Stephen King’s Heartfelt Essay About Guns Could Have Used an Editor

Brow Beat
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Jan. 25 2013 12:39 PM

Stephen King’s Heartfelt Essay About Guns Could Have Used an Editor

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Stephen King in 2006

Photo by BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP/Getty Images

This morning, Amazon published a 99-cent Kindle single by Stephen King called Guns. It’s an essay, and not a terribly long one, and it seems certain some magazine out there would have published it if King was interested in going that route. But King says he “wanted it published quickly,” and so, after finishing it “last Friday morning,” he sent it to Amazon, which accepted it more or less instantly.

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

It could have used an editor. King’s goal with the essay, he says, is to “provoke constructive debate,” and perhaps he’ll manage to do so—though an at least somewhat constructive debate is already going on. Judging from the essay, it seems that King believes he might be able to reach some who are resistant to gun control both because he’s an enormously popular author and a gun owner, one who grew up in a conservative home in fairly conservative towns in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Maine. He acknowledges, though, that he is now very much a “blue state American” and that he may be dismissed as such by many who disagree with him.

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Which is why he should have led the essay with his gun ownership. Halfway through the essay’s third section, King says he owns three handguns, and with a “clear conscience.” This already puts him more in the middle on this issue than many gun control advocates, and probably gives him at least a little bit of credibility with some gun owners. Instead, King opens with a distressing diatribe about the stages in the news media’s coverage of every mass killing in this country. It’s not inaccurate, but it’s not that enlightening, either—especially since the heart of King’s argument has nothing to do with the media.

In fact, King argues that, contrary to what people on both sides of the aisle sometimes say, the United States does not have a “culture of violence.” King considers that notion part of the NRA’s arsenal in their fight against gun control, which may be why he tears it down. But his attempt to do so is not terribly persuasive. He points out that the top 10 books and the top 10 movies in the country do very little to glorify gun violence, specifically, and also cites a slight dip in the sales of some gun-centric video games, concluding that “Americans have very little interest in entertainment featuring gunplay.” That’s a rather sweeping and intuitively unpersuasive claim to make following such a brief and seemingly cherry-picked analysis of American popular culture.

It also seems strikingly different from what King said in 1999, after the Columbine shooting. Then, in a rare public address at a library conference in Vermont, he argued that the “atmosphere of make-believe violence in which so many children now live has to be considered part of the problem” and that “there needs to be a re-examination of America’s violent culture of the imagination.” Though he seems to have changed his mind on this subject, he doesn’t, in the new essay, say why.

He does, both in 1999 and today, discuss his own sense of implication in the culture of violence. In 1965, when he was still in high school, King wrote a novel called Getting It On, which, ten years later, he revised and published with a new title, Rage, under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. In the novel, a troubled kid named Charlie “takes a gun to school, kills his algebra teacher, and holds his class hostage.” In 1988, a student in San Gabriel, Calif., took his classmates hostage and said he got the idea partly from that book. A year and a half later a student in Kentucky did something similar; he had read Rage, too. In 1996, another student killed a teacher and two classmates and quoted a line from the book after doing so. A year after that the book was found in the locker of another school shooter, one who killed three people.

King is clearly haunted by these incidents; he ultimately asked his publisher to pull the book, and it is now out of print. And while he rightly does not feel responsible for those shootings—the young men in question all had serious psychological problems—he describes the book, as he did in 1999, as a possible “accelerant,” which he’d rather not have available. And he says he’s now asking the NRA and those who support it to similarly help make certain kinds of guns and ammunition unavailable, not because they must, but because it’s “the responsible thing to do.”

The analogy doesn’t quite hold up: King pulled his novel, but he doesn’t believe that the writing of such novels should be banned; on the contrary, he strongly believes writers should be free to express themselves. But he’s asking people who want the right to own certain kinds of guns and ammo to help pass laws that would make owning such things illegal.

As it happens, I completely agree with him—and would, in fact, probably go farther than he does in restricting gun ownership, were it up to me. But I wish this essay had been honed and shaped a little more in service of his stated end: persuading some of those who are not already on his side. I hope, in any case, that the essay surprises me by prompting more constructive debate than I expect it to. And, at the very least, it is, in fact, constructive—unlike, say, this other essay about guns by an acclaimed American author, which was also published today. That one’s available for free, but if you’re only going to read one, pony up the 99 cents for King’s.

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