberal elites still glorifies gun violence. And they have a point; there is indeed an air of hypocrisy in someone like Matt Damon decrying guns while also fetishizing them in lucrative franchises like the Bourne movies.
This book is something else entirely, something that, for all its whimsy and unreality, still captures some essential truths about life on the gun range, about the fantasies of romantic violence that fuel so many people to spend millions at the range—all these middle-aged civilians fantasizing about being the next Chris Kyle, or stopping the next Omar Mateen. I do hope you’ll give it a read.