Thursday, August 16, 2012

Chauncey DeVega's World of Ghetto Nerds: Cause Poppa Got an AK-47. C.J. Chivers Discusses his book "The Gun"

This is my rifle, this is my gun, this one's for...

Sorry, I just had a phallocentric gun worship masculine culture of violence psychotic episode. It won't happen again. Really. I promise.

Whenever there is a mass shooting by someone using a "semi-automatic" rifle, America's gun culture comes under scrutiny. Nothing ever happens of course; but for a few weeks there are spirited appeals and hand-wringing over the need to have a national conversation over gun violence. The media obliges as it offers up stories about guns and our national obsession with them.

The NY Times has obliged with this interesting piece about the iconic assault rifle the AK-47, and how it has become one of the most popular guns in the United States (domestic sales rose 50 percent last year). The irony is priceless: I cannot help but smirk at the thought of militia and "patriotic" Red State American types running around in the woods with a Kalashnikov reenacting Red Dawn as their purchase goes to subsidize a Russian arms merchant, who in turn, will be able to offer cheaper weapons to that country's military.

I am a proponent of a reasonable policy towards firearm ownership that involves mandatory training, waiting periods, and background checks. Apparently, the former "evil empire" agrees with my approach:
Izhmash benefits from American gun laws that are looser than in its home market. In Russia, consumers can buy a long-barreled firearm only with a police permit, which requires a clean criminal sheet, a diploma from a gun safety course and a medical certificate of sanity. In the United States, laws vary by state, but buyers often need to clear only an F.B.I. criminal background check.
A few months ago I shilled for C.J. Chivers great book The Gun, which is a cultural history of the AK-47. For those of you interested in social history, cultural studies, technology, geopolitics, or military affairs, it is a wonderful read.

In addition to being a thorough exploration of the mythic origins of the weapon, Chivers offers up a great narrative full of rich story-telling that connects the AK to American foreign policy, the Cold War, Vietnam, terrorism, and popular culture.

Ultimately, the Russians could make a great assault rifle and a decent tank, but they were brought down by an inability to make good washing machines and other consumer goods. History is a trickster.

My favorite story in the book centers on the differences between the AK and the M16 series of weapons. Apparently, the AK-47 makes noise when you shake it because the weapon is manufactured to broader standards of tolerance. Counter-intuitively, this makes the AK series far more reliable than the M-16 which was made to more precise Western standards.

Chivers' discussion of the clusterfuck the corruption laced, bureaucratic nightmare that was the introduction of the M16 in Vietnam is also a powerful warning about the military industrial complex and how the Pentagon privileges profits and good PR over protecting soldiers' lives. As a counter-factual that never could have been in the context of the Cold War, how many American soldiers' lives would have been saved if the Pentagon simply adopted the AK-47 as the standard assault rifle during Vietnam?

Here is a bonus clip about the history of the M16 and genius gun designer Eugene Stoner:

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