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Clint Smith's poem "The Gun" describes a school shooting from the perspective of a child. However, the central character, as well as its fellow classmates, are all referred to as "guns":

the gun moved to a closet filled with several other shaking guns

The pronouns it/its (as for an object) are used to refer to these "guns":

the gun texted its parents

Notably, the mother is referred to as "her". The "gun" is assigned human traits and actions. It hears, it thinks, it texts, it hugs, it has hands to put on its head.

Calling every child a "gun" is clearly a significant and intentional act by the writer. This wording choice is no small part of the poem, either, since nearly every thought - what would be sentences if the grammar was "fixed" to be more prose-like - starts with "the gun", as if to remind the reader who the narrator is. What meaning does calling the schoolkids guns add to this poem?

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  • Cool question. I'm familar with Clint Smith III from his appearances on Deray's Pod Save The People several years back when I used to listen to it, and I do remember that he identified as a poet, but this is the first time I've ever seen anyone talking about his poetry on its own merits.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 30, 2023 at 21:00

5 Answers 5

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The use of "gun" as a noun to refer to all the children in the school serves three linked purposes.

Initially it purposefully confuses the reader as to what's happening in the poem, while ensuring that the focus is on guns. The opening of

the gun heard the first shot

Is a deliberate obfuscation. How can a gun hear itself? It isn't until we get to

the gun’s teacher told everyone to get on the ground

That's there's any clarity as to what this poetic device is doing, and it may be a couple more lines before it's completely clear to the reader. By doing this, the reader's confusion mimics the confusion of a child in the initial stages of the shooting while ensuring the focus of both their thoughts is on guns.

This latter effect is the second and central thrust of this device. Through the entire poem the reader cannot forget, even for a moment, that a gun is the centerpiece of this event, just as those trapped in a shooting cannot forget that either.

Finally, it also helps to bring home the political subtext of the poem about the danger of guns and the need for gun control, demonstrated by the later references to "thoughts and prayers" and "second amendment". Through the repetition of the word "gun' the reader is not allowed to forget that without the presence of the gun, this terrifying tragedy would not be happening.

The poet has used this device because it is simple and highly effective. By using "gun" as the noun in place of "child" or a gendered alternative the poet can get this effect of repetition without burdening the poem with clumsy language to mention a gun in every line, diluting its direct impact. It also makes it easy to keep the poem in the first person, heightening the reader's empathy with the child experiencing this event.

This is an extreme example of a poetic technique called anaphora. Merriam-Webster defines it as:

repetition of a word or expression at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, sentences, or verses especially for rhetorical or poetic effect

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  • While I don't disagree with any of the three things you said, the first thing that came to my mind - especially in combination with using "it" as pronoun - was that it emphasizes the devaluing of the children: Regarding, for terseness' sake, "the right to exist", they are put on the same level as the inanimate object gun. Apr 2, 2023 at 6:28
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The technique conveys that guns are all-pervasive in schools. By one measure, there were 303 gun-related incidents in American schools in 2022. That is more than one per school day. And so far this year, 74 people have been killed or injured in school shootings. Through this personification of the gun, the poet suggests that schools are places where guns, rather than children, are found.

The identification of a child with a gun also communicates that many of the school shooters are themselves children. In January, a six year old shot and seriously injured his teacher. The poet suggests that the cycle of gun violence in American schools is perpetuated by the trauma children face growing up in a society that evidently cares more about guns than about about providing a safe educational environment. Active-shooter drills, meant to train students on how stay safe during an attack, are themselves traumatizing. By identifying the gun with the child, Smith shows that gun violence scars children to the point that they themselves become loaded weapons.

Perhaps there's a plea that we treat children as we treat guns, granting them constitutional protection and seeing them as intrinsic to the fabric of our society and our identity.

Finally, the poem is an ironic take on the right-wing talking point that "guns don't kill people, people kill people". Smith sends up the NRA slogan by erasing the distinction between "guns" and "people": it's a false dichotomy, because the person is the gun, and vice-versa.

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  • 4
    Good spot on the "guns don't kill people" comparison.
    – Matt Thrower
    Mar 30, 2023 at 7:02
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    Inaccurate: there are far fewer guns in schools now than in the past (there was a time in living memory when a sizeable fraction of students in many places would have a gun in their locker, to take hunting after school, or even for gym class). What has increased by several orders of magnitude is the number of murderous children in schools. Fortunately, that reading works too.
    – hobbs
    Mar 30, 2023 at 15:02
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You do need to remember that private gun ownership in the US is (politically) a higher priority than the lives of children. All material relating to that subject must be viewed through this social lens. (You may find this statement offensive; but it remains unchallengeably true. If it were false, then the US would have imposed the same restrictions on gun ownership as the UK did after the Dunblane school massacre.)

For me, the purpose of this device is to elevate the status of the children whose lives are at risk to the same level as the weapon which has greater protection in law. Presenting a "gun" as having emotions then inherently shows the irony of children being less protected, because of course we know that an actual gun has no emotions.

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    I do think there's a certain element of getting the reader's brain to rebel, on the basis that these are actually people, not things. Its generally a heavy insult in English to lower a person to the status of a thing (eg: by using "It" rather than their preferred personal pronoun). That's kind of the entire point of the piece; are children higher status than these particular inanimate objects, or not? If you think not, what's your evidence for that belief? It certianly doesn't appear to be evident here.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 30, 2023 at 20:52
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    I won't downvote this because I suspect it's the view that Smith holds as well. Still I have to say it's incredibly frustrating to see someone make an incorrect assertion about someone else's views and then say that the assertion is "unchallengeably true." The actual position of the people you're talking about is that the legislation proposed as reactions to these massacres won't actually stop them. No one wants to see another massacre, there just isn't agreement on what the effective preventions are. Mar 30, 2023 at 21:18
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    @CarlKevinson - I'm also a little uncomfortable with that phrase. However, I don't think its fair to assert that they actually believe that position you stated, because the same lawmakers also got upset when the CDC started studying that exact issue and banned them from doing so for the last 20 years. Better to say that's the position some feel safest arguing.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 30, 2023 at 22:19
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    Still, this back-and forth I think pretty clearly shows that one phrase in this post is a bit of flamebait, and should probably be edited.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 30, 2023 at 22:21
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; please keep in mind that tangential discussion that's not about improving the post itself, including discussion about its contents, is discouraged in the comments.
    – Mithical
    Apr 3, 2023 at 19:03
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Referring to a child as a "gun" (and by the pronoun "it") is dehumanising, obviously. What purpose does it serve in the poem to dehumanise the protagonist? It emphasises the awful nature of school shootings, both on a personal level and on a societal level.

  • From the viewpoint of psychos who shoot up schools, they probably don't see their victims as individual people (with feelings, lives, goals, etc.) - they may care more about their guns than the people they kill. The terrified human being hiding in their school is suddenly considered less important than a gun. Referring to them as a gun reminds the reader how messed up some people's priorities are.

  • As Matt Thrower suggested, there is also a political subtext of the poem, making a broader point about US society. The laws of the country consider the right to have guns (the "second amendment" is explicitly mentioned in the poem) more important than the right to not have psychos come into your school and shoot people. This could be interpreted as "guns are more important than people", so again, referring to the protagonist as a gun reminds the reader of the messed-up priorities of society.

(Disclaimer: I'm not an American, not very familiar with US culture, and not used to sensitively discussing school shootings. I hope this answer won't offend anyone.)

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Only the author can know for sure, and maybe even he cannot explain it conclusively, but to me it conveys a sense of a vicious cycle of violence through inadverted identification with gun violence.

Children exposed to violence at an early age are more prone to resolve their own conflicts in a violent manner. In the poem, the shooting at school was resolved with more violence, with an actual gun that was never referred to as a gun:

the gun heard more bullets    the gun heard he’s down!

Instead the child was referred to as one. This implies that the child is one day the one who does the shooting, perpetuating the violence through using a violent solution to a violent problem:

the gun texted its friend again    the gun waited for a message    the message never came

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