[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here on West Coast Sound every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Saturday KCRW broadcast.]
In 1994, the Federal Assault Weapons Ban was signed into law by President Clinton. The law “sunsetted” 10 years later and never came back. Firearms that had taken a retail “timeout” were back in play. Unsurprisingly, a lot of people went out and legally acquired some serious freedom delivery systems. These weapons remain quite accessible and probably will be so until Charlton Heston retroactively says he was just kidding. What is considered an assault rifle (say, the Colt AR-15) is, at the end of the day, just a rifle and not the only semi-automatic variety on the market.
America enjoys some global-high stats when it comes to death and injury via guns. Hell, America kicks ass in homicide, suicide, traffic fatality and incarceration like no other country.
I am convinced that it's not the guns that make America a sometimes dangerous place to live. As always, it's the people.
Guns, and other things that go boom, have been with America from the beginning. There was not a time when the gun wasn't a major part of life in America, from its founding to the rapid westward expansion and annexation of states.
“Rockets” and “bombs” are mentioned in our national anthem. Immediately after the boring trivialities of basic freedoms — religion, speech, press, gathering — are duly noted in the First Amendment of the Constitution, the Second Amendment addresses the right to bear arms. That comes before the right to privacy, due process of law, fair trial by jury, no cruel and unusual punishment, etc.
Some of America's most oft-mentioned historical points have guns involved, from civil wars to assassinations both attempted and realized.
America has glorified and romanticized gun-carrying outlaws since it was rigging elections. Perhaps two of the most notable are Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. After a long crime spree, the two were famously gunned down in Louisiana on May 23, 1934. Their bullet-ridden car has been on display all over America ever since. Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty immortalized them on the big screen. It's often glossed over that Bonnie and Clyde were killers of police and citizens. The pair caused a lot of undeserved misery, and they got famous doing it.
I remember seeing the Clint Eastwood big-ass gun classic Dirty Harry with my father on one of our sanctioned Saturday visits. He liked it so much, we stayed and watched it a second time.
Americans love guns. You can bring in Freud and countless others to try to explain why, but I think it's very simple. America is a country born from semi-mythologized blood, glory and acts of selfless patriotic sacrifice. Gun ownership speaks of security, self-reliance and autonomy. When the drive-by shooting's bullet misses its intended target, goes through the wall of an apartment and kills a sleeping child in its crib, well, when you chop wood, chips fly, as Nikolai Yezhov once said. Sadly, the shooter is as much a part of the American identity as the law-abiding duck hunter.
Since guns and their handlers' deeds have been with us from the start, it would stand to reason that they would find themselves mentioned in songs.
In blues music, there's a lot of borrowing, so it's often difficult to identify the originator of a song. There is a Robert Johnson song called “32-20 Blues” where the man sends word out to his woman that, should she get out of line, his 32-20 will “cut her half in two.” Another amazing blues player, Skip James, also promised to “cut that woman half in two” with his 22-20.
“Hey Joe” is another song whose authorship is somewhere in the mists of history but was at least registered by Billy Roberts and first released by The Leaves in 1965. It was made famous by Jimi Hendrix in 1966 and taken way out to an almost unendurable level by The Arbors in 1969. It is a cold and hopeless song about a man going to kill the woman of his affections because she's with another man. An ode to premeditated murder — of course it's been recorded by many other artists, including Cher and Patti Smith.
Speaking of Hendrix, his Axis: Bold as Love album has one of his shortest compositions at a mere 100 seconds. “Wait Until Tomorrow” ends with Dolly Mae's daddy shooting her lover before they can elope!
Click bang, what a hang, your daddy just shot poor me.
And then, there is the incredible body count racked up in the rap genre, which contains perhaps the most dismal of all American lyrical gun imagery. I recently listened to the eloquent Harry Belafonte speaking on BBC World News about how heartbroken he was when rap went from a sharp and precise articulation of struggle and anger to the bragging of an American demographic seemingly hell-bent on self-annihilation.
Now and then, something completely horrifying and awful happens in a gun-related incident. Immediately, there is an outcry from concerned citizens for regulations, laws, anything to stop this from happening again. Just as quickly, the discussion becomes extremely parsed and the main point is all but forgotten in the emotion of the moment. Common ground isn't easy to come by. While we are indeed all in this together, it's all but impossible in those moments to deal with that certainty.
Banning guns would be like amputating everyone's legs, thus insuring that no one will ever shoot themselves in the foot again. Since guns will always be with us, to make things better, we have to be better and get up the road together.
Easy to write those words, harder to live by them. Carry on.