‘Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun’ by A.J. Somerset

Book Reviews

Arms coverReviewed by Tim Runtz

It was with some trepidation that I approached the opening pages of Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun. After all, this was a treatise on gun culture, written by a gun guy. I am not a gun guy. I ride my bike to work. I’ve been known to acquire organic kale from my local CSA.

Of course, active transportation and leafy greens have little to do with firearms, but in the culture wars of long-gun registries and second amendment rights, you seem to have to pick a side. You’re either a far-right whacko stashing tactical weapons away from the feds, or you’re a big-city, bleeding-heart liberal, bent on obliterating the god-given rights of the good-old-fashioned working folk.

Yet author A.J. Somerset (Combat Camera, 2011) defies this either-or assumption. He’s a former soldier who’s recently taken up his hunting rifle after a fifteen-year hiatus from the gun world. But things have changed. He no longer quite fits in. At the local gun club, it’s not just that his gun politics are “insufficiently hardcore” (he’s in favour of license and registration requirements for gun ownership), he has also discovered that liking guns now comes with “a free, bonus ideological Family Pack, a ready made identity.”

We’ve all seen it: this vaguely defined “gun culture” found in the action heroes of Hollywood and the camouflage bedsheets of Walmart. Love it or hate it, the gun, with its ideological accoutrements, is a fixture in the North American consciousness. And as Somerset would have it, America doesn’t just have a gun culture, “America is a gun culture.” Arms delves into that culture, chasing its origins and nuances and seeking out a place for the casual gun owner who’s not quite ready to join the NRA.

The opening half of the book tells a history of firearms in Canada and the US. It’s not an exhaustive tale, but for the uninitiated it’s a fascinating read. Somerset’s approach to telling history demonstrates his understanding of the place of guns in culture; that is, they’re ubiquitous, so telling their story takes a multifaceted approach.

Even “antis” (those who resist gun culture) can acknowledge that early firearms represent brilliant mechanical ingenuity, and Somerset starts by tracing the technological developments that followed the US civil war. Guns have also been the impetus for activism, political movements, and laws, and he explores these in detail as well, covering the advent of the NRA (because Americans couldn’t shoot as well as their neighbours to the north), the background of “stand your ground” laws, and the role of militias in defending and repressing the worker movements of the twentieth century.

Guns have featured in Hollywood for decades, and Somerset gives special attention to the Westerns of the ’50s and ’60s, and the archetype they established that still shows up today. And he looks at race and gender, in particular, how racist fears perpetuated a growing desire for arms in the south, and how gun culture, a typically masculine pursuit, appropriated and distorted feminist principles.

The second half of Arms goes into more detail about the state of gun culture in North America today. Somerset seeks out “the weird stuff”: that small but vocal NRA-fuelled sector of society that scopes out grocery stores for potential tactical advantage and sees the second amendment as that most inalienable of human rights.

Somerset’s prose is smart and inviting; he skillfully shifts between reportage, analysis, and personal anecdote. Indeed, his snarky and occasionally self-deprecating personality makes Arms enjoyable even for somebody far removed from the topic. At times, however, his attempts at cleverness and eloquence distract from otherwise concise arguments and descriptions. And in a conversation already so polarized and embittered as the “gun debate,” his snark may come across as self-righteous or alienating.

Comparing militarized American gun owners to Cervantes’ bumbling antihero, Somerset writes, “Arm yourself against an imagined threat, and you become a warrior; your commute to the office is a journey across a battlefield. You are the Knight of the Woeful Countenance and your Dodge Caravan is Rocinante.”

Most of Somerset’s readers will likely already agree that the radical fringe of gun nuttery is comical, if not disturbing. But if the author has a desire to tone down the bile and rhetoric of the culture wars and eke out a place in the world for moderate gun owners, he’d do well to nuance his critique of the far right rather than simply presenting case studies of extreme ideologies.

It seems that while a “taxonomy of gun culture” holds a lot of potential for articulating a unique contemporary North American condition, Somerset’s characterization does little more than flesh out and legitimize the stereotype of the North American gun owner as a paranoid, aggressive, right-wing kook. This description lets us shake our collective heads and feel good about our liberal Canadian sensibilities (though plenty of Canadian kooks are featured as well), but it stops short of diagnosing just why you can’t own a gun, or critique gun culture, without being thrust into one of two oppositional and uncompromising camps. Nor does the book propose a way forward in these culture wars so that debate can take on a more conversational tone.

Though it isn’t perfect, Arms provides a fascinating portrait of one particularly overgrown branch of North American culture. For the uninformed but curious reader, Arms is well worth consideration. It might even convince you to pay a visit to your local firing range.

Biblioasis | 352 pages | $22.95 | paper | ISBN #  978-1771960281

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Tim Runtz

Tim Runtz is a writer, editor, and occasional bicycle mechanic. He currently works as associate editor and circulation manager at Geez magazine in Winnipeg, Manitoba.