Wednesday, April 21, 2004

If You Turn the Gun on Yourself, Do You Have to Shoot It?

I always pause and think for a second when I read or hear news stories that contain sentences like this one:
(1) He killed 3 people before turning the gun on himself.
Those of you who know me personally may be guessing that my reaction is, “I didn’t know you could turn a gun on! I’ve never seen a power switch on one!” Well, you’re right, but that’s not what I want to talk about here. Another reaction, of course, is disgust with the actions of the killer, but I don’t want to talk about that either.

I’m wondering why it is that the expression to "turn a gun"on oneself always seems to imply that the gun wielder also (a) fires it, (b) hits the target, and (c) dies from the wound. I mean, Dad always told me, “Don’t point a gun at anyone unless you are planning to kill him,” but not everyone follows this rule. Plenty of people turn guns on people (including themselves) and only threaten to fire them. And even those who do follow the rule, and turn guns only on those they mean to kill, can still miss. Furthermore, even those who hit their target (self or otherwise) might fail to deliver a fatal shot. I know that turned the gun on himself doesn’t have to mean “killed himself,” because I can say this:
(2) He turned the gun on himself, but decided not to fire it.
I did a Google search for “turn the gun on”, “turned the gun on”, and “turning the gun on” and examined the first 3 pages of hits for each search. Of the 60 relevant examples I found, 53 of them (96%) were followed by a reflexive pronoun (himself, herself, etc. –mostly himself), and of these 53, only two were not clear cases where turning the gun on oneself meant killing onself. Even in these two cases, though, the gunmen actually did kill themselves, but that detail was made explicit later on, instead of being implied by the turn the gun phrase. Here they are:
(3) Gonzalez then turned the gun on himself and committed suicide.
(4) Deculit turned the gun on himself. "He blew his brains out," Witkowski said.
Of the 7 examples that mention turning the gun on someone other than oneself, 5 of them mean killing that someone. And as with the turn-gun-on-self cases, in the remaining two turn-gun-on-someone-else examples, the gunmen actually did kill their victims, but that fact was made explicit elsewhere.

So overall, then, if you read that someone turned a gun on someone , chances are near 100% that the second someone got killed. OK, so far so good. Now how about this:
(5) He killed 3 people before pointing the gun at himself.
Now the killer probably survived, maybe surrendering, or being disarmed by the police. Why doesn’t this sentence imply the same thing as (1)? Well, I have one pretty good reason. Larry Horn talks about this kind of situation as the Division of Pragmatic Labor. As it applies here, we’re used to hearing turn the gun on as a synonym for “shoot and kill,” so if someone deliberately chooses a less common phrasing, the audience infers that the speaker is trying to convey some message that would not be conveyed simply by using the more common phrasing. In this case, the message is, “He only pointed the gun; he didn’t actually fire it.” But now my question is: Why did turn the gun on become the more common way of expressing the idea of “shoot and kill”, while point the gun at did not? I’m assuming it was just a random thing, but if someone knows different, I’d be interested in hearing about it.

Oh, by the way: I also learned during the Google search that you can turn a gun on, as demonstrated in examples like this:
(6) If you simply turn the gun on, it will automatically default to standard semiautomatic mode.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I have admittedly no objective, quantifiable evidence to back this up, but I suspect it may have to do with the verb to turn on as in:

He trained the dog to attack intruders, but it turned on him instead.

The usage seems comparable as some sort of object used as weapon which then backfires/turns on its owner/wielder. The gun example is, of course, different, because the gun-wielder turns the gun on himself willingly (not through some sort of desperate bid for autonomy on the gun's part), but the phrase seems to me to contain the same idea as the treacherous dog above. This may also in part explain why so many usages of "turn the gun on oneself" implies that the gun was actually fired; in the dog example, the dog didn't just threaten its owner but attacked him as well.