Last week I locked my keys in my house. A stupid mistake. I was listening to the White Stripes, stepped outside for a moment, twisted the lock on my door out of habit and knew themoment I shut the door that I was supremely screwed. My keys were in plain sight through the window, behind my reflection, which seemed to be rolling its eyes at me. There was very nearly nothing to be done. I tried every window. I toyed with the lock. I racked my brain. I Googled “What to do when you lock your keys in your apartment,” and while I was not expecting a spell that would unlock my door, I was surprised at how much advice it turned up, and how utterly worthless it all was. “Pretend you’re a thief. How would you break into your house?”
I called a locksmith, an obscenely tall one about my age, who showed up in a rusty black Cutlass with his girlfriend and a cloth case full of tools. He tut-tutted me, as I suppose is his right. “Never take a step outside without your keys,” he said in the way of glittery-eyed old sailor. “Me, I don’t even let anyone else handle my keys”—here, he paused in a way that insinuated even his girlfriend, standing right there, did not have the privilege— “letting someone else touch your keys is like letting someone touch your, well, you know.”
I did, and that’s stuck with me. What else in my life is as dear to me as my own body, I wonder. And would I let someone else into them, no matter how common sense it might be?
In every age, certain household items transcend pure property to become attached to the very identity of the people who live in it. It’s why men named their horses and swords with the same care people today name their restaurants or title their novels—these items were part of them. The life and death of a man and his family in the middle ages was dependent upon his sword. Those who were lucky enough to own a sword took them everywhere, like a child with a stuffed bear. They slept with them, set them by their plates while they ate, and swore upon them. They were buried with them.
And then America, of course, the formation of which had as much to do with guns as it did individual rights—to the point where the two have become inextricably linked. Frontiersmen lived and died by their rifles, and when they were not in use, stored them above the mantle, in a place of honor. When the Constitution was signed, when war was declared on England, when Lincoln freed the slaves, in each case, guns were fired willy-nilly into the sky. “America is a country founded on guns. It’s in our DNA. It’s very strange but I feel better having a gun. I really do. I don’t feel safe, I don’t feel the house is completely safe, if I don’t have one hidden somewhere.” That’s a quote from Brad Pitt, who is a great American, and it is fascinating in both its honesty and its observation. Under God this nation may be, but it certainly rests on top of a pile of guns.
This is what gun control advocates often fail to recognize, and what gun owners have a difficult time expressing: the issue goes much deeper than guns. For many, the idea of background checks and assault weapons bans is going well beyond restricting their personal property. It’s a restriction on a family heirloom, a community cornerstone, the blood in their veins.
A little-known Elton John song addresses this. In “My Father’s Gun,” Sir John—not generally thought of as a friend to the blue-collared and red-blooded—takes the identity of a Confederate boy burying his father before riding off to join Grant and the Johnny Rebs. “I’ll not rest until I know the cause is fought and won,” he sings. “From this day on, until I die, I’ll wear my father’s gun.”
“We’re talking about human lives,” say those who want gun reform.
“So are we,” says the opposition. And so on.
I do not own a gun. I never have. The whole concept of gun-as-identity is purely observation on my part, but I own a set of keys. I pick them up, feel the weight of them in my hands, they can fall into a nearly limitless array of possible shapes and angles, but I feel I know them all. My car key, my house key, a key to my office, a key to a trunk and a bottle opener. I know them all, can find the right one in the dark, or with hands full of groceries.
Then there’s the phone—the modern remote control for our lives. I do not understand Mr. Pitt when he says he feels safer with a gun on him, but I know the feeling of not having my phone in reach. With it, I’m never lost, never helpless, ever able to concoct a plan, an escape, an adventure.
Phone and keys. Throw in the wallet, and you’ve got our modern equivalent of the horse and gun. A sense of security, of power, of competence. With access to your phone, keys and wallet—provided all three are in optimal condition—what scrape couldn’t I get out of?
Last week, the Senate struck down a bill that would enable open communication between the private sector and the U.S. government regarding private online communication. The contents of your online portfolios—your smartphone, in essence—could be readily accessed by the government. The argument was that such bills would save lives. How many might be saved if the CIA had access to online communication between suspected criminals? Or terrorists?
The bill was struck down with little fanfare, owing to the near universal outcry that such legislation interfered with a certain way of life, and whatever might be gained from such meddling was not worth the sacrifice. What was really happening, of course, was that our identity—our phones, keys and wallets—were on the line. And such things are more important to us than security.
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we say. But not necessarily in that order.
Oh, keys and phones and wallets are not the same as guns, I know that. I am not arguing that line of thinking is justified. I am not arguing at all. I am saying that we all, all of us, have invested pieces of who we are into the things we carry—these funny little items we shove into pockets and hook to belt loops and toss onto dressers. We clean them and decorate them, we load them and charge them. We might name them. We might upgrade them. But we will not see our rights to have them for our own, all our own, mettled with. Not for anything.
It is a pity that antiquity has not left us more information about a certain individual by the name of Theodorus of Samos, a sixth century Greek sculptor who was, by what few accounts we have left to us, an artist of blazing genius. His craft required a good deal of innovation, and he took to invention readily. In the course of one lifetime, he invented ore smelting, bronze casting, the modern recipe for copper and, according to Pliny, the key.
Pliny, in the way of Greek historians, did not see fit to explain what inspired Theodorus of Samos to invent the lock and key, and I think that is a great loss to history. What security did this crafty old sculptor so lack that he felt compelled to invent a means to replace it? What flawed prototypes did he throw to the floor in frustration, seeing that these crude mechanics would not adequately suit his purposes? And what thrill did he feel the first time he put a key into a lock, feeling that pleasing tug of the tines, hearing the ever-so-slightly unsettling metal grind and, twisting it just so, feel that little pop of accomplishment. We are not told what he meant to keep safe, and whether or not this contraption succeeded in doing so, but we know it hit a nerve.
One other thing we know about Theodorus, the inventor of the key, is that he was not known by his possessions—neither sword nor key. His identity, and legacy, is not in what he owned, but on what he created. The same as yours will be.