Rifles these days are cranked out like so many sardines. But back in the 1700s, gunsmithing was a real art – and each rifle had to be personally handcrafted. Each rifle bore the strengths – and weaknesses – of its particular maker. In the case of The Rifle, it bore all of the strengths.
Cornish McManus spent months painstakingly crafting The Rifle. He wanted it to be truly perfect – the best the world had seen. His love for The Rifle was such that, if circumstances had not demanded it, he would never have sold it. But sell it he did, and The Rifle passed down from one owner to another, until finally it came to rest over the fireplace of a peaceable mechanic. None could have foreseen the tragedy that would follow in its wake…
Gary Paulsen is the king of realism-oriented survival stories. He’s just a pro at them – his knowledge of and love for encounters with nature make him first class at this genre. So, when I found The Rifle, I thought, “Hey, this looks cool – a story about a rifle from its earliest uses to its modern day existence. That sounds cool! And Paulsen is all about outdoorsy, guysy, survivaly stuff, so this is sure to be a super exciting story!”
What I forgot is that the name of Paulsen’s most famous book is not Rifle but Hatchet. And as it turns out, that was for a reason – the reason being that Paulsen is not fond of guns. In fact, judging from The Rifle, he rather appears to disdain them.
I could have still respected this work, if it had been a cleverly disguised piece of anti-gun literature. But it wasn’t. I mean, it was anti-gun, but it was not disguised, cleverly or otherwise. It read like a diatribe. A bit confused how a novel about the history of a rifle could turn into an anti-arms essay? Let me explain.
Paulsen’s goal was to disprove – or at least poke at – the sentiment that “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” In order to do this, he had to create a scenario in which a gun kills a person without the immediate agency of a human. So…
The Rifle belonged to a militiaman during the American War for Independence. He was killed before squeezing off his last shot. The rifle was passed from owner to owner – and no one thought to check if the gun was still loaded. Finally, circumstances conspired that it was hanging over a blazing Christmas fire, one of the sparks from the fire floated to the exact right chink in the chamber and set off the gun. The bullet raced through the window striking and killing a boy in the house next door.
You see how this scenario was constructed? The person who put the bullet in the chamber is long dead. The current owner of the gun has no clue the bullet is there and does not wish to harm the neighbor. And yet the gun fires and the boy dies. If you can’t blame the original owner (who had no knowledge of what would happen) and you can’t blame the current owner (he didn’t even know the bullet was there), then who is left to blame? Paulsen’s answer? The gun. Since no one else caused it, it’s the fault of the gun.
The question at issue here is the principle of causation. Is it possible for a non-thinking, inanimate object to cause something to occur? Can it will a course of events when it has no will? The gun in this case did not willfully cause the event – it responded to certain circumstances that had been created by humans gradually over time and whose cumulative effect was the firing of the gun.
The event was what we generally call an “accident”. But what is an accident? It is an unforeseen, unintended outcome of certain circumstances. So while none of the humans who controlled the gun ever wanted for this event to occur, they are responsible through their negligence. They are not guilty of malice – they are guilty of not being careful.
While Mr. Paulsen’s story brought up a few interesting points for thought, I would maintain that if you have to blame someone or something for the event, it is the fault of the owners who did not properly handle the tool in their possession.
Now, some will argue that if the gun had not been hanging over the fireplace, then the boy would not have been shot. And that is true. It is also true that if vehicles were banned, no one would ever be hit by cars. If horses were outlawed, no one would ever be bucked off and have their necks broken. If electricity were outlawed, no one would ever be electrocuted. Accidents occur with all of these “tools”, too – it’s a question of agency and circumstance.
I’ve tried to deal with Mr. Paulsen’s views respectfully, but I cannot say that he did the same for those who believe in the right to own guns. Instead, on pages 52-64, he mockingly presents the only modern character who shows any interest in gun rights as a dishonest, unlikeable, fringy crackpot. To say that I felt this was unjust of him is an understatement.
A few cultural inclusions – Christmas is celebrated and Santa Claus is mentioned. One man barters to sell the gun with a painting of Elvis Presley riding on a “spirit” horse.
Conclusion. Students who are interested in the gun control debate may be interested in this story. For the rest, read a good old hunting story. :)
Review © 2014 Laura Verret