Serendipity Talk: Memories of My Uncool Gun

To me, the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre of first graders by a deranged shooter using a military-style assault rifle is one of the worst single events in our history.  Shortly after that horror, I heard a weapons expert interviewed on public radio. The interviewer asked, why do so many people want to own this weapon, which is designed only for killing people in war. The expert said, "Because it’s a cool gun."

That immediately made me think of my own Army enlisted service in the late 1960s. Purely by luck of the draw my overseas duty was in Korea (1968-69) rather than Vietnam. The weapon in Vietnam, a real shooting war, was the Army’s relatively new M16, the cool gun – and the ancestor of today’s assault rifles. Those of us serving elsewhere—Korea, Germany, etc.—all had the older M14 rifle. It was longer (44 vs 39 inches), heavier (10.7 lbs loaded vs. 8.1 lbs), clunkier, harder to carry. Definitely uncool. The M16, replacing the older M14, was lighter, had a nifty handle on top, and was definitely the future (although it also tended to jam, not cool in fire fight).

We were mostly glad not to be in the jungles getting shot at, but our lack of the cool new M16s also made us a bit envious. Today the US military universally uses descendants of the M16. And of course, many civilians want to own the newer versions. Most are not murderers. But a very few are, and there are almost no limits on the ability to own that cool gun.

This talk will examine those two weapons from my experience, with some comment on the current culture that so fetishizes assault rifles.


Joe Belden is a writer and consultant on rural issues, poverty, and affordable housing. In recent years he has taught courses at American University’s OLLI program, the Allende Institute in Mexico, and other venues. He writes regularly for The Daily Yonder and other publications.  From 1989 until 2015 he was Deputy Executive Director of the Housing Assistance Council, and also worked at USDA, on Capitol Hill, and for several DC-based think tanks. The principal author/editor of Housing in Rural America: Building Affordable and Inclusive Communities (Sage 1999) and Dirt Rich, Dirt Poor: America’s Food and Farm Crisis (Routledge 1986, rev. ed. 2020), Belden is also the author of a number of other articles and reports.  He is a graduate of the Univ. of Texas-Austin and the Baylor Univ. Law School.


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