America’s Full Metal Straitjacket

We're trapped in the barracks with Private Lawrence and a gun.

This is my rifle. There are many others like it, but this one is mine.

In Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, Private Leonard "Gomer Pyle" Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio) guns down his drill sergeant, before turning his rifle on himself. It is not a mass shooting, nor does it take place in a civilian area. But the events leading up to that pivotal scene reflect issues that have plagued America for decades, turning it into the abnormally mass-murder-prone nation it is today.

Like most of America's mass shooters, Private Lawrence's transformation from a chuckling recruit into a grimacing killer wasn't the result of any single societal input. But among a multitude of isolating and radicalising factors, several come up time and time again. “Access to guns” is chief among them, and brings these narratives to their horrific conclusions, but the sickness in America of which gun fetishisation is but a symptom runs far deeper.

My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I master my life.

It’s a mental health thing - but it isn't, for the most part, the mental illness thing many claim it is. You know the rhetoric: “crazy people”; “insane monster”; “madman”; “mentally insane”; “this individual was nuts” - and that’s just from one NRA spokesperson in CNN's town hall this week. I have a mental illness, as do countless others who haven’t committed acts of violence; indeed, most mass shootings are carried out by people without a mental illness. It’s easy to pin such acts on mental illness when you either don’t know what you’re talking about - or more pertinently for the NRA, when you don't care. Mental illness cannot be legislated against and isn’t even fully understood - and in that sense, it’s a convenient boogeyman.

America does have a mental healthcare problem, of course. The irony is never lost when, in the wake of mass shootings, America’s political leaders deliver token “mental health” platitudes, only to routinely cut healthcare funding, ruling any form of healthcare (let alone mental healthcare) a privilege, not a right. But healthcare aside, America is also failing its people when it comes to positive, affirmative mental wellness.

The social momentum in the United States - especially since January 2017 - tends to be one of leaving the weak or vulnerable behind. In Full Metal Jacket, you see it in Private Lawrence’s slide to the bottom of the pack: once identified as the squad’s weakling, he receives only abuse and scorn, slowly but surely dissociating while virtually jeered on to do so. In America today, you see the same phenomenon in laws designed to perpetuate poverty; in rampant corporate capitalism designed to perpetuate wealth; in hateful rhetoric designed to perpetuate misery. Without adequate government or community safety nets, it's little wonder that unease and anxiety can become pervasive.

Now, faced with this all-American survival-of-the-fittest hopelessness, and access to guns, what might seem like an easy equaliser? 

Without me, my rifle is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless.

It’s a men’s rights thing - but not how so-called Men’s Rights Activists would have it. The true right missing to men is the right to not be a stereotypical "man." It’s the right to express oneself in a manner other than violence and anger; to communicate with women for reasons other than coaxing them into bed; to be okay with not being Number One. 

When men exhibit anything other than masculinity, often the first reaction from other men is to shun him, to ostracise him, to insult his “manhood” - the be-all and end-all of male existence. Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey)'s emasculation of Private Lawrence - "I bet you could suck a golf ball through a garden hose" - is incredibly effective, especially in the hyper-male environment of a Vietnam-era military barracks. The same is true in schoolyards, city streets, and workplaces around the world. Such treatment only feeds the toxic elements of masculinity; put through that kind of abuse, the obvious reaction is to exert one’s manhood all the stronger. Getting ahead requires the subjugation of others, we’re taught, and it’s a hard lesson to shake. Private Lawrence didn't; indeed, his "born again hard" transformation garners praise from his gunnery sergeant.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the vast majority of mass shooters are men, and that numerous mass shooters have been found to harbour toxic beliefs about masculinity. Violence is the inevitable endpoint of a thought process that sees other human beings as property to be claimed at all costs. As long as boys are taught that gentleness is weak, and shows of force are virtuous (or fun), we're doomed as a gender. And the fact that whole organisations exist solely to perpetuate these myths makes young men all the more vulnerable.

When you’re trained to communicate through brute strength, and you have access to guns, what's going to seem like your greatest means of expression? 

I must shoot straighter than my enemy, who is trying to kill me. I must shoot him before he shoots me. I will.

It’s a media thing - but not in the way the President frames it, using video games and movies as patsies for a culture crisis he and his ilk helped create. Movies and video games certainly reflect the violence in American culture, but a greater problem is a widespread lack of critical thinking skills - and the sector of media that plays directly into that absence.

Without the ability to read media critically, we’re left open to manipulation - particularly when it comes to our most potent motivator: fear. Fox News (and the other cable-news networks jostling for ratings, to a slightly lesser extent) is this sector’s most respectable face. Behind it lie right-wing tabloids like Breitbart, shouty conspiracy theorists like InfoWars, and openly hateful blogs like the Daily Stormer; beneath them, message-board sites where fear truly becomes radicalised. To a one, these sources rely on fear for their dissemination: fear of minorities, of the government, of foreigners, of your very neighbours. Worse, they peddle an illusion of critical thought: namely, that opposing media should be distrusted, and their own word taken at face value.

These ideas are as memetic as the Rifleman’s Creed is in Full Metal Jacket - an outlook drilled into young minds in order to change how they behave. With a propagandist’s knack for repetition and rhetoric, conspiracy theorists will preach to anyone willing to listen - and to an increasing extent, that includes an already-vulnerable youth. This is how foreign governments hack elections even without touching actual voting procedures; it’s how white nationalists recruit youths you’d expect to be past such ideas; it’s how toxic ideas can develop in impressionable minds.

Bombarded with this level of fear and hatred, and with access to guns, what might one turn to for a sense of control?

Before God I swear this creed: my rifle and myself are defenders of my country.

It’s a freedom thing - but while freedom and independence are classically American ideals, they have a habit of metastasising into a mirror-universe version of themselves.

The dark side of self-sufficiency is selfishness. American capitalism is inherently selfish, built on “looking out for number one,” “getting yours,” and so on, and that extends into the discourse we’re now seeing over gun rights versus safety. The right to own weapons is seen as more important than the right of others not to be threatened by them, because to hell with other people; I want my guns. Likewise, the "thoughts and prayers” response to tragedies is a similarly selfish, inward-looking act, creating feelings of helping without actually doing anything practical. 

Compounding that problem, American culture is built on solving problems through violence. The nation was founded through violent revolution; was built up through violent slavery; expanded west through violent genocide. Whether it’s a hyper-militarised police force, a foreign policy based on military occupation, gun-toting Congressmen, or a President who advocates for the roughing-up of protesters and the arming of teachers, American authorities constantly project violent imagery to their people. What takes place in Kubrick’s recruit depot, and on his battlegrounds, isn’t an aberration - it is the norm.

When you’re constantly warned to protect your interests, violently if necessary, and you have access to guns, what are you going to do?

This is my rifle. There are many others like it, but this one is mine.

Finally, it is a gun thing - in every way exactly how that sounds. Full Metal Jacket’s murder-suicide takes place in an environment that fetishises guns just as much as wider America, going as far as to encourage its people to name their weapons - but wider America doesn’t even have the military's training and safety protocols. It only has a preposterous overabundance of guns, a culture that steers their owners towards using them, and a political system that aims toward further proliferating them.

About the only thing more powerful than violence in America is money, and there's a lot of money in weapons. That's true of the international arms trade, where American companies make a literal killing, and it's true also domestically, where weapons-industry lobbying groups like the NRA wield immense power over the government officials they fund (or, to put it more bluntly, legally bribe).

Civilians don't need military-grade weapons. Arguably, police don't, either. A military rifle won’t protect your home better than any other weapon; it won't enhance the sport of hunting; it certainly won’t protect you against a government coup. There are really only two reasons to buy the weapons used in mass shootings: as a fun, powerful toy, or as a means to kill a whole bunch of human beings at once. Neither should be considered acceptable reasons to buy a firearm, and I doubt either factored into the authoring of the Second Amendment.

Private Lawrence didn’t arrive in the Marine Corps a fully-formed murder-suicide case, just as America’s sickeningly lengthy list of mass shooters weren't born fully-formed mass shooters. A mess of environmental and social factors conspired to make him what he was. But one thing's for sure: access to guns made his eventual descent into violence a lot easier, a lot more impersonal, and a lot more lethal. So it goes.

Guns escalate every situation into which they’re brought. The solution to gun violence is not arming more people, or installing draconian security systems, or any other idiotic measure that instills feelings of fear, suspicion, and isolation in those it would seek to protect. Those are Kevlar Band-Aids barely covering a societal wound that’s well past necrotic. The only people who’ll feel more secure with more guns around are the weapons-industry executives seeking to profiteer from a tragedy, doubling down on their sales revenue. America has to truly search its soul and ask what’s more important: selling weapons of war, or making sure children and adults alike are safe.

And yeah. That’s gonna involve banning some fucking guns.

So be it, until there is no enemy, but peace. Amen.

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