Bright Lights Film Journal

Pseudo-Innocence and Encased Fantasies: Inside the Unconscious of the National Rifle Association

“I like this exhibit . . . it’s very familiar.”

Were we to believe the reactionary lingo of the American derriere-garde, the National Rifle Association should be housed in a cabin hewn from native pine, cemented with the semen of woodland patriots, baptized with the sweat of select Protestant frontiersmen, and perched loftily upon Reagan's apocryphal peak. In truth, the NRA is headquartered just outside Washington, D.C. in a big glassy cube, stylistically a squatter version of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's corporate hegemons, and merely miles from the feared jackboots of centralized governance. Standing in the parking lot on a bright morning, one notices reflected in the building's mirrored windows bulging clouds, a skyward image recalling the tensions between detached nature and imposed civilization familiar from Koyaanisqatsi (1983). Though the architecture's modernity speaks of steely, alleged progressivism, the NRA's fundamentalist understanding of the Constitution naturally denies any movement in history, which can be nothing more than the static residue of God and originary heroes. For the strict constitutionalist, past is not prologue but present itself, and the recognition of time is tantamount to political treason. The ideologues of the NRA are necessarily invulnerable to such ironies: for them, the clouds rolling in the skin of their citadel signify neither the domination of institutionalism over nature nor their hegemon's own political insulation, but the blessed heavens that grant Second Amendment bliss. Regardless, the impenetrability of the reflective windows speaks the usual double rhetoric of anonymous authority (what powers lie within?) and paranoid secrecy (only we, within, can see without) that characterizes all institutions seeking to enhance their dominion. It is no accident that in his Stanford Prison experiment, Philip Zimbardo had his play-acting "guards" don mirrored sunglasses to help them manufacture the air of imperturbable authority needed to make his prison hierarchy cruelly "real."

The one area of the NRA open to public inspection is the National Firearms Museum, a clubby, wood-paneled sanctuary where the anticolonial tools consecrated in the Second Amendment find a fitting home as bourgeois fetish objects. (We temporarily put aside the superfluity of framed odes to firearms — why, after all, imprison in glass guns' alleged symbolization of freedom?) The museum walls offer the expected didactic display devoted to the Second Amendment, though it's curious and ancillary; in erecting a small panel outlining the organic evolution of the amendment and the debates it incurred, the demagogues of the NRA briefly forget themselves and their insistence on a univocal collection of Founding Fathers. Surprisingly, special attention is called to the (quickly excised) religious exemption of Madison's original version: "but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms . . . shall be compelled to render military service in person." Today, of course, Christian vigor is the impetus and motor of American warfare, not its exemption or pacifist antipode.

The exhibits are elsewhere only incidentally concerned with history. The oldest relic is a thirteenth-century 1.0 bore "hand cannon," a lumbersomely portable version of its mounted cousin. Glancing at the next case, we jump suddenly into the sixteenth century, the era of snaphammers and doglocks, yet nowhere is there an account of gunpowder's role in toppling European feudalism — the bloody tools' use value and historicity are replaced with a totemic fascination as ahistorical as the fundamentalist's fantasy of an amiable Constitutional Convention, without calumny or discord. Interestingly, pacifism emerges only once and as vile irony: alongside particularly fat, stubby examples of the Gatling Gun, an instructive card quotes Richard Gatling, a medical doctor as well as an inventor. The efficient killing machine, he believed, would "supersede the necessities of large armies . . . and consequently exposure to battle and fatigue [would be] diminished." I guess this is the NRA's idea of humor.

Gatling's naïveté quickly gives way to cock fetishes paraded in orgiastic earnest. An exhibit entitled "The Romance of the Long Rifle" requires no Freudian exegesis, while private collections of guns donated by billionaires, celebrities (e.g., Robert Stack), and lusty hunters of big game bequeath to the hoi polloi unimagined icons of masculinity and obsolete legacies of white colonial privilege. A 20-gauge Fabbri over-under shotgun gauchely incised with nubile nudes and Audubon birds refutes rather than celebrates the remnants of neoclassicism. An Abbiatico & Salvinelli gleaming with silver engravings of toiling gunsmiths recalls the physicality of craftsmanship only to relegate expert labor to crassest aesthetics. The stocks of large-bore shotguns are mythically inscribed with images of the elephants the weapons were intended to exterminate, as if the stock had captured the near-extinct beast's departing ghost. Other examples of the rich man's artistry make no attempt to hide an arrested adolescence, as shotguns are repeatedly adorned with buxom silhouettes in the style of a 1985 Playboy, while a damascened 1982 single-action revolver is inlaid with the golden image of a Formula One racecar victorious at Monaco. The glass cases nevertheless reproduce the museum's traditional mandate of visuality and attendant denial of tactile experience — here an especial irony, since the allure of a gun, unlike that of a painting, is its very tactility, the feeling that our hands, eagle eyes, and ready cocks can extend infinitely into precise, purposive metal.

The merging of adolescent virility and patriotic valor recalls what the psychologist Rollo May had called America's "pseudo-innocence," not merely the illusory, jingoistic nostalgia that characterizes neo-conservatism but that perverse and "simultaneous existence of violence and tenderness"1 that here aestheticizes both an attainment of symbolic power (gun-toting violence) and a concomitant denial of real power (the economic passivity and powerlessness of most gun fanatics). Herein lies the true paradox of Second Amendment propagandists: largely white, rural, and lower-middle class,2 they seize upon the gun as an emptily political symbol in the hope that it can serve as a substitute for the real economic power denied them. They do so with an odd "tenderness," with the tearful sentiment a hunter has for his fallen prey, not with true innocence but with a sweetened moral fervor that masks a bitterness accumulated from years of low wages and useless votes. The bitterness cannot remain as bitterness, however — through nationalistic ideology, wage slavery is transformed into "real patriotism," "pride in one's heritage," lengthy books explaining why Sarah Palin adores the flag, and so forth. Forever destined to remain lower-middle class, they have, at least, the guns of childhood dreams deferred. It is no accident that the museum's center holds a life-size diorama of a Cold War-era boy's bedroom, a tomb of fabricated nostalgia replete with cowboy bed-sheets, Daisy repeaters, quaint cap guns, .22 training rifles, a coonskin cap, what appears to be a Roy Rogers lunchbox, and, atop the phantom boy's dresser, a world globe mapping Manifest Destinies yet to be grasped.

The problem for May is not aggression per se — for the will to exist is inherently aggressive — but making a fetish of powerlessness, calling it "innocence," and then, locked in a false state of naiveté, swearing off all responsibility and becoming unable to engage in the empathy that results from mature, nonjudgmental human interaction. Because socioeconomic powerlessness is now a given in America, the Second Amendment — in all its unflappable "innocence" — can serve as a convenient, mythical-historical proxy for power when real, present-day power is unavailable. Once the musket indeed stood for rebellion; today it is the hollow relic of a failed democracy — now a plutocracy — that has yet to shed its final illusion, the hope of redemption.

The material fetishism of the gun is central to its political symbolism, for only the second of the first ten Amendments is grounded in the possession of a material object. Freedoms of speech, religion, and assembly; the rights of the accused; and the amendments outlining civil law and states' rights are all legalistic abstractions. Admittedly, the Third Amendment does involve material property (one's home), but is rather about denying access to the home rather than possession of it (and the quartering of troops is obviously the most anachronistic right, besides). The only amendment somewhat comparable to the Second is the Fourth; logically, the Patriot Act's sidestepping of search-and-seizure statues should incite the anger of conservatives as much as liberals' restrictions on the Second Amendment, and yet it doesn't — for what are purely aesthetic reasons. The Fourth Amendment has no aesthetic justification, offering neither the colonialist opportunities to parade his rococo carvings nor the trailer park set any fantasies of instantaneous phallic empowerment. The Second Amendment's aesthetic values are obviously primitive and conventional — so conventional that they become indistinguishable from political biases. In Rollo May's analysis of conventionalized aggression, the racist police officer who sadistically harasses a black man "seize[s] upon a culturally accepted psychosis and use[s] it to ally himself with the status quo, thereby giving him the right, in the line of duty, to carry a club and gun with which let out his own violence."3 We can extrapolate from May's explanation of psychotic local authority and say that the common man, not enjoying a profession that grants him the legal right to commit violence, defers to the Constitution to secure for himself an analogous right that can bolster his self-esteem and foster a kind of ersatz self-actualization, especially as an unjust economic system and a deadlocked, two-party political process inhibit any chance for genuine self-actualization.

If the Second Amendment proposes a political cum spiritual ecstasy under the guise of a material fetish, the ecstasy becomes spectral again when we reach the museum's climax, the William B. Ruger Hollywood Guns Gallery, where visitors are greeted by a nearly life-size cardboard cutout of John Wayne. Here, the dispossessed recall not only the films but the filmic firearms of their tender, betrayed adolescences, before the gangster became an accountant and, as in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the frontiersman morphed into a politician. Appropriately, the metallic protagonists of André De Toth's Springfield Rifle (1952) and Anthony Mann's Winchester '73 (1950) feature prominently, as do much memorabilia from John Milius' ruggedly individualistic, Roosevelt-worshipping The Wind and the Lion (1975). William Holden's Star Model B (actually made of rubber) from The Wild Bunch (1969) also makes a strong appearance, even though Peckinpah was a lifelong registered Democrat (could the NRA not know this?). Other wonderments include Andy Robinson's p38 in Dirty Harry (1971),4 John Wayne's Ingram Mac-10 in the prosaic McQ (1974), Matt Helm's .49-caliber Gyrojet pistol from The Silencers (1966), the Nock volley gun of the overemotive Richard Widmark in The Alamo (1960), and so on. Republican icons receive predictable adulation, even in regrettable escapades like Charlton Heston's The Mountain Men (1980). We are expected to become awestruck, too, when ogling John Wayne's frock coat from The Shootist (1976) and be inspired by posters of Tom Selleck impersonating al fresco manliness. My own reveries were interrupted by an aging Protestant couple whose imagination was piqued by an array of encased Bonanza relics: "Look at the "Bonanza" Gun, with a "C" for Cartwright!" the wife exclaimed, before voicing a perfect, unscripted précis: "I like this exhibit . . . it's very . . . familiar."

(The museum does boast one genuinely interesting exhibit of genuine — not cinematic — curiosa, which include a Marietta pepperbox pistol with 18 revolving single-shot barrels, a late 19th-century Apache pistol, "combining revolver, folding dagger, and brass knuckles," pistols surreptitiously hidden in cigarette holders and harmonicas, and so forth. These furtive means of murder rebuff the stalwart machismo that otherwise stifles the museum; such tools of the trickster likely figure in so many spaghetti westerns because they allow ironic Italians to reimagine the American noble savage as a shrewd capitalist whose ever-blazing pistols are extensions of his evolved brain, not his under-evolved fists. The hero of the Sabata series (1970-1972), for instance, always conceals rather than brandishes his pistols and fires bullets when others would use keys or hammers. Perhaps this is the Italians' misconception of Manifest Destiny — that Americans used their brains rather than slave labor to reach California.)

Within the Hollywood gallery's stew of moribund virility are disconcerting flickers of gentlemanly films past. Dandiacal artifacts culled from The Thin Man (1934) and Fighting Mad (1939), featuring Renfrew of the Royal Mounties, are queerly juxtaposed with routine symbols of phallic dominance. Women, noticeably, are absent. The revolvers wielded by Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945) and Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar (1954) have no place alongside those that uphold the Turner thesis. One pines even for images of Annie Oakley, filmed shooting glass targets by Edison in 1894, or of the long-forgotten "Marianna," who, in 1953's Guerilla Girl, keeps Nazis at bay with a Thompson submachinegun and is endorsed by the tagline, "Young and innocent . . . fighting her oppressors with weapons no woman should know about!"5 Instead, we must settle for Carrie Fisher posing with her space gun. Any trace of pacifism or antiwar critique is likewise banished along with robust femininity: the weapons of How I Won the War (1967) and Johnny Got His Gun (1971) have gone conspicuously missing, and the ill-gotten automatics of Boyz n the Hood (1991) have been buried elsewhere, lest we recall the racialized brutality — the inverse of the Turner thesis — endemic to the Reagan-Bush years. In this venue, witlessness is certainly a prerequisite, for even the quickest glimpse of the rifle Chaplin mishandles in Shoulder Arms (1918), or of the long gun with which an unusually mad Harpo frightens the grand bourgeoisie in Animal Crackers (1930), would instantly disrupt the fantasy's comfortable jingoism.

One cannot leave the armory without inspecting the NRA's gift shop, whose bookshelves warn of imminent physical dangers far more than the threats of multinational conglomerates, outsourcing, or totalitarian governments. The ungrammatically titled self-help book After You Shoot: Your Gun's Hot. The Perp's Not. Now What? suggests ways to reasonably explain the killing of intruders to meddlesome federal agents. The NRA Guide to Basics of Personal Protection Outside the Home is festooned with action diagrams of ordinary housewives and dark minorities in acts of self-defense, lest we think the NRA's freethinking agenda was an exclusive male Caucasian birthright. A handgun manual subtitled Personal Defense for Women gives much attention to the omnipresent perils of rape, as if conservatives hadn't always accused feminists of inflating rape statistics for their own supposed "advantage." The Quality Venison Cookbook resides nearby, reminding us that a meaty diet and righteous indignation are interchangeable lifestyle choices. One finds not The Federalist Papers on the shelves but Mary Webster's The Federalist Papers in Modern Language Indexed for Today's Political Issues, apparently an attempt to recast and reduce Madison and Hamilton into a convenient Tea Party recipe ripe for cherry-picked assaults.

This is, however, not to defend the dubious literary merits of Madison and Hamilton, who have unwittingly cursed their ancestors with not only the elitism of the Electoral College but with reams of vague prose riddled with legalistic ambiguity (consider, for instance, the Supreme Court's mincing of the phrase "keep and bear arms" in the highly contentious District of Columbia v. Heller, 2008). The legalese of the Bill of Rights, moreover, equivocates on the terms "freedom" and "rights." This linguistic hedging is reflected in "Freedom's Doorway," an area of the museum marked with a quotation (from Charlton Heston) that enumerates the specific freedoms that the idealized "Freedom" leaves ambiguous: "There can be no free speech, no freedom of press, no freedom to protest, no freedom to worship your God, no freedom to speak your mind, no freedom from fear, no freedom for your children and for theirs, for anybody, anywhere, without the Second Amendment freedom to fight for it."6 The words "free" or "freedom" occur only twice in the Bill of Rights, yet we've been led to believe a document about legal — or at best Rousseauean — rights is in fact a declaration of that old political chimera, "natural freedom." The resultant reification of Freedom, which, like all abstractions, refers to nothing that is not named, encourages us to exchange material necessities for immaterial rights. To own a liberty-ensuring gun is not the right to employment; freedom of the press does not guarantee one food and water; freedom for one's children is not a right to ensure their medical treatment; and the freedom to protest, if we are to believe Republican opinion of Occupy Wall Street, becomes outright sedition if one complains about the material conditions of life or consolidations of power.

When we are taught to love empty, non-signifying symbols, we can only lapse into alienation and self-delusion.7 May, who demands that we overcome the crippling fetish of innocence, sees the inability to become authentically angry as modernity's tragic flaw. To be sure, we daily endure a constant barrage of inauthentic, misdirected anger, aimed at the powerless instead of the plutocratic, creating a white noise that effectively railroads non-ideological criticism. In its pretentiousness, innocence — the ideological mask of conservatism — prohibits authentic dialogue. Had Billy Budd only grasped his effect on Claggart, May argues, he could have avoided his contrived tragedy. Yet Billy Budd defiantly espouses a laconic innocence that paradoxically masquerades as unselfconsciousness ("paradoxically" because defiance, for the non-Freudian humanist, cannot be entirely unselfconscious). We see in conservatives the same combination of defiance and innocence, of violence and mock-tenderness, which results in the inability to communicate with those whom they believe are brutish Claggarts (but who are in fact as repressed and misunderstood as they).

The museum's guns remain restful and serene, useless under venerable glass and removed from the dust and strife of the battlefield. There they should remain, for only when those cursed with innocence cast off their empty symbols will we be able to exercise authentic, unfetishized power — what in earlier, less innocent times was called compassion.

  1. May, Rollo. Power and Innocence. New York; Dell Publishing Co., 1972, 52. []
  2. The qualifier "largely" is key; though the poor display their ordinary guns as proudly as the wealthy display their rare ones, the former's fantasies of power are as obvious as the latter's actual empowerment. []
  3. Ibid, 29. []
  4. Disproportionate attention is given to Clint Eastwood films, but the gun not present alongside Dirty Harry's .44 is the abbreviated Smith and Wesson Model 66 his clueless cop never uses in The Gauntlet (1977), an action film that indicts unthinking, trigger-happy police unconcerned with civil rights, ethics, or their own participation in martial law. In the film, Eastwood's "Ben Shockley" is oblivious to the corruption that surrounds him and, consequently, kills no one throughout the film. The police, meanwhile, endlessly barrage homes, buses, and other inanimate objects with bullets and impunity in what appears to be Eastwood's vision of a police state, where officers are indistinguishable from mafia hitmen. Notably, only Sondra Locke's prostitute appropriates Shockley's gun for lethal ends, when fending off pursuers and killing the film's main villain (William Prince). This is likely Eastwood's attempt at a "feminist" consciousness, especially in the wake of the pseudo-feminism of The Enforcer (1976). []
  5. Barson, Michael. Career Girls. Pantheon Books, New York. 1990. The tagline is included in a lobby card featured in Barson's book of advertisement cards. []
  6. See http://www.nramuseum.com/the-museum/the-galleries/freedom's-doorway.aspx []
  7. An obvious example is "Joe the Plumber," now a would-be congressman, who dreamt of one day refusing to pay higher taxes should he ever become employed. []