pre-thoughts on the movie AMERICAN SNIPER

When I was about fourteen years old, I shot the head off a butterfly. 

It was a yellow and black butterflylepidoptera pieridae, if I remember correctly—and it was sitting on one of those little curly-cues that hangs off a passion-fruit vine, slowly opening and closing its wings in the hazy warmth of the Amazonian mid-afternoon.

I was twenty feet away
I was not (if I have to be honest) going specifically for the head shot. 
I exhaled slowly, held it, and... pulled the trigger.


The butterfly folded up its wings. 
It did not move. 
I'd missed. 

I moved in closer for an easier shot, sighting down the barrel of my ten-pump Crossman BB/pellet gun. The butterfly looked strange. I walked right up to it and tapped the tip of my gun against the vine, lower down. The butterfly did not move. I grabbed the vine and pulled the butterfly down to eye-level. It did not move. And it was then that I saw what I had done. Ichabod frickin' butterfly.

I told this story for years. My crowning achievement—my pinnacle of gun-slinging cool. 

What I did not tell was that the reason I was hunting butterflies is that I had grown tired (and sick) of shooting living creatures and making them dead. Butterflies seemed lower-order, and for some reason I believed this made their deaths less important. 

I hadn't planned on becoming a stone-cold butterfly-killer. But when you're a kid and you get your first gun, well... at some point, plinking cans just gets old. I started shooting birds. Little ones, at first, that I could feed to my friend's boa constrictor. So their deaths would have meaning. But how many birds can one boa constrictor eat? Soon I was shooting bigger birds. Vultures, sometimes. Lizards, too. And an iguana.

The iguana took a long time to die. 

It clung to that branch with uncomprehending desperation, blood streaming from multiple holes around its neck and head. It fell, finally, to the ground. We skinned, gutted, cooked, and we ate it, because that was the only way to feel good about ourselves again, once the blood-rush had faded. 

But the iguana was not what started me turning me against guns forever.

For that it took a perfect, snow-white owl.

Normally you wouldn't see an owl during the day, but it was out there in the open, white against the light, feathery green above it. I pumped my gun multiple times. I looked around. I was alone. The bird was high, high overhead and there was no way I was even going to hit it, right? But what if I could? Or what if I could just, you know, wing it? Could maybe knock off one of those perfect, snow-white feathers.

I drew a bead...

- - -

gun lover


had one, once -- a gun --

and cocked the pump-action


rubbed the stock,
slick with oil-lube-hinge,
the rhythmic click-snap
pump, lift, aim, sight, exhale and
heard the sharp-crack smack
as the big, white bird
rolled back,
its long, snow-perfect wings-sinews-muscles-mind
came apart... 




stood over the open maw
of the dead-pale owl,
red leaking

held my limp gun in my

spent hand


wondered what it is
let go
watched the gun fall
the grass bent, screaming no.
saw the blood-dripped feathers
God! No! God!
to implacable time.


walked the earth, 


left my gun and walked,
how to love.

- - -

So that was it, for me. I was done with guns forever and ever. I swore off meat. I became a vegan and lived in a tree, subsisting on bark and leaves, as lichen began to cover my skin and I blended into the great hippie spirit of the age...

Except, no

I kept shooting things.
I kept eating meat. 
I killed a butterfly. 

Later, when I told the story of how I came to not like guns, I changed the chronology. I made the perfect, snow-white owl be the last thing I ever shot and killedthe crimson-on-white of its blood a sort of Shakespearean "damn spot" I couldn't wash off my ever-tainted soul. My own, personal mark-of-Cain. 

That's not what happened, though. What happened was that I was still the same person. The blood-lust still ran through my veins. I still guilty-pleasure-liked the feeling of power that gun gave me. 

Now, I'm a realist about all this. I know that no matter how pinko-commie, hippie-dippy I get, to live is to killor at least to be complicit in killing. Farmers who plow fields for granola-oats still kill mice and moles, after all. Even organic pesticides kill bugs.

But I think I've managed to develop a more pronounced sense of the seriousness of it all—to temper my coliseum blood-lust with a love of the beauty and a sense of the irreplaceability of each and every life, from barn owl to butterfly. Although the pornographic pull of violence may always be strong on me, I will no longer be cavalier about death. I will no longer kill, just to see if I can. 

I set out today to write about the movie AMERICAN SNIPER, which I watched last night and which is currently tearing up the box office. This post is growing long, though, so instead I will leave you with hopefully a sense of the weight I feel about what guns are, and what they can do to a person.

Guns are about power over life and death.

Nobody buys guns because they absolutely adore the idea of being really good at hitting targets, and hope to spend their entire lives at gun ranges. Even if that's all a gun-lover ever does, the appeal of it is not primarily in a hole in a piece of paper. It's in knowing that if you had to, you could put a hole in a living thing, and make it dead. 

We're all going to die. And we're all, deep-down, a little scared of that—of our utter powerlessness against that fact. Maybe that's not why everybody gets into guns, but I'm confident that fear played an important role in my own childhood killing sprees. 

Guns made me feel powerful. Guns gave me a sense that I was not the hapless victim of my own mortality. It was a false sense, though, and lies have a way of taking their toll. 

- - -

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  1. I actually primarily own guns for target shooting/competition. Faced with a rolling Hitler/SS dragging away my neighbors or God forbid something else along those lines, I may have to shoot and ask for forgiveness later, but I've never killed anything with a gun, BB, bullet, whatever. There are exceptions to the rule is all I'm saying.

    1. Good to hear. I'll cross "Arthur Ramsey" off my list of "people to be afraid of." :-)
      And you're right... exceptions are everywhere.


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