How do you have the ultimate all-American adventure? Pay $1,059 to Bullets and Burgers and “fly through the Grand Canyon, land and shoot machine guns, eat a World Famous Burger and ride your Harley to Las Vegas.” The company, based in Arizona, is just one of a growing number of gun tourism operations in the United States that attract both Americans and a significant number of foreign visitors each year.
Among the patrons of the Last Stop shooting range last week was a 9-year-old girl traveling with her parents from New Jersey. According to Sam Scarmado, operator of the Last Stop, firing an Uzi was “something the young girl wanted to do, and her parents [were] treating her.” Range instructor Charles Vacca, who was teaching the girl to fire the gun, was fatally shot in the head when she was unable to control the Uzi after it was switched from single-shot to fully automatic mode.
His death, which the Mohave County Sherriff’s Office views as an “industrial accident,” ought to deepen our private reflections about guns in the United States and inform our wider public discussion of gun policy. To date, two themes dominate that discussion: the proper interpretation of the Second Amendment and the alleged existence of two distinct gun cultures, one utterly opposed to firearms and the other in favor of unfettered access to all firearms.
The U.S. Supreme Court has recently settled some of the constitutional questions. However, any strict dichotomy between being pro-gun and anti-gun overstates disagreement among Americans at the cost of ignoring points of agreement. And it does no good to gloss the dichotomy in terms of a rural-urban divide. For it is not the case that all rural residents would identify as pro-gun, nor would all residents of urban areas identify as anti-gun. The dichotomy itself is problematic, for Americans’ superficially different attitudes about firearms are, ironically, grounded in our mutual commitment to a more fundamental, unifying myth about individualism and personal liberty. That Americans have significant individual rights and liberties that protect them against interference from the government and from each other is no myth. But when this truth is conjoined with the lie that we are individually capable of fully determining our fate, a reasonable desire to defend our rights is transformed into a desire for absolute control over others.
It is true that gun ownership is more prevalent in rural than in urban and suburban areas. In remote areas firearms are needed to protect against wild animals and packs of abandoned dogs that have become feral, to euthanize dying or injured animals and sometimes to hunt for food.
The need for a gun in suburbs and cities is less obvious. Still, guns are also used for pleasure; learning to hunt is a rite of passage for children across the country. And recreational hunting is not limited to a particular low-income demographic. In 2011 hunting was a $33.7 billion industry, and most hunters (PDF) report an annual household income of more than $50,000.
Hence, there is an element of truth to the rural-urban divide: On a horse ranch in Wyoming a gun is not an exotic object; there rifles, shotguns and pistols are utterly banal. In the hands of a middle-class tourist at Bullets and Burgers, a gun is edgy and cool; firing a S&W model 29 .44 Magnum handgun, an Uzi submachine gun or an M203 grenade launcher is exciting and thrilling.
Customers at such ranges such as Bullets and Burgers are there to satisfy, albeit briefly, the fantasy of wielding the power of life and death.
But let us dig more deeply. Why do people, including a 9-year-old girl from New Jersey, seek this kind of experience? One answer is that some people are reasonably curious about how it feels to shoot a gun. (Aficionados of certain popular video games might be especially so.) However, there is a morally relevant difference between being curious and paying a considerable sum of money to satisfy such curiosity using deadly weapons.
Guns and mythmaking
The primary function of businesses like Bullets and Burgers is not the mere assuaging of curiosity. It is, rather, the provision of a very particular experience. And despite what Bullets and Burgers advertises as its “unique Desert Storm atmosphere,” a customer’s experience there is utterly different from that of a soldier deployed in real battle. Customers at such ranges do not pay to experience being shot at by others. Nor are they there to learn about firearm safety or to develop their marksmanship. They are there to satisfy, albeit briefly (an Uzi is capable of firing 600 rounds a minute), the fantasy of wielding the power of life and death.
Apologists for the existence of companies that offer packaged firearm “adventures” are correct to note that people seek out and pay to have all manner of similarly risky and intense experiences — for example, bungee jumping and parachuting. But when one jumps out of a plane or off a bridge, one is exploring the emotional edges of one’s own mortality, not concretely experiencing what it is like to determine another’s fate.
It is very human to want some measure of control over our and others’ lives. Certain social relationships (employer-employee; parent-child) and aspects of the law (contracts) sanction and facilitate this need. But the appetite for more complete control is born of a fantasy — namely that we can exercise ultimate power. Technologies from the mundane (the automobile) to the scary (grenade launchers) abet us in maintaining this myth. And the further individuals are from their desired degree of control, the more attractive such technologies will be to them.
In the United States, this psychologically universal desire for control, particularly as it relates to technology use, is also amplified by a national fantasy. To be an American in this fantasy is to be a free member of the most powerful nation on the planet. The paradigmatic American is independent (especially of government), self-sufficient and has unlimited potential to realize greatness in whatever domain he or she pleases. The enormous liberty we have to own and use deadly weapons — whether or not we choose to exercise it — is an inescapable part of this picture. Guns are the quintessential American technology, just as burgers are our quintessential edible.
There is no reason to believe that American children are immune to this mythological image. It is dangerously easy to deny that a 9-year-old girl is capable of wanting to fire a submachine gun and, likewise, to roll one’s eyes at the irresponsibility of parents who would treat her to this experience as part of her summer fun. However, young children are capable of understanding that some actions have fatal and thus irreversible consequences. And being human, they too — perhaps especially — need assurance that they are not utterly powerless.
U.S. law prohibits minors from engaging in all manner of activities in public, even when accompanied by their permissive parents. Children are not permitted to drink alcohol, drive a car or have sex, and serious penalties attach to adults who help minors break the law in these ways. But there is no legal barrier to parents’ taking their young daughter to fire an Uzi in automatic mode and eating a hamburger with her afterward.
Such is the genius and tragedy of the Bullets and Burgers adventure: A New Jersey family only wanted to be ultimately all-American — just for one day.