Growing up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan as a middle-class, private-schooled girl in the 1960s, I didn’t think much about guns. Nor did I become interested in gun violence even during the city’s turbulent 1970s. My only experience handling a gun came in my senior year in high school when a boyfriend took me out to rural Long Island to shoot a .22 at targets, which I have to admit was fun.
But now Dan Baum, the author of Gun Guys, tells me, in the June issue of Harper’s Magazine, that 300 million (!) guns are in circulation at this moment in the U.S., and for those people they must also be fun to use. The AR-15 rifle — now the most popular rifle in America — was used in both the Aurora, Colorado, and Newtown, Connecticut, shootings. Twenty percent of all guns sold in the U.S. in 2011, and over 50 percent of all rifles, were AR-15s. Baum attributes the popularity of the AR-15 to the fact that hunters, sport shooters, and home defenders can buy a host of accessories for it. The rifle has so many interchangeable parts that it has been nicknamed “Lego for grownups” and “Barbie for men.”
Any legislation to control assault rifles will be meaningless because there are so many of these guns in circulation and they’re so easy to assemble: only one central part of the rifle has a serial number, and all of its other parts can be ordered by mail. In his highly informative and provocative report, Baum tells us why reasonable people must begin to think differently about the gun problem in America: the smart question we should be posing, he says, is not “How can we ban more guns?” but “How can we live more safely among the millions of guns already floating around?” He offers answers to both questions.
Rebecca Solnit’s sympathetic history of leprosy, an illness that I and millions of others shuddered to imagine when we were learning about the Middle Ages, brings us up to date on the enormous progress that’s been made treating what is more accurately called Hansen’s disease, which is now largely curable, though the stigma attached to it persists. Leprosy, explains Solnit in “The Separating Sickness,” is actually two diseases: “the physical effects and the social response to them.” And, contrary to what most of us believe, it is not contagious — it is an infection caused by a bacterium, Mycobacterium leprae, which 95 percent of us are naturally immune to. Moreover, it does not cause people’s skin to just fall off: because the disease affects the nervous system, those few who contract it are unable to feel irritation or pain and are therefore prone to unknowingly hurt themselves.
In his letter from Mato Grasso, Brazil, “Promised Land,” Glenn Cheney chronicles the failure of agrarian land reform in the Amazon basin. Brazil is unique in that the country’s constitution mandates the redistribution of public lands to any landless citizen who applies. But absentee landowners, brutal military police, and a level of graft so endemic as to constitute a national sport mean that peasants rarely receive the property pledged to them. Their main champion, whom Cheney observes on her daily rounds, is a 67-year-old nun named Sister Leonora Brunetto, who stands up for the peasants despite constant death threats.
Jay Kirk writes on Room 237, a documentary about the multiple conspiracy theories attached to Stanley Kubrick’s popular movie The Shining. As Kirk investigates the film, which was produced by his cousin Tim, he begins recalling dark bits of his family’s past. The result is a hybrid of memoir and criticism that resembles the theories put forth by the obsessives interviewed in the documentary. Some of these theories: the movie is really about the genocide of Native Americans; the movie is really about the Holocaust; the movie is not really the story of a possessed hotel keeper but a series of erotic gags. “The Shining acts like a kind of cultural black hole,” Kirk writes, “or maybe a bottomless elevator shaft, sucking everything in — myth, meaning, pattern, parody, context, irony, interpretation — until it’s all crushed and flattened to where one no longer needs to connect the dots because there is only one dot.”
In the Readings lead essay this month, former Democratic senator Jim Webb is sharply critical of a passive Congress that should have asserted itself — as is its historical obligation — to prevent both George Bush and Barack Obama from engaging the country in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. Also in the section: the Montana State Legislature proposes a bill to allow drivers to take home with them animals they’ve killed with their cars; notes from Virginia Woolf’s 1927 “bulletin” of household events; a short story by Diane Williams; and a transcript from a 1983 recording of the legendary Orson Welles pitching an idea for a film to HBO.