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American Gun Culture and the Political Aesthetics of Keith Maitland’s 'Tower'

Tower seeks to awake us from our ideological slumber by returning us to the first mass school shooting in modern US history. Are we awake, yet?

Tragic Fantasy

To this day, Congress, clearly in the pockets of the NRA, prohibits any systemic research on gun violence.
Earlier that morning, Claire and her 18-year-old boyfriend Thomas Eckman took an anthropology test, and afterward, went to the student union to relax and drink coffee. When tragedy strikes, small choices become magnified. Claire and Tom left the cafeteria to put money in the parking meter so their car wouldn’t be ticketed. If they didn’t get up at that moment and begin walking to their car, perhaps Tom would be alive today. And perhaps Claire’s baby would be, as well. When Claire was shot, she was eight-months pregnant.

Just before noon, the 25-year-old student, perched high on the UT Tower, used the scope of his rifle to target Claire’s visibly pregnant stomach and fired. Upon being shot, Claire collapsed on the scorching cement. Claire recalls being fearful that if she moved, the sniper would shoot again. She also recalls how hot the sun was that day. And she recalls the horror of not feeling her baby move. That day, Claire lost her boyfriend, her baby, and the ability to ever become pregnant again.

If this was a typical American documentary, the preponderance of the movie would be spent delving into the mind of the killer, trying to find clues into his background that could help explain how such a killer came to be. But Tower thwarts this national desire. It wasn’t one individual who is responsible for the mass murder. Rather, as the movie’s structure makes clear, it’s our national culture that must be interrogated, and more importantly, changed.

Just as the movie begins with Claire, so too does it end with her. Claire offers a different way to think about the violence of that day. She refuses to demonize the sniper. In fact, she empathizes with the man who killed her boyfriend and baby. At the movie’s end, Claire looks through a 1966 Life article that features the UT-Austin massacre. Claire stops at a spread devoted to analyzing the killer. The headline, stretching across two pages, reads: “From Toddler to U.S. Marine, He Showed an Easy Familiarity With Guns”. Beneath the bolded, enlarged letters is an image of the sniper as a toddler, standing on a beach, wearing a big smile and balancing two rifles, one in each hand, parallel to his body.

In contrast to Life’s approach that pathologizes the sniper, Claire looks at the young boy with love and sees his innocence and potential. Today, Claire is a teacher and she is keenly aware of how society can stunt and deform healthy developments. Claire says, “I love that age. So much promise and so much hope.” She admits she still suffers nightmares from that day and suggests that the trauma can be debilitating. And yet, looking at the picture of the sniper as a toddler, she says, “How can I hate somebody like that?” In many ways, the sniper was made in and by America.

Perhaps the most experimental attribute of the movie is not its use of animation, or the ways in which it periodically loops back in time, but rather, its aesthetics of refusal. The movie refuses to focus on the sniper and it refuses to even show his image, except as a three-year-old boy. In the image from Life, the rifles’ butts are wedged into the sand and their barrels reach taller than the boy, symbolically suggesting that this young boy is the product of a larger structure, a culture unconditionally committed to guns regardless of changing historical conditions.

The movie’s closing moments features Walter Cronkite’s reaction to the UT-Austin mass shooting. Similar to Claire and similar to the movie’s form, Cronkite refuses to focus on the killer alone. Instead, he makes his editorial about our culture committed to mass violence. While his exhorting editorial unfurls, the movie cuts away from Cronkite and shows scenes from more recent mass shootings at schools and involving students. Cronkite’s voice continues as we see archival footage from gun massacres at Columbine High School (13 killed, 21 wounded); Virginia Tech (32 killed, 17 wounded); Aurora, Colorado (12 killed, 70 wounded); Newton, Connecticut (20 first-graders and six adults killed, two injured), Umpqua Community College (eight students and one professor killed, nine injured), and others. Cronkite ends his newscast by saying that the killer’s crime was society’s crime.

Cronkite’s insistence that the nation reflect on its material conditions that allow gun violence to flourish has been largely denied by the political machine. To this day, Congress, in the pockets of the NRA, prohibits any systemic research on gun violence.

In the '90s, criminologist Gary Kleck was one of the first scholars to recognize and study mass shootings as a “unique form of gun violence”. Kleck’s study was inspired by two high-profile mass rampages, the 1993 California Street and Long Island Rail Road attacks, which helped give momentum to the 1994 federal Assault Weapon Ban (AWB). However, as Louis Klarevas writes in his 2016 book, Rampage Nation, “Despite the efforts of Kleck and a few others, analysis of mass shootings remained largely dormant until 2012, when the Aurora and the Newton massacres revived interest in the topic.” Yet even with this renewed interest, today, we still don’t have a consensus of what constitutes a “mass shooting”. This failure to even have a working social concept reveals the power of the NRA. Tellingly, due to the influence of the NRA, the Assault Weapon Ban was allowed to expire in 2004.

In 2007, Grant Duwe defined a mass shooting as the killing of four or more people in a public space without relation to gang fighting or drugs shootings. But as Klarevas argues in Rampage Nation, published nine years later, such a definition is vastly incomplete. Why, for example, must the criteria of a mass shooting be people killed rather than people shot? Moreover, why should mass shootings that involve gang violence and drug deals be excluded? Do black and brown lives not matter? In contrast, Klarevas offers a definition of a mass shooting as “Any violent attack that results in four or more individuals incurring gunshot wounds”, regardless of context and motivation.

Recently, in response to the federal government’s continuing disavowal of mass shooting as a national crisis, Reddit users began to track every mass shooting in the United States that resulted in four or more people being shot (the same definition used by Klarevas). In the first year of tracking, 2013, the Mass Shooting Tracker identified 339 mass shootings. In 2014, that number slightly dropped to 325 mass shootings, but in 2015, the number spiked to 371 mass shootings. This means that, on average, there was more than one mass shooting a day in the United States.

To put this in perspective to what Americans perceive to be the biggest threat to US safety, terrorism, in the ten years since 9/11, terrorists have killed 21 people in the United States. That’s less than the number of people killed in one morning in Newton, Connecticut. Of course, it can be argued that the reason there has been a precipitous drop in terrorist killings is because the federal government took an active role in securing airports and other socially shared spaces. In contrast, the federal government won't even recognize that we have a mass shooting epidemic.

Like all progressive art, Tower aesthetically distances us from the present and encourages us to think structurally. The movie ends by making us think about our culture of mass shooting and I will end with one concrete example that enables our mass shooting epidemic to proliferate: AR-15s, which one legislator identifies as “Our own American weapon of mass destruction.” This was the weapon of choice in the massacres of Aurora, Colorado and in Newton, Connecticut.

In 1961, the Pentagon, under the leadership of Robert McNamara, developed the AR-15, a semiautomatic assault rifle, for combat purposes in Vietnam. The advantages of this new weapon were immediately recognized and praised: “Army studies showed that a five-man squad armed with AR-15s had as much kill potential as 11-man squad armed with the M14 [the army’s previous standard rifle]”. What was once an assault rifle designed exclusively for the military by Colt is now being produced by more than 30 firearm manufacturers, and today, civilians own more than five million AR-15s. As one firearm seller said, “The AR-15 now is probably the economic engine of the gun industry.”

In 2012, in the quiet suburb of Aurora, a Ph.D. student walked into a midnight screening of The Dark Knight. Using an AR-15, equipped with a 100-round extended capacity, he opened fire and shot 70 people. The force of the AR-15 was so powerful that several rounds blasted through the drywall, striking three people in the neighboring theater.

Comilla Sasson was an emergency-room doctor on duty at the University of Colorado Medical Center that day. One of the first victims she saw that night was 22-year-old Farrah Soundani. The force of a single .223 round fired from the AR-15 caused her “stomach and intestines [to] literally spill [...] out of her body, forcing her to hold them in her hands as she was transported to the hospital in a police cruiser.” After that night of seeing dozens of victims, Dr. Sasson said. “I’ve seen a lot of gunshot wounds in my life but those were absolutely, completely different than anything I’ve ever seen. [... ] These are the kinds of wounds that our folks over in Afghanistan are seeing, and here I am sitting in Aurora, Colorado, seeing these kinds of things.”

Tower ends with a fantasy scene. The final scene features a pregnant Claire and Thomas in animation. In this fantasy sequence, the couple, arm-in-arm, walk towards the Tower, strolling innocently to class. What a tragic world we live in that our fantasies involve imagining public spaces that are safe from the real possibility of mass gun violence.

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