The Thousand Oaks Shooting, Hitler’s Super-Battleship, and Why We Like Big Guns

[Note: Surfingedges has lain fallow for quite a while now, as life has not been kind to the kind of free time that allows for blogging, especially in the essayistic style I’ve been going for most of the time. The problem with that is that, with a blog, you’ve gotta keep “feeding the beast” to maintain an audience, which I’ve never been good at doing. As a way of resurrecting the blog, though, I’m going to give a whirl to a different sort of style–call it “miniblogging” if you like: shorter, more experimental thoughts intended as conversation-starters. So feel free to discuss (in a civil manner, children; I’m not shy about blocking trolls), and let’s see what happens!]fuhrer-bb

So I’m browsing Facebook over my morning coffee ritual, and two posts catch my attention. One is a reference to this article, about a never-built mega-battleship planned by the Third Reich (I’m a military history buff, among my various nerdy pursuits). The other is an article from a super-right wing blog, where someone claiming to have been present at the recent shooting in California argues that the crowd should have been armed (the link is through donotlink, so clicking won’t bring traffic to the site).

What’s the relationship? They’re both about the real reason we like guns.

The mega-battleship would have been almost useless as a weapon platform. It’s primary weaponry was to be eight (eight!) “Gustav” class guns–guns so massive that the land-based versions were mounted and moved around on special railroad cars.

gustav

A railroad-mounted “Gustav”–note the special tracks and wheel arrangements to take the massive weight.

So imagine eight of those mounted on a ship. The ship itself would have been beyond massive. In the drawing above, look at the ship in the upper left-hand corner. That’s the Bismark, Germany’s most feared (and very real) battleship, and a more standard size for the time (though not the largest). The difference in scale is real. The thing is, it would have been so enormous that no power-plant available at the time could have moved it around at anything but a crawl, it would have maneuvered like a brontosaurus in a tar pit, and the rate of fire of those huge guns would have been, at best, a round every five minutes or so (probably much longer), assuming firing one of those enormous guns once wouldn’t have simply flipped the whole ship straight over from the recoil of a single blast. One commenter noted, “Can you imagine loading those guns? They would have fired a salvo and then gone to bed. Adjust fire? Ya sure see you tomorrow.”

Of course, such a huge vessel would also be a thoughtfully easy target for a squadron of British Lancaster bombers.

So why even imagine such an ineffective weapon? (It was never built, of course–not the least because the amount of steel required would have shut down the production of every other steel-requiring object in the Reich.) It begins to make sense when you think less about its viability as a weapon and more about the kinds of emotional responses it would create. It’s designed to function as a symbol as much as, if not more than, an effective seagoing gun platform. It would have been a lumbering elephant in the water, but imagine how it would have looked appearing on the horizon, coming into a port, dwarfing the largest battleships, and the mere sound and spectacle of the fire from one of those massive guns. That battleship isn’t a combat weapon. It’s an emotional one, and no less powerful for that reason. It is designed, like most Nazi propaganda, to give Aryans a sense of racial and military power, and to advertise the implacability of that power to everyone else. The ultimate expression of “mine’s bigger than yours.” Nazi loyalists could revel in the feeling of power-full-ness a sighting of the ship would bring, not to mention the thought of all others quailing at that same sight, in awe and fear of that very same sense of power.

Which brings me to the next article.

It’s a short piece, which you can read via the link above. In short, the writer, who claims to have been in the crowd at the shooting, describes his feelings of powerlessness during the incident and argues that he’d’ve felt safer if he’d had a gun himself.

I can understand the writer’s feeling of powerlessness. I might feel the same under those circumstances. The problem, though, which I see in a lot of pro-gun rhetoric, is that he’s not separating the symbolic function of guns from what guns, in fact, do, and what one can actually do with them. What a gun can do is fling a small bit of metal at deadly velocity. The purpose of a gun is to damage flesh (fatally). There’s not much real utility to a flesh-damaging tool when your object is to defend a crowd of innocent people from a single person firing from afar into the crowd, especially a handgun with limited range and accuracy. So in that case (and I think most others) the reason to carry a gun isn’t really so you can DO anything very effective in terms of defense; it’s more about counteracting the feeling of powerlessness on an emotional level. Of course, that’s the exact same reason the shooter is shooting into the crowd: he feels powerless, and firing a gun into a crowd gives him the emotional payoff of an immense “hit”–not of power in a real sense, but a feeling of power-full-ness, much like the feeling the battleship is designed to create. The psychological payoff, for that shooter, is so strong that it’s worth the certainly of being killed or imprisoned.

The problem with saying “the good people need guns too,” then, is that it uses the same pathological thinking as the shooters themselves. Carrying the a firearm is less about providing real protection as it is about making ourselves feel less powerless.