LOYAL OPPOSITION: Gun Shy
As the gunfire at Columbine High School continues to echo, many conservatives keep taking potshots at what they dub the "culture of death." The COD covers a lot of territory: Doom, shoot-'em-up movies, abortion, Jack Kevorkian, demonic shock rock, you know the drill. Dan Quayle, who was ghoulishly soundbiting against gun control before the blood was dry, has been repeating the mantra: "It's not guns, it's values." Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's number-two, railed against a moral breakdown in society and placed a bull's-eye on the violence-obsessed entertainment industry.The attack on the entertainment industry and the internet is a bipartisan affair, with Bill Clinton, Al Gore and other V-chip Democrats calling for a forceful policing of the culture in addition to more extensive gun control. But the "culture of death" remains the rhetorical property of the right. To the anti-CODers, the sweep of the "culture of death" may seem damn (literally) large, but they have defined it narrowly. How many of the right-wing critics of horrific, blood-drenched video games also oppose the death penalty? (And toss Clinton and Gore into this category.) Which conservatives who attack gun-filled movies (without attacking GOP action heroes Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis) also raise questions about the bombing raids in Iraq? Did the Republicans who now call for Marilyn Manson's head object to the Reagan administration's coziness with death squads in El Salvador, the murderous Argentina junta and Panamanian strongman and killer Manuel Noriega? How many of the decriers of the "culture of death" oppose the ongoing NATO airstrikes because they validate violence as a legitimate tool for resolving disputes? Do Gary Bauer, Patrick Buchanan and Jerry Falwell speak out as loudly against U.S. weapons sales to nondemocratic governments around the globe as they do against images on celluloid?There are messages in movies. Only a fool would argue that violent movies and computer games have no impact on those who absorb their images. After I watched Natural Born Killers on one of the two big screens remaining in Washington, I burst out of the theater, pumped up with anxious energy and wanted to kick ass and destroy property. You cannot watch a 13-year-old yelping with delight as he causes video-game carnage and not wonder how such play affects his psyche. But there are messages in real life as well. More importantly, there are examples.Politicians who call for executing criminal scum signal that it is proper to blow away people deemed a threat. We watch genocide in Rwanda on television as our leaders do nothing -- a declaration that those lives are not worth the effort. The Republican Party, for one, does not cherish life above all else. It pockets millions of dollars each year from the tobacco industry, money from profits accrued by seductively marketing a life-threatening product.Most amusing, in sad fashion, was LaPierre's attack on Hollywood's fixation on violence. This remark came from a fellow who leads a constituency enamored with guns. So obsessed are they that the NRA opposed a ban on designed-for-massacres assault weapons and cop-killer bullets. Guns and violence are not one and the same, but there does exist a gun culture, which encourages a fascination with weapons. (When I used to read Soldier of Fortune magazine for insights into the secret wars of the Reagan administration -- loose-lipped mercenaries like to brag of their adventures -- I often saw ads featuring barely attired curvaceous babes toting the hottest firearms.) In his book Making a Killing: The Business of Guns in America, Tom Diaz, a former NRA member and competitive shooter who became a gun control activist, shows that the gun industry in recent years responded to flat sales by producing increasingly deadly guns. But the gun culture -- centered on a device that enables lethal violence -- is not part of the right's "culture of death."The conservative values-posse blasts Manson for enticing teens into darkness. The NRA recruits as well for its gun-centric world. It aims quite young. At a 1998 convention, a gun enthusiast could buy NRA baby bibs and infantwear and children's products featuring Eddie Eagle, the group's mascot. (Think of a Joe Camel who is packing.) According to a study produced by the Violence Policy Center, which advocates gun control, the NRA in 1997 announced a $100 million campaign to reach children, and its youth magazine, InSights, routinely contains ads for firearms with violent-sounding names, such as the Savage Arms Predator, a combination rifle/shotgun. Two of the four guns used by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were Savage shotguns.There is an obsession with guns in the United States not found in other Western nations. There is a high rate of gun violence in the United States not found in other Western nations. But the foes of the "culture of death" do not criticize the gun culture. For good cause: It was with the support of gun aficionados, enraged by Clinton's gun-control efforts, that Newt Gingrich and the Republicans won control of Congress in the 1994 elections.Hastily last week, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, aping Clinton, called for a national dialogue on "youth and culture"; a GOP aide said the Republicans "hoped to make the point that gun control legislation isn't automatically the answer." This aide is correct in that gun control is not the only answer. Gun control laws, which are necessary, will not counter the causes of violence -- which means that Quayle, too, is right...in a sense. It is values. But what values? Where is the attack on the real-life glorification of guns and on the values of violence presented not on movie screens but during television news shows? Quayle and his gun-stroking comrades would rather focus on the imaginary than the actual. Perhaps it's an easier target for them to hit.