Earlier this year, a YouTube clip of comedian Jim Jefferies talking about gun control in America went viral (the clip has since been taken down due to a copyright claim). Jefferies, an Australian, took direct aim at the culture of gun ownership and fanaticism that exists in his adopted country, including shopworn bromides about freedom, protection, and the Second Amendment. One line in particular resonated. “There is one argument and one argument alone for having a gun,” Jefferies told his audience, “and this is the argument: Fuck off – I like guns. It’s not the best argument, but it’s all you’ve got.”
A.J. Somerset likes guns. He says as much in the first pages of the introduction to Arms: “I like guns. That’s a difficult admission, as if confessing to some kind of perversion, though it ought not to be. People like all kinds of things: cars, sailboats, acoustic guitars, fountain pens, Swiss watches, split-cane fly rods, canoes. Nobody has to justify liking these things, as I am continually asked to justify liking guns.”
True, but a dedicated anti-gun activist would rush to point out that Swiss watches and canoes were not invented with the express purpose of killing things. Fountain pens and guitar strings could be adapted into deadly weapons, of course, though not with the ease or intuitive design of pulling a trigger. But Somerset wouldn’t care about this argument, for the simple reason that the people making it are not his intended audience.
His audience is made up of people who have sympathy with his liking guns – who, whether they are gun owners or not, can understand Somerset’s enthusiasm in asserting that “shooting is fun, just as blasting music is fun” – yet remain astounded by the illogic and paranoia that often infects the diehard gun lobby in the U.S. and also, as Somerset illustrates, in parts of Canada.
This disparity between reason and whatever passes for it in the frothing mind of a dedicated gun nut is the focus of Arms. How, Somerset wants to know, did the duty to retreat, a holdover from British law, become stand your ground; how do open-carry advocates justify hauling semiautomatic weapons into Walmart; how did America’s police jettison their mandate to serve and protect and become a quasi-military force?
The distinction between responsible gun owners and those who drink from what Somerset refers to as the “Wellspring of Crazy” is not one that lands with many soft liberals, though, again, the author likely wouldn’t care. What might tweak the interest of anti-gun folks are some of Somerset’s specific targets, including the racism inherent on both sides of the U.S. gun control debate (staunch abolitionists, the author suggests, will never admit that one reason they don’t want guns readily available is their media-driven fear of maurading gangs of armed black men). Or the feminist argument that men who insist their spouses, girlfriends, and daughters be armed are less concerned about protection than they are about their own need for control over the women in their lives.
Stylistically, Arms resembles the grandiose encyclopedic approach of Moby-Dick – a book it otherwise shares nothing in common with – married to the gonzo nuttiness of Hunter S. Thompson, whose fingerprints are all over the volume. The result is a tonal mess: clipped and direct one minute, running to flights of lyrical fancy and overblown rhetorical flourishes the next. This makes for an occasionally frustrating reading experience, though Somerset is capable enough that he is usually able to regain control of his vehicle before driving it into the ditch.
“The single most important reason that Americans carry guns,” Somerset writes near the end of his book, is “because they can.” This may seem like an oversimplification, especially after having waded through the sometimes confused (and confusing) mire of Somerset’s more abstruse digressions. But perhaps the final analysis really is just that simple. Perhaps, in the end, this is what all the arguments and vitriol and anger surrounding guns boils down to: “Fuck off – I like guns.”