Monthly Archives: May 2013

Gun Lit: My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun

Emily Dickinson with gun

The first time I read “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun,” I was left with the impression that the poem’s speaker was using the gun as a metaphor for her own potential, a potential for action and impact that was unlocked by another person–“The Owner”–but that the speaker is the more powerful of the two.

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –
By Emily Dickinson


My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –
In Corners – till a Day
The Owner passed – identified –
And carried Me away –


And now We roam in Sovreign Woods –
And now We hunt the Doe –
And every time I speak for Him
The Mountains straight reply –


And do I smile, such cordial light
Opon the Valley glow –
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let it’s pleasure through –


And when at Night – Our good Day done –
I guard My Master’s Head –
’Tis better than the Eider Duck’s
Deep Pillow – to have shared –


To foe of His – I’m deadly foe –
None stir the second time –
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye –
Or an emphatic Thumb –


Though I than He – may longer live
He longer must – than I –
For I have but the power to kill,
Without – the power to die –

The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition ed by Ralph W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999) via Poetry Foundation

But when I went to find criticism/commentary on the poem, I was greeted with this comment from Brooklyn College professor Lilia Melani:

Most readers feel the power of this poem, which is based on rage. The speaker compares her life to an unused loaded gun and finds joy in fulfilling its purpose to kill. Even if you have never felt a rage so violent that you felt destructive or explosive, can you imagine what such a state must feel like? Does this poem convincingly portray such a rage?

I was like “what? rage? where!?” I associate rage with unchecked ferocity, wildness. But this poem felt controlled. Cold. Precise. Do other people see rage in this? I wonder if it is because of my own personal experience and associations with firearms– I can recall almost viscerally how it felt to hold a gun when I was learning how to fire. I felt very strong and empowered and morally capable since I didn’t feel the urge to shoot anyone. But I knew that I could if I wanted to. I felt very good. Competent. And that is the feeling I get from this poem.

“My Life had stood” is probably one of my favorite poems. There’s a fair amount written about it being a representation of Dickinson’s internal struggle with the power of her writing in an age where poetry was not seen as feminine. If you’re interested in reading more, here’s a medley of excellent criticism compiled by Karen Ford.

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Battle of the NRA Eagle Emblems


Graphic of NRA Blue Eagle, ca. 1933; Records of the National Recovery Administration, 1927-1937. National Archives and Records Administration. Via Slate

Nope. Not that NRA. Apparently there was a National Recovery Administration set up during FDR’s New Deal to aid workers in collective bargaining and the creation of wage standards. The organization’s emblem–an eagle clutching a gear in one set of talons and lighting bolts in the other–would be displayed by participating businesses to show support for the power of American Industry. From Rebecca Onion’s post on Slate:

Wasn’t the government afraid that people would confuse its new logo with the National Rifle Association’s? Although the NRA that’s now a household name was formed back in 1871, in the 1930s the organization was still a relatively obscure educational body, sponsoring rifle clubs and youth programs. In 1934, the National Rifle Association instituted a legislative affairs division, beginning its transformation into the lobbying superpower that it is today.

Must admit that I rather like the graphic logo of the New Deal NRA. I’m afraid it makes the National Rifle Association’s eagle emblem look rather dated in comparison…


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Visualizing The Impact Of Guns

Number of Gun Deaths Since Newtown 5-28-13

“How Many People Have Been Killed by Guns Since Newtown?” Interactive map created by  Slate and @GunDeaths visualizing the toll firearms have taken since Dec. 14.

In Un-Selling The Gun a couple of weeks ago I touched upon the problem of conveying the impact of firearms on the individuals and communities they effect. Humans aren’t always very good at understanding data. In fact, some studies have shown that comprehending specific amounts above the number 3 is still a relatively new skill. And that’s where charts, maps, visualizations, and narratives come in handy. People will go to some interesting lengths to compensate for the limitations of the human brain.

In addition to emotional, first-person stories, gun policy activist Arkadi Gerney once used a “murder truck” (his nickname) to display the number of Americans murdered with guns since the Gabby Giffords shooting.  In his piece on The New Yorker‘s website, he wrote:

On the morning of February 16, 2011, when Mayor Bloomberg launched the truck on a national tour, the digital display read “1,311.” Omar Samaha , whose sister was murdered at Virginia Tech, would captain what was officially called the “Fix Gun Checks” truck on a journey across America.


Image of the “Fix Gun Checks” truck via HuffPo

But the truck and Gerney’s best efforts still didn’t result in the gun control legislation that he’d hoped to pass. Maybe the bare number by itself (well, with a spokesman and his heart-wrenching story) wasn’t enough to get the message across.

Slate has a similar yet perhaps more powerful project called “How Many People Have Been Killed by Guns Since Newtown? in which every individual killed is represented by an icon showing whether they were an adult or child, female or male. The graphic is also sortable by age, gender, and date and is accompanied by a the same data applied to a map of the U.S. and filterable by location (screenshot at top). There’s something about the human shapes that really stuns. Maybe it’s a sense of scale? I can mentally place these people in relationship to my own body, to the scale of an individual person. And then pull out to a macro view of the country or city. This micro/macro pairing just works for me. It’s graphic without being gratuitous. Simple and but not sanitized.

Screen Shot 2013-05-28 at 9.36.07 PM

Speaking of data, there was quite a kerfuffle a few weeks back over the release of a Pew Research report demonstrating that the number of gun deaths has been going down since a peak in the mid 90’s. According to Pew:

Despite national attention to the issue of firearm violence, most Americans are unaware that gun crime is lower today than it was two decades ago. According to a new Pew Research Center survey, today 56% of Americans believe gun crime is higher than 20 years ago and only 12% think it is lower.

Maybe we’re just better at understanding the gravity of these numbers? Perhaps it isn’t that we think crime is statistically increasing. Rather, increased access to information, personal stories, and illustrative data design lets us understand just how bad gun violence is. Perhaps our awareness of firearms-related deaths is increasing even as the actual number has been decreasing?


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Where War Is Child’s Play: War Games at London’s Museum of Childhood

toy soldiersToy Soldier Set, Germany, c.1936, pieces by O & M Hausser and A. G. Lineol. Image via the V&A.

In line with this week’s informal theme of children, guns, and play, the Museum of Childhood in London opened War Games, a new exhibition that explores the material culture of war-themed toys and children’s ephemera.

According to The Guardian’s Mark Brown:

Co-curator Ieuan Hopkins admits they were not short of potential exhibits. “The first thing we did was go through the museum’s collections and the amount of material we had relating to war was incredible, it was quite a surprise. War has always been a part of children’s lives.”

Brown also mentions the exhibitions’ look at war propaganda aimed at children — how toys are so easily co-opted as political tools. It reminded me of a section in last summer’s Century of the Child exhibition at MoMA that featured a similar theme.

I think there’s something particularly discomfiting about the combination of childhood innocence and violent or racist propaganda. Children aren’t usually equipped with the critical thinking skills to know when an image or political message is manipulative. And it makes one question one’s own assumptions and beliefs. If they were stacked between “Clue” and “Monopoly”, would I have been an eager player of the “Get Those Japs” darts in War Games or the Nazi-themed “SAKAMPF” board game from Century of the Child?

Text on the War Games website acknowledges:

War play is controversial. It is actively discouraged by many parents and teachers, as it is thought to encourage aggression. But aggressive play, a type of active play, is not the same as real aggression, in which a child intends to harm.

Research questioning whether war play and aggression are linked is inconclusive. Fears that they are may come from personal beliefs and assumptions influenced by the pacifist and feminist movements of the last fifty years. War play can also bring benefits. It can help children to distinguish good from bad and right from wrong. And it can help them to explore their feelings and understanding of an often violent adult world.

Reminds me of yesterday’s post on prop oriented make-believe. There’s even a section of the exhibition displaying toy guns improvised out of sticks by the curator’s own son. Sound familiar?

War Games is at the Museum of Childhood in London from May 25 through March 9, 2014.

Thanks to @cat_rossi for the tip!

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Guns and Prop Oriented Make-Believe

gun-shaped sticks

 Image via LA Times, Mike Bruce / Hammer Museum. These gun-shaped sticks were collected by the son of artist Rachel Whiteread as a substitute for the toy guns he was forbidden to own.

One thing that really struck me when I was conducting interviews for my MFA thesis was the high number of people who were drawn to firearms through play and fantasy. There was the gun curator who started as a Civil War reenactor, another who specialized in ornate weaponry after a childhood admiring medieval knights, and one whose love of firearms originated with his fascination for the ray gun of Buck Rogers. But it isn’t only curators who are interested in the fantasy component of weapons — the most popular objects on display at the National Firearms Museum were the light sabers for Star Wars.

The theorist Kendall Walton has written about the ways that we use objects and play and fantasy in order to understand abstract ideas and the purpose/potential of objects. He writes:

“We are constantly inventing new games of make-believe and communicating them to each other. This doesn’t mean that we actively participate in these games. Many of them are prop rather than content oriented; our interest being not in the make-believe itself, but in the props. Thinking of the props as props in potential games of make-believe is a device for understanding them.”

I think that to many people, guns (or the idea of guns) are merely props for thinking about relationships of power and our moral obligations to others and ourselves. So many children are drawn to toy guns or biting their breakfasts into a gun-shape for similar, if less sophisticated, reasons. What they’re really doing is thinking through different power relationships. They’re trying on ways of interacting with others and the world.

That’s my theory, anyway.

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TrackingPoint Rifle: A Gun With Agency?


Image of the TrackingPoint rifle from manufacturer’s website

When I came across the story of the TrackingPoint rifle on NPR, “A New ‘Smart Rifle’ Decides When To Shoot And Rarely Misses,” I was really looking forward to untangling the moral implications of a gun that fires when it “wants.” Based on the headline, I thought that the rifle had an auto-lock-and-fire functionality along the lines of a camera that won’t shoot until all variables are within optimal levels. Or a military drone making surgical strikes.

If this was true, the technology would be a huge leap in the direction of seceding personal moral authority to a potentially deadly machine and I was totally jazzed and anxious about what this might mean for the future of guns and gun control and the concept of objects-with-agency. However, the story is slightly different. And slightly less controversial when we get into the details. According to NPR’s Mark Dewey:

The rifle’s scope features a sophisticated color graphics display. The shooter locks a laser on the target by pushing a small button by the trigger. It’s like a video game. But here’s where it’s different: You pull the trigger but the gun decides when to shoot. It fires only when the weapon has been pointed in exactly the right place, taking into account dozens of variables, including wind, shake and distance to the target.

So, as long as the target lock is correct, the gun provides a visual indication of optimal aim. Yes, it dramatically improves the accuracy and (by implication) the deadliness of the rifle. However, the shooter still makes the decision to fire. It is still a human brain that sends the signal to the hand to depress the trigger and initiate the mechanical effect of sending a high speed projectile from the barrel.

Video highlighting the TrackingPoint’s features, from manufacturer’s website

One of the more interesting features of the rifle sight is that it can stream video of the view to a nearby device. I’ve been planning to write a post about Paul Virilio’s War and Cinema and this technology fits perfectly into Virilio’s theories about the emergence of new ways of seeing from the destructive impulse of military and war technology.

I can foresee the creation of a non-gun product made of a camera mounted on a rifle-like object that turns the world itself into a first-person-shooter video game.  The user takes aim and “shoots” real life targets but the device’s computer detects accuracy/points and records it for sharing on social media. The social cache and pride in taking out a 22-point buck could be achieved without actually killing one.

Does such a product already exist?

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Un-Selling The Gun: Anti-Firearms Advertising

An anti-gun advertisement Arkadi Gerney helped to create featuring Omar Samaha, whose sister Reema was killed by Seung-Hui Cho in the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings.

Last week on The New Yorker‘s website, gun policy activist Arkadi Gerney wrote about a deeply personal experience with firearms that lead him to his pro-gun-control career. As someone currently researching in the stories told by firearms advertising, I am also interested to learn about the techniques Gerney used to try and sway people in the opposite direction, to “un-sell” guns in the interest of gun control. Gerney talks about campaigns that worked and didn’t work, saying:

All these efforts depended on survivors and family members telling their stories. Internal public-opinion research we conducted showed that the scale of gun violence made the numbers hard to comprehend. It was important, we determined, to put human faces on the problem. People listen when victims talk to them.

It’s a way of making the abstract concrete. Humans are famously terrible at understanding the full meaning of numbers or complex statistical analysis. In many ways, the American gun control debate is a debate about who controls the gun narrative— the meanings and associations we embed into these objects. As Gerney writes:

The gun issue is emotionally charged—and ripe for emotional appeals. It’s easy to make data-driven arguments for stronger gun laws built on statistical evidence; but that levelheaded approach has never been enough.

Second Amendment advocates know this, too; they’ve developed a case with its own emotional weight, on which the core issue is not guns but freedom. It’s about liberty fought and died for two hundred and thirty years ago, and paid for with blood in fields in foreign lands ever since. Advocates for stronger gun laws would be unwise to diminish the deeply felt sense of history, culture, and liberty that for so many years has motivated millions to send thirty dollars a year to the N.R.A., call a member of Congress, hold a sign at a rally, or run for office.

Gerney goes on to say that “it’s the stories of the people whose lives are changed that can help to permanently change the debate, and thus make our country safer.”

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Gun Lit: My Mother Contemplating Her Gun

Revolver by Pearson Scott Foresman

Illustration by Pearson Scott Foresman

Today’s Poem of the Day from the Poetry Foundation has remained in my mind since it appeared in my inbox this morning.

Nick Flynn’s “My Mother Contemplating Her Gun” evokes some powerful and pertinent impressions of the role of firearms in our lives — guns as objects to be feared and to ward off fear, the marvel that such a small thing as a bullet can unmake a person.

And there’s something else here, too, that I can’t quite name but continues to resonate. Something to do with agency and mortality. I’ll have to mull it over.

My Mother Contemplating Her Gun
By Nick Flynn

One boyfriend said to keep the bullets

locked in a different room.
                                    Another urged
            clean it
or it could explode. Larry
thought I should keep it loaded
under my bed,
                     you never know.
            I bought it
when I didn’t feel safe. The barrel
                         is oily,
             reflective, the steel
pure, pulled from a hole
                      in West Virginia. It
could have been cast into anything, nails
along the carpenter’s lip, the ladder
to balance the train. Look at this, one
                        how almost nothing it is—
             saltpeter   sulphur   lead   Hell
burns sulphur, a smell like this.
                        safety & hammer, barrel & grip
             I don’t know what I believe.
I remember the woods behind my father’s house
          horses beside the quarry
stolen cars lost in the deepest wells,
the water below
            an ink waiting to fill me.
                      Outside a towel hangs from a cold line
            a sheet of iron in the sky
            roses painted on it, blue roses.
Tomorrow it will still be there.

“My Mother Contemplating Her Gun” © 2000 Nick Flynn. Reprinted from Some Ether with the permission of Graywolf Press, St Paul, Minnesota. Source: Some Ether (Graywolf Press, 2000). via Poetry Foundation

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Guns and suicide

via Atlantic Cities 2013-05-08

Chart via The Atlantic Cities

Last week in The Atlantic Cities, Richard Florida (he of The Rise of the Creative Class) wrote about the connection between firearms, place, and America’s Surging Suicide Rate:

The close connection between gun ownership and suicide has indeed been documented in several detailed state-level studies. A Harvard School of Public Health study found gun ownership to be the overriding factor in accounting for state-by-state differences in suicide after controlling for mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, and other factors. A website for a Harvard suicide-prevention campaign explains: “The higher suicide rates result from higher firearm suicides; the non-firearm suicide rate is about equal across states.” The Harvard School of Public Health News, which summarized the main findings of the study, notes that “in states where guns were prevalent—as in Wyoming, where 63 percent of households reported owning guns—rates of suicide were higher. The inverse was also true: where gun ownership was less common, suicide rates were also lower.”

This type of argument — that the ease and availability of means of committing suicide leads to an increased number of suicides — always reminds me of the curious case of coal gas in the UK. In the 1950’s and 60’s, the change from coal gas (which has a high CO2 level toxic to humans) to natural gas (which contains virtually no CO2) lead to a dramatic decrease in the overall suicide rate. Norman Kreitman, author of The Coal Gas Study, marveled at

how the removal of a single agent of self-destruction can have had such far-reaching consequences. There is no shortage of exits from this life; it would seem that anyone bent on self-destruction must eventually succeed, yet it is also quite possible, given the ambivalence (or multivalence) of many suicides, that a failed attempt serves as a catharsis leading to profound psychological change. For others it may be that the scenario of suicide specifies the use of a particular method, and that if this is not available actual suicide is then less likely. Virtually nothing is known about such questions.

I can’t help but draw a parallel with the firearms-and-suicide problem in the US and neither could The New York Times. Even something as simple as keeping the gun locked away in a place separated from its ammunition might erect a sufficient barrier to deter some suicides.

I first learned of this study and the profound interplay of environment/ability on suicide rates from Stephen Fry’s BBC documentary “The Secret Life Of The Manic Depressive.” It includes a fascinating interview with Carrie Fisher. Worth a Watch.

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15 Guns On A Bicycle Built For Two

Gangbusters Bike

LIFE via “Gangbusters Bike mounts 13 shotguns, two revolvers, six bayonets, flare gun.” Photo taken by Wallace Kirkland—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

To celebrate Bike to Work Week, Wired posted images of several novel bicycles created by the Chicago chapter of the National Bicycle Dealers’ Association and featured in the December 27, 1948 issue of LIFE magazine. The “Gangbusters Bike,” was apparently armed with 13 shotguns, two revolvers, six bayonets and a flare gun. A reference to the popular Gang Busters radio show, the bike appears to satirize the violent image of American mobsters and the police who fought them.

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