The Irresistible Aesthetic of Gun Violence

Media coverage following the Las Vegas mass shooting on 1 Oct 2017 has followed predictable lines of thought. In orderly bipartisan fashion, conversation in the USA has degenerated into self-contained debates about lax gun control, identity politics and the event’s possible connection to international terrorism. Meanwhile, overseas media outlets release bite-sized pieces of news to quickly condemn USA for its lack of common-sense gun laws—civilians should not own guns, flat and simple.

Both the exceptional confidence in one’s own constitution and the constitutional exceptionalism in one’s own confidence are necessary features of American patriotism. Regular mass shootings are indeed symptoms of larger political problems. They are consequences of the way citizens perceive their nation, and changes in the law have to be effected for mass shootings to be prevented. However, media coverage has left a gaping hole in addressing the tragedy—mass shootings are deeply emotional, irrational, and personal.

Such a profoundly traumatic event could have only been executed if the perpetrator were seduced by an equally profound emotion. Political ideology alone is not sufficient to produce the horrors of the Las Vegas shooting. The perpetrator had to have a personal attachment to the act of killing. In other cases of murder, it’s easy for us to identify emotional factors in the crime. Maybe a man was violently jealous and took his insecurities out on his wife. In cases of mass murder, the body count floods the news like a cold and empty statistic, and we end up talking only about gun laws and international terror organisations. There is an aesthetic side to gun violence, and that side is as important in understanding the frequency of mass shootings in the USA. What draws someone to pull the trigger? Why are guns so alluring?

Tragedies Make Beautiful Stories

Violent massacres are unfortunately easy to romanticise into mesmerising stories. If the mass shooting didn’t in fact actually happen, it could have been a meditative chapter in a novel about the decay of the American dream. A gun massacre, by its very nature, harbours elements of mystery and melancholy. The deceased become mere props in a play about the inner workings of the killer’s tormented mind. This is most evident in the popularity of the “lone wolf” label in news coverage. A lone wolf is an animal estranged from a pack, the central character in a movie that steals away from the crowd, me against the world. Audiences in homes around the world cannot help but conjure this mesmerising narrative in their heads when their hear the news about mass shootings. We are inadvertently complicit in elevating the killer as a an anti-hero.

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This story of the lone wolf bears within itself a complete and resolved character arc. It suggests stasis or the everyday in the killer’s life, his rise to insanity, a climax of a bullets and the quiet resolution of death. This goes without saying, but for the killer to fashion himself into an anti-hero, he must decide that the lives of others are not as complex or as colourful as his. His resolution and romantic death triumphs all.

Guns as a Symbol of Agency

Living in the modern world can be disorienting. We are told to celebrate our individualism while being simultaneously reminded of our own anonymity. Cities grow more populous and we live our lives as just another face in the crowd with the proclivity to assert our own agency. We don’t like to feel helpless, we don’t like to feel like a mere statistic, we don’t like to feel like everybody else. Guns function like symbols of rebellion when wielded by an individual with a belligerent existential crisis.

Guns are contraptions that were invented for the explicit purposes of causing physical harm. This sets guns apart from a variety of other weapons. It is an object that houses tremendous power in a sleek black casing, and according to the images defined by entertainment media, guns are non-negotiable accessories for the big hero in a film. Note this iconic exchange in the Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark:

The gun appears as a humourous signal of superiority. Indiana Jones is the only person with real power and agency in the scene because he carries a gun, and everyone else appears to be a degenerate in comparison. The gun sets Jones apart from other characters and it identifies him as the masculine protagonist of the film. If you’re not carrying a gun like Indiana Jones, you risk downgrading yourself to the level of a helpless non-playing character in a videogame.

Guns Are Sensory

Product and user interface designers learn that good design facilitates user input and product feedback. The input: the user performs and action on the object, and the feedback: the object performs an action to inform the user that the user’s action has an effect. For example, you press the end of a pen down to push the nib out, and the pen clicks. The click informs you that the pen now works and this is beneficial to the user. If I press down on a light switch, the switch clicks and the lamp turns on, informing me that the switch has worked for me.

A well-designed product will feature intuitive inlets for user input and outlets for product feedback. The more sensory the input and feedback is, the more satisfying a product is. User input and product feedback can be so psychologically and physically satisfying that actual product usefulness might become irrelevant in the user’s experience; bubblewrap produces a satisfying pop when you push on the individual air pockets, but the action is essentially useless. Similarly, but in a far more extreme scenario, guns can produce the same satisfying pop.

Guns are products that take in minimal user input and literally produce explosive feedback. You pull the trigger on one end and your action translates into a bewildering spectacle. Once again, you feel powerful with a gun in your hand because your moves can decide if the person on the other end lives or dies. In this sense a gun is a like a bicycle; a pedal with your foot can launch you two metres forward.

Similar aesthetic principles and image associations were delineated by Italian fascist F. T. Marinetti in his Manifesto for Futurism during the World War I. Futurism was an art movement that gave birth to choppy geometric paintings of war planes and colourful homages to skyscrapers. It centred itself on the celebration of speed, aggression, violence, and technological advancements at a time where these values were of utmost consequence.

 futurism_aeropittura_tato_flying_over_the_coliseum.jpgTato (Guglielmo Sansoni), Flying Over the Coliseum in a Spiral (Spiralling), 1930

In his manifesto, Marinetti writes:

We will sing of great crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot; we will sing of the multicolored, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals; we will sing of the vibrant nightly fervor of arsenals and shipyards blazing with violent electric moons; greedy railway stations that devour smoke-plumed serpents; factories hung on clouds by the crooked lines of their smoke; bridges that stride the rivers like giant gymnasts, flashing in the sun with a glitter of knives; adventurous steamers that sniff the horizon; deep-chested locomotives whose wheels paw the tracks like the hooves of enormous steel horses bridled by tubing; and the sleek flight of planes whose propellers chatter in the wind like banners and seem to cheer like an enthusiastic crowd.

Gun violence provides killers with a spectacular aesthetic, the “vibrant nightly fervor” so prophesied by Marinetti in one of history’s deadliest periods.

It is difficult to end this article without some semblance of a call to action. That would brand my writing as a bleak resignation to the even bleaker reality of mass shootings in the USA. After all people cannot help but gravitate towards beautifully packaged stories of lone wolves and anti-heroes, especially if, at first, they seem like mere stories. We can however, paint our own pictures and write our own stories about agency, and hopefully awareness is enough to bring our suspended disbelief for stories back down to the reality that human lives matter.

In the words of T. S. Eliot in the poem The Hollow Men, perhaps we will remember that gun massacres end, not with a bang, but a whimper.


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