The late writer Andre Dubus began buying guns in the 1970s, after a loved one was raped at knifepoint. At first he took a gun with him only when he went out with a woman. No one would be raped where he was concerned.
But then he began imagining other scenarios in which a gun would be necessary. There was no end. He carried a gun more often, into more situations, until one night the time came. He found himself pointing his weapon at a stranger who threatened another man with a knife.
After the massacre at Virginia Tech, Americans parted along familiar lines. One side pleaded for more gun control, the other for less. If only students carried guns, the latter's argument went, someone could have made short work of Seung-Hui Cho, and at least reduced the death toll.
Or perhaps such an armed student, panicked, drunk one night, might have killed someone by mistake. The only difference would be in how we keep score: Towering Rage vs. Tragic Error.
Not long ago, Wall Street Journal science columnist Sharon Begley found a set of studies on how people react to violent events. The consensus was that, jolted by a new awareness of their own mortality, people cling more fervently than ever to their core beliefs.
Greater certainty, it seems, brings great comfort.
Begley wanted to know how acts of terrorism might affect voting patterns. But the studies she consulted illuminate our responses to home-grown gun violence as well.
Every new rampage ups the stakes.
Conservatives, research shows, become more conservative — more hostile toward those seen as different (in this case, The Crazies). They back more extreme solutions than before.
That would explain why the pro-gun faction, once content simply to push hard against restrictions, now wants to pass the ammunition. The more people who go armed, the happier we all shall be.
Astounded liberals note that Americans already live in a sea of guns, the sheer numbers upping the likelihood they will be used. To these Americans, stronger restrictions are such a no-brainer it practically makes their teeth hurt. Virginia Tech hit them like root canal.
Most people with this makeup shun militarism and embrace tolerance. They favor constructive engagement with problems. New Yorkers virtually locked these peace-loving values in a death grip after the World Trade Center fell. Which might explain, to bewildered Americans elsewhere, why thousands turned out not for marches to demand revenge but to protest the Iraq invasion, leaving not a soul on the Upper West Side to tend a pan of risotto.
At the same time though, flags came out. A gentle patriotism spread across Manhattan, dissolving the liberal stereotype. We may be more complex, and open to change, than the research can show.
Yet at the moment, the American predilection for gun violence seems unalterable. Mass gun slayings do occur elsewhere in the developed world but with nowhere near the same sickening regularity.
As Wesleyan English professor Richard Slotkin has noted, the prerogative of private violence is deeply imbedded in our collective psyche, partly owing to the mythology of the frontier. Guns (for men especially) are entwined with notions of equality and status. Our films, music and video games celebrate this aspect of American identity more than ever, and are not an irrelevant aside.
Today, no one on either side of the gun divide can seriously argue that our current policies are working. But few have the courage to face them down.
The Republicans have mostly dug in alongside the many opponents of firearms restrictions. The Democrats have grown hard-headed and will introduce only token reforms. They paid a political price, they believe, for supporting the assault-weapons ban and other gun-control measures in the early 1990s, and they do not intend to pay again.
An ex-Marine, Andre Dubus was as much a product of our bullet culture as anyone. He loved the heft and feel, indeed the beauty, of guns. But he underwent a change of heart about going forth armed.
He explores this change in "Giving Up the Gun," an essay more riveting than any piece on a decision has a right to be. Attempts to paraphrase his searching meditation would do it violence. But it is worth noting that Dubus made his decision after he was hit by a car, and forced to use a wheelchair for the rest of his days.
Dubus did not, in his turning-point encounter, fire on the man with the knife. (An unarmed person intervened.) But he saw how having the gun seemed to give him no choice but to use it.
We have choices. We could make it easier to detain a troubled adolescent for care; easier for parents to increase control over children's TV viewing; easier to do strict background checks on weapons buyers.
But we are curiously paralyzed — as if we believe that the unfettered flow of guns, despite evidence from other societies, is the inevitable price of freedom; as if we believe the desperately ill, the spiritually maimed, must be free to fall into the fiery pit; as if we are not free to write a new story of who we are.
I do not know what it would take to get more Americans to ford the stream that Dubus did. A million or more acts of imagination, maybe. A million or more surrenders to faith.
M.J. Andersen is a member of The Providence Journal's editorial board