A brilliant storyteller attempts to get at the roots of the American obsession with firearms – but leaves readers feeling as hopeless as when they started
When reporting on gun deaths in the United States I always asked bereaved parents an open‑ended question about what they thought had made the tragedy possible. Generally they mentioned bad parenting, teenage pregnancies, absent fathers and a range of other cable TV talking points. The one thing they would never raise was guns. After 12 years in the US I concluded that many Americans regard gun deaths like traffic fatalities – an unavoidable, if horrific, consequence of everyday life.
This sense of learned hopelessness bleeds through to the polity. Most Americans who are shot dead do not die in mass shootings, but mass shootings are the spectacles that catch the attention and galvanise protesters and legislators. Whenever such an incident occurs the urgent feeling that something should be done is soon eclipsed by a sense of resignation that nothing will change because a significant, well-organised minority believe nothing should change, and point to the constitution as though it were a holy book in a theocracy. And so what should be a debate about public safety descends into a set of well-rehearsed incantations, devoted to grief and dogma, which form a permanent national requiem for the massacre of innocents that most Americans feel either too defeated or too stubborn to save.
Paul Auster’s Bloodbath Nation – part memoir, part essay – offers a reflection on the role that the gun has played in history, society and the novelist’s own life. We learn of his gradual, uneventful introduction to guns, from childhood toys to the rifle he tries out at summer camp and a double-barrelled shotgun at his friend’s farm; when he joins the merchant navy he meets people from the south and marvels at their reckless relationship to firearms. We also discover that while there were no guns in the Auster home, there was a significant, if rarely mentioned, gun death in the family’s history: his grandmother shot his estranged grandfather in front of his uncle.
Having unpacked both his own ambivalent, alienated and somewhat antipathetic personal connection to the weapon itself he then sets out to understand where the nation is coming from and why. “America’s relationship to the gun is anything but rational … and therefore we have done little or nothing to fix the problem,” he writes.
The problem, he claims, is not new and the nation will have to dig deep to uncover its roots. “In order to understand how we got here, we have to remove ourselves from the present and go back to the beginning, back to the time before the US was invented.”
The fix, he insists, does not reside in banning the manufacture and sale of all guns – because attempting to do so would be as impractical and ineffective as the banning of alcohol during prohibition, which criminalised ordinary people and created a flourishing black market. Moreover, he points out: “Gun owners in this country would not stand for it.” Auster argues that dealing with the problem, unique to the United States among developed countries, demands a process far more thoroughgoing and introspective that does not start with legislation. “Peace will break out,” he writes, “only when both sides want it, and in order for that to happen, we would first have to conduct an honest, gut-wrenching examination of who we are and who we want to be as a people going forward into the future, which necessarily would have to begin with an honest gut-wrenching examination of who we have been in the past.”
There is something in this. There is an atavistic attachment to firearms in America that places the gun at the centre of some of the nation’s most cherished myths. The gun speaks to self-reliance and small government: defend yourself, don’t leave it to the state, which can’t defend you and may well seek to oppress you. It speaks to masculinity and homestead: real men protect their families and property by any means necessary. To power and domination: the nation was won, defended and protected by force in general and by the gun in particular.
These claims are either obnoxious or nonsense or both. Most people who are killed by guns kill themselves; you are more likely to be killed by a gun if you have a gun; and you are most likely to be shot by someone you know. In short, if guns really made you safer then America would be the safest place on Earth. It’s not. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2013 seven kids and teens were shot dead every day; in 2020, the last year for which figures are available, it was 12.
Facts and arguments for reform are important, but when set against myths they generally lose. While the gun control lobby is championing background checks and smart technology, the National Rifle Association, which claims to advocate for gun owners, is talking about freedom and the constitution. The latter doesn’t win the argument; polls consistently show that most Americans favour stricter gun laws. But they generally lose the fight, and every time such legislation is introduced in Congress it fails to pass.
But while there is something to Auster’s argument, there is not enough in it to carry the day and not enough elsewhere in the book to sustain it. It is true that banning guns in America would be impractical and unworkable; but then no country completely bans guns, they just regulate their ownership and use effectively. In a nation still bitterly divided over who won the last presidential election and whether Covid is real, it is also not clear why he thinks the country engaging in a “gut-wrenching examination” of its past is any more plausible a prospect than banning guns. And given the polarising rhetoric of the NRA and its allies, who regard every mass shooting as an opportunity to argue for more guns not fewer, peace is not going to break out – because one side does not want peace.
I would not expect Auster to produce a game plan for how such a battle might be waged, or even for how his own version of peace might be forged. There are no easy answers. But I did expect that having demanded an honest, difficult national conversation he would, at least, go on to tell us what he thinks the nation should be talking about.
He doesn’t. Instead he takes us on a journey that passes by the second amendment, slavery, Native American genocide, Vietnam, the Black Panthers, Black Lives Matter, Donald Trump, neoliberal globalisation and much more. It’s a lot of ground to cover in such a small book: arguably too much. Auster, one of the finest storytellers in the English language, makes for an informed and enlightened companion as he meanders through the subject. But his failure to signal a destination, let alone arrive at one, leaves the reader lost and feeling as hopeless as when they started.