When I interviewed historian Manisha Sinha last week, asking her what gun control advocates might learn from the history of abolitionism, she mentioned one tactic that got me thinking. Abolitionists, Sinha told me, brought slavery into the public eye in the 1850s through popular culture: slave narratives, children’s literature, slavery-themed plays, and, of course, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
We didn’t talk about this for very long, but it left me wondering: Where is gun control’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Where’s a work of artistic advocacy, whether novel, TV show, or movie, that illustrates the problems with our relationship with guns, in the same sweeping way that Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s sentimental narrative did for slavery? And if someone set out to create such a work for the gun control movement in 2016, what could it look like?
There are a few problems with the very idea of an Uncle Tom’s Cabin for gun control. The first is a practical one having to do with reach and fragmentation. Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold 310,000 copies in the United States in its first year of publication to a U.S. population of about 23 million. (Many more people may have heard the novel read out loud by a family member or friend.) In 2015, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was the top seller in adult fiction, according to Nielsen BookScan, and it sold 1,599,189 copies to a population measured at more than 321 million. It’s difficult for books (or television shows, or movies) to make as big a splash as they once did.
Using Uncle Tom’s Cabin as your model is also troublesome because, as anyone who’s read it and analyzed it in a decent high school or college class knows, the book is far from perfect. Elsewhere, Sinha wonders whether Harriet Beecher Stowe should even be considered an abolitionist. Her book had a big impact on the movement, but Stowe was no radical; she advocated colonization, and black abolitionist Martin Delany thought she lifted her material from slave narratives. Later, her novel found new life in racist minstrel shows; though these productions unfairly cut much of Stowe’s nuance, Stowe did write her black characters while drawing on familiar caricatures. Would gun control’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin likewise need to play on familiar liberal stereotypes about gun owners in order to make its point? What would that even look like? Would the book be populated by Bible-clinging rednecks and poorly endowed, balding middle-aged men, overcompensating for their own failures?
But the biggest problem with the concept, I think, is that guns are interesting—not only because they are sexy, and we are used to seeing them used by highly competent and attractive people in movies and television, but also because they do intriguing things to power dynamics in stories. Science fiction writer William Gibson occasionally tweets random thoughts on guns:
Whenever you introduce a gun into a dramatic scenario, even if you eventually intend it to be the source of tragedy, you have to contend with these Gibsonian intrigue factors. A gun looks a lot like agency and freedom, and any author of a gun-control Uncle Tom that includes guns in its story would have to reckon with that somehow.
One extremely popular TV show shows how hard it is to write fiction about violence that is truly critical. The Walking Dead is nominally supposed to be about the horrors of living in the apocalypse, and many of the character arcs meditate on the human ability—or inability—to take up the gun (or knife, or club, or teeth) against their fellow man. But The Walking Dead also glories in the power and authority that characters gain through the effective bearing of arms. Take the transformation of Carol, once a housewife and domestic abuse victim and now the most badass of fighters, or that time Daryl, Abraham, and Sasha blew up their enemies with a rocket launcher. It’s rewarding to see your favorite characters being competent in the face of threats, even if the violence on screen would be horrifying in real life.
Perhaps the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of guns should focus on the tragic unfairness of people killed by mistake. But there are narrative barriers to that idea, as well. In his Melancholy Accidents, Peter Manseau collects notices of gun mishaps from American newspapers of the 18th and 19th centuries. His analysis of these little short stories—“one of their guns accidentally went off, and killed the landlord’s daughter on the spot; she was at that time suckling her child, who was providentially preserved”—dwells on the strange compulsion writers and readers seemed to have to read about these accidents. The decisive quality of the gun—its ability to rupture the fabric of life at a moment’s notice—didn’t provide readers of those notices with any moral beyond “Life is fleeting and uncertain.” We aren’t living in the 19th century any longer, but we still have plenty of “melancholy accidents” to read about, and they don’t seem to change our minds. The gun remains, in such stories, a symbol of this fleeting uncertainty of life; somehow, it can’t be challenged.
One final option might be a utopia: some kind of alternate-history vision of a United States without guns. Except utopias can be boring (pace Kim Stanley Robinson), and most fictional experiments that remove guns from the scene end up providing characters with some other way to be violent, like the inhabitants of S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse, who become experts at medieval warfare after a mysterious event renders all gunpowder impotent. Is it a sign of my own lack of imagination that I can’t think of a way to write such a book? Or just an indication of violence’s narrative power?
Perhaps the closest thing we have, in lieu of a sweeping fictional story like Uncle Tom, is a small, but growing, group of nonfictional reflections on the lives of survivors of shootings. Eli Saslow’s “A Survivor’s Life,” published in the Washington Post last year, follows teenager Cheyeanne Fitzgerald through the aftermath of the 2015 Umpqua Community College killings, which left her with myriad internal injuries and debilitating anxiety and anger. And Pamela Colloff’s “The Reckoning,” a Texas Monthly story from March of this year, looks back at the life of Claire Wilson, who lost her pregnancy and her boyfriend in the 1966 University of Texas Tower shootings.
Saslow and Colloff chronicle the effects of each bullet on these survivors’ lives in excruciating detail. Saslow’s approach, especially, can be extremely hard to read; Cheyeanne, unlike Claire, had not moved beyond the event at the time of reporting, and reading his story, it’s unclear how she will.
Maybe this is how you escape the narrative trap of the gun: Avoid the shooting, with its undertones of excitement and drama, entirely, and write instead about the aftereffects of that decisive moment. Bedpan, panic attack, Percocet, lost job, crying sister. The details of this kind of struggle to regain life after a bullet are the opposite of fast and sexy. They call to mind the narrative tools of sentimental fiction—the arbitrary and cruel illnesses, the plummets of fortune, the overriding power of human emotions. Maybe that’s just what we need.