Books

Iain Overton
Gun Baby Gun

Your life divides into everything before and after once you’ve had a gun drawn on you. So I would imagine. It’s never happened to me. The closest was someone pulling out a gun, to show it around – quite a different thing. It was at a house party in the United States, and the guy was just showing it around, nothing special, especially to Americans. But even that mere gesture was heavy enough. The shiny dark greyness of the cheap Saturday night special created a different presence in the room. You realise, with a start, how final and absolute it is. You always knew that movies were crap, people knocking them out of hands and so on, but now you see it absolute. There is no defence against a gun. If someone wants to kill you, they will, just by pointing it at you. The turning of the barrel in your direction is the last thing you’ll have an image of. A moment.

Iain Overton’s had that three times. Or nine. Or seven. I lost count. Gun Baby Gun, his compelling and irritating study of the rise of gun violence around the world, is everything you’d expect from a seasoned investigative journalist, veteran of many wars and conflicts – raw, gripping and very intellectually disorganised. In a tour of an emerging violent world of post-Cold War conflicts, global gang wars, la violenza of Latin America, Overton takes us into places we’ve come to take for granted as a feature of the nightly news – a world of horrific and fantastic violence very far from us, breakdowns of any order into psychotic and nihilistic killing zones.

So accustomed to these places have we become – dusty streets, breezeblock buildings, Coke signs in other languages, blood and bodies splayed around – that we forget how recent such chaos is. There have been violent wars since the World War II-era, and disordered places, but it’s only as the global small-arms industry spread handguns and cheap assault rifles to every corner of the world that guns have become so pervasive. Now there are one billion of the things, in failed states where groups are hard to disarm and legitimate power is absent.

Overton wants us to understand this new situation from the ground up, and so we begin with some thrilling set pieces, going through the knife-edge processional required to talk with a gang of El Salvadorean teenage killers, proud of their commitment to “honour” and self, manifested in their parcelling out of death via a clean shot, sometimes preceded by torture. He is nearly killed by raskols in New Guinea and contemplates what tooled-up weaponry does to payback cultures, watches suicide videos on gonzo sites on the web, and contemplates the epidemic of instant self-extinction the gun culture offers in the US. He notes the explosive growth of the global arms industry in dozens of countries, and the way in which purposeful armed struggles decompose into AK-47 anarchy.

But it’s the US he eventually comes back to, for reasons of both consumption and production – the endless supply of cheap weapons, and their out-of-control use in the richest society in the world, as evidenced in massacres, self-harm and everyday crime. For Overton, this is the centre of the webs of death he has been exploring, traced back to the US as both a net exporter, legal and otherwise, and above all an advocate of lax gun control, in the form of the National Rifle Association, the country’s fanatical pro-gun lobby.

The NRA is funded by the gun manufacturers, which benefit from the expanded markets it creates by striking down gun control laws and by pro-control politicians. Now it appears hell-bent on extending its pernicious mission to other countries, regardless of local conditions and traditions.

Overton thus has an argument of sorts about this sudden remorseless spread of lethal technologies, which is illuminating enough, but it’s not set in a wider context, as to how things could come apart such that the gun comes to be not the exception but the absolute rule in some places. More than that, the global gun is less part of any organised violence than it is of chaotic mayhem, or atomised violence expressive of individuality.

Overton has noticed that violence is out of control, but there is less attention to where it comes back under control. Northern Ireland, for example. After a brutalising political war lasting 30 years, the society managed to recompose until its levels of lethality were of a piece with the rest of the West.

Why does one place spiral out of control, while others retain a capacity to steer themselves?

The answer would appear to be that societies that have some degree of shared meaning, and orientation to others, allow for a degree of reclamation. Without such, fear replaces solidarity and has a capacity to spiral indefinitely.

Thus Switzerland and Finland, with mandatory gun ownership – as part of their armed neutral status – have high gun-suicide rates, but very few massacres. The gun expresses the society, not alienation from it. It is only when people feel they have fallen away from the social that they turn it on themselves.

Overton gets some of this, but not enough of it, and his attempt to get there is hampered by the stop-start style of roiling story. We pass through the menacing night-streets of Third-World hells about half a dozen times.

The book is doing double-duty as a memoir of sorts, and Overton lacks the touch of self-deprecation essential to gonzo/front-line reportage at any length.

Gun is the word, but after a while, such identikit chapters fail to go off with a bang. For all that, it’s a gripping enough read, and a good account of a global problem of which we’re staring down the barrel.  XS

Canongate, 368pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 25, 2015 as "Iain Overton, Gun Baby Gun". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: XS