#SaystheEditor Fiction and the Gun Culture


I first noticed it a year or two ago: unless it was a fantasy set in a different world or a Regency romance, almost every book I worked on was guaranteed to have a gun in it. Mystery? But of course there were guns, and not merely the service weapons that cops carry and, hopefully, rarely remove from their holsters. No, I was seeing guns that were pulled out. Pointed at people, safety off and finger on the trigger. Guns that were discharged, often with muzzle flares and smoke coming off the tip afterward and even more often with no regard for that thing called aim. Or concern for collateral damage — you know, the people and things that will be killed, ruined, damaged by a bullet that didn’t hit its intended target.

There was rarely, if ever, anything approaching safety other than flipping the gun’s safety off.

Always flipping the safety off.

Now, I belong to a sportsmen’s club, almost exclusively so that my kid has a close and really darn good archery range. I have shot, on occasion, myself, although the 12 gauge shotgun in July — which definitely had a safety that couldn’t be flipped, at least by my fingers — proved that my elbow injury interferes with what is essentially a fun activity. There is something very satisfying about finding you measure up to a target, although those flying orange ones continue to give me nightmares. They don’t move nearly that fast when you are merely watching!

At my club, and at the clubs friends and family have taken me to as a guest, and at the club we’ve been to with the Scouts, and even on the archery ranges, safety is the Number One concern. Reverence for the gun, for what it can do, comes a close and related second.

There’s nothing approaching safety or reverence of the weapon in any of these books. Guns are … taken for granted. Everyday objects that are essential to keep the hero safe.

Now, maybe that familiarity is part of the culture. I’m not entirely certain. I know that my club is full of cops, who use the range to keep their skills sharp. So you’d think if there’s a setting in which guns would become second-nature, this would be it. But… nope. The number one rule is safety: always point the gun downrange. Never put your finger on the trigger until you are ready to shoot. And more. So much more. Safety comes first. Reverence for the firearms is a close and related second.

My neighbor is a cop. His wife was hit by a drunk driver on the highway a few years back, and the first thing that happened when the police arrived was she said to the responding officers, “My husband is on the job. This is his car. There’s a firearm in it.”

We don’t see this in fiction. We see people whipping guns out, firing at will. We almost never see characters open the action, eject the spent cartridge.

In almost every book, we see guns.

This bothers me.

It bothers me every time I flip on the news to hear of another shooting.

It bothers me every time I have to go to school or my temple. Cameras. Sign-in procedures. Show a driver’s license. Ring a doorbell. Wave to the cop on the campus.

Now, I’m not going to go so far as to say that as fiction writers, we have a responsibility to change this country’s gun culture (for the record, a lot of my international clients have guns in their manuscripts, as well). Every single person, regardless of who you are, has a responsibility to help change the gun culture.

The best way is through education. If you’re going to write a book that has guns in it, know what you’re talking about. Take a class at a sportsmens club; many offer classes to non-members. Talk to your instructor, make friends with someone who shoots. Since I joined the club, I’ve been surprised by how many friends and family have outed themselves to me as fans of recreational shooting. Every single one is willing to take me out, teach me a few things, give me practice. I’m grateful for their offers. These are ambassadors of firearms. The message is simple: educate yourself. Learn to do it right. Have fun with it.

Put yourself in your protagonist’s shoes. How does it feel to pull that trigger, knowing someone may die? How does it feel to be reliant only on a gun for protection? Most of these fictional characters don’t spend hours and hours on a range, perfecting their aim. Yet somehow, in the movies and in fiction, their aim is always true. The bad guy dies.

Ever stop to consider what you’d do if you missed? What you’d do if a gun was pressed to your own temple?

When I was in grad school, I had a friend. He wrote mysteries. Before he got to grad school, he drove a cab. He had guns pointed to his head. And let me tell you, his reaction, each and every time, was the sort of thing I have never seen in fiction. Ever. Because our heroes need to keep their cool. They can’t panic. They can’t give in to their body’s natural reaction.

How true to life is that?

So here’s my challenge. While I don’t believe it’s incumbent on us fiction writers to write firearms entirely out of our fiction, it’s incumbent on us to be completely solid in our fictional uses of them. That’s the first part of the challenge: write what you know. Old advice, right? Flip that around: learn about what you want to write about. Guns. Cooking. Fancy chairs if your hero is a wedding planner. Know your stuff.

But also, while guns are always going to be vital in certain books, see if you can come up with climaxes and penultimate scenes that don’t involve guns. Can we get away from the trope of the abused ex-wife who pulls a gun and shoots her abuser dead? Let’s think about what would happen in real life if that happened: the survivor would be taken to jail while the situation was sorted out. And the kids? Quite possibly (but not always) thrown into the system, at least temporarily.

To me, the kids are more important than being the one who is ultimately responsible for the ex’s downfall. Put the gun away. Find another conflict, another way to bring things to their highest point of tension and breaking point. Maybe it’ll lack the drama of a gun, but … well, think MacGyver. What sort of situation can you create that sets the situation on its peak, but doesn’t involve a gun?

I’ve been writing again — over 8k since last Friday, which isn’t bad when you consider how busy my life is — and there are going to be no guns in my manuscript. There could be, easily so. But I want my story to be realistic, and frankly, guns will be the antithesis to the world in which my story is set. They don’t fit here. People working problems out in different ways do.

So I challenge you: can you come up with a story that leaves the guns at home? Can you educate yourself so if you do use guns, the experts won’t laugh, shake their heads, and toss your book aside?

Small changes, yes. But if everyone makes a small change, won’t it add up to be one big change?


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