‘Authoritative tome’ – the National Post in Canada reviews ‘The Way of the Gun’
Philip Marchand from Canada’s National Post reviewed the book. It can be read here, or below.
Killing made easy: Iain Overton explores the ubiquity of guns and of gun violence
The mechanics of the gun have not changed over the centuries. In his authoritative tome, The Way of the Gun: A Bloody Journey Into the World of Firearms, British journalist Iain Overton explains that you just need “a barrel, a missile, a means of projection, a form of ignition and a way to point it.” The result, according to Canadian journalist A. J. Somerset in his recent book entitled Arms, is often “mechanical elegance.”
There’s nothing wrong with mechanical elegance. That is why Somerset collects guns, and why Overton admits that he himself was once a firearms aficionado. “There was a time when I enjoyed guns for the pleasure they brought, and that alone,” Overton writes. But the title of his book says it all. Guns are the devil’s invention. They make killing easy.
To make his case, Overton spent years investigating not only cultures riddled with guns, and homicides produced by guns, but also the use of guns by armed forces such as the Israel Defence Force (with its fearful snipers), by police forces, and by hunters and sportsmen. His book is a journey, Overton writes, “to discover the lifecycle of the gun and in so doing, to understand a little more about death and maybe, even, a little about life.”
It’s an exhaustive examination that comes to rather obvious conclusions — such as the insanity of the National Rifle Association (the more guns, the better). Because of their obviousness, however, Overton is at risk of boring the reader, which he minimizes with eye-popping statistics and hair-raising gun lore.
The parade of statistics begins with Overton’s revelation that “There are almost a billion guns in the world — more than ever before.” The best known and deadliest gun in the world, according to the author, is the AK-47, which you can buy for as little as $50 USD. “So practical and lethal has it proved in modern conflict that it has been featured on the coats of arms of Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso and East Timor,” he writes. “There are statues to it in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt and the dusty plains outside Baghdad.”
Then there are the regional variations. On one end of the scale stands Iceland, population 300,000. While 50,108 Brazilians were murdered in 2012, that same year only one Icelander was the victim of homicide. The following year, when an Icelander was shot and killed by the Icelandic police, so rare was the event that the police chief publicly apologized. “This is understandable,” Overton comments, “because it was the first time the country’s police force had shot and killed anybody, ever.”
At the same time, Icelanders like their long guns, used frequently for skeet-shooting competitions. How Icelanders can combine a plethora of shotguns and rifles with extremely low levels of gun violence is a puzzle to Overton, and in a rare foray into collective psychoanalysis, he writes, “I’m sure there is something about the hypnotic landscape or the sheer isolation that touches and pacifies people’s lives here.”
In other places on the earth, meanwhile, guns rule. The place that “stands out as the world’s epicentre of gun violence,” according to Overton, is the city of San Pedro Sula in Honduras, population 438,000 — perhaps the most violent city on earth. “The murder rate here was 173 per 100,000,” Overton continues. “There were, in 2013, just under six homicides a day in this municipal region alone.” To demonstrate the effects of this, Overton escorts the reader to the morgue in San Pedro Sula, in a land where every night a freshly killed corpse is found lying under the night sky.
It’s a similar scene in El Salvador — another country victimized by the drug wars — where the government authorities have, it seems, given up all hope of imposing law and order. Here Overton visits a “funeral parlour shop,” with coffins for sale. The proprietor informs him that 90 per cent of her clients had died violently. Overton meets her colleagues, three brothers who are embalmers. “These brothers worked to make sure that the bodies looked peaceful,” Overton writes. “They erased the look of terror imprinted on lifeless faces.”
In detailing their work with shattered skulls, Overton reminds the reader of just how much damage bullets do to the human body. He does the same in the trauma unit of a South African hospital, where he sits surrounded by “ugly things that caused pain. Scissors. Scalpels. Large-bore catheter needles, sixteen gauge. They speak of one thing: that the pain caused by guns does not end with the pulling of the trigger. That’s just the start.”
A sub-theme running through Overton’s book is the awkwardness of asking questions about guns. Investigating what seems to be a neighbourhood suicide, for example, Overton interviews the police. “The police stood outside the school gates, guns on their hips and suspicion in their minds, and crossed their arms,” Overton writes. “They asked me why I was asking such questions, and I walked away from them as if guilty of something.”
In an interview with gang members in El Salvador, he is advised not to ask any questions that might make the interviewees mad — a piece of public relations advice not to be dismissed.
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