Crisp: When a weapon becomes more than a tool

We invent the tools that we use to create the world we live in; in turn, the tools that we surround ourselves with sometimes take on a life of their own, shaping our culture in unanticipated ways.

Henry Ford didn’t set out to invent drive-in theaters, the suburbs or our irresistible addiction to oil, but once cheap, mass-produced automobiles became available, car culture took on a life of its own. Just as we invented the automobile, the automobile invented us.

Thus I’m reluctant for us to surround ourselves with more and more weapons, especially handguns. It would be hard to overstate how thoroughly firearms have already saturated American life. In fact, whether you’re a gun owner or not, it’s impossible to escape this subliminal message: Guns are and should be deeply interwoven into the fabric of our culture.

Guns increasingly dominate the landscape of American life. We’ve become habituated to them, and, more and more, they appear to us to be the first resort for self-defense and the default option for aggression.

Evidence abounds. Tammy Meyers was giving her 15-year-old daughter a driving lesson in Las Vegas last month when she had an encounter with an angry driver. She drove home and picked up her 22-year-old son and, packing his handgun, the two of them went looking for the man. A few minutes later, Tammy Meyers was dead.

Also last month, Joseph Aldridge drove from house to house in Tyrone, Missouri, and killed seven people. Could he have accomplished this killing spree with a knife or baseball bat? Of course, but would he have even attempted these murders without the psychological power and feeling of invincibility that the grip and heft of a .45 imparts? We’ll never know; he killed himself, as well.

Unfortunately, look for more guns in our cultural backdrop, rather than fewer. More than 40 states already permit open carry of handguns, and more than 30 do not require a permit or license. Efforts by the National Rifle Association and gun manufacturers are unrelenting in the big-state holdouts like New York, California, Illinois, Florida and Texas to legalize the public display of handguns just about everywhere.

One wonders if the mere presence of guns in our lives — in entertainment, in the news, on the hip of the guy standing in line in front of you in Walmart — will achieve a critical mass where they become the problem rather than the problem-solver. In fact, we may have already reached that point.

Of course, this is the type of column that will encourage some readers to accuse me of being afraid of guns or intimidated by them and wanting to abolish them entirely. Not true. In fact, few of the people who would rather see fewer guns around — including me — would urge abolition of citizens’ right to protect themselves with a weapon in their own homes. A reasonably rational case can be made for concealed carry, as well.

But when we stop seeing guns as tools and starting accepting them as revered icons of our culture, we’re in trouble. In fact, it’s too late for the 32,351 people who died by gunfire in 2010. Or the 90 who will die on the day you read this column.