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“I think it’s to do with fear”: Russell Brand on America’s love of guns

The comedian’s latest book is about addiction. He wonders if America’s addicted to firearms.

An Evening with Russell Brand at Esquire Townhouse with Dior
Russell Brand reads from Recovery: Freedom from Our Addictions.
Jeff Spicer/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Comedian Russell Brand would probably bristle at me describing him as a comedian.

It’s not that he’s not funny, or doesn’t occasionally perform stand-up. It’s more that in the years since he’s become famous, he’s also become just as well-known for his wonderfully unhinged performances in a number of films, as well as for writing books that sensitively and thoughtfully probe questions about himself, our society, and existence itself.

The latest of these books is Recovery: Freedom from Our Addictions, and like Brand’s previous works, it seems rooted less in his desire to make everybody laugh and more in his desire to connect with everyone on the planet. Recovery posits that you can use a 12-step program to fix problems and addictions in your life far beyond traditional chemical dependency — and while I initially pushed back against it quite a bit, by the end, I’d come around to his way of thinking. Twelve-step programs are terrifically effective at forcing us to confront our own weaknesses and dependencies, so why not use them to diagnose issues in bad relationships or toxic workplaces?

Of course, such programs require the person with the problem to be willing to do the work to overcome it, and far too few of us are willing to dig in deep enough to do that. Since Brand has spoken eloquently in the past about issues with gun violence in the US, I wanted to use part of our conversation in the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, to discuss the Recovery mindset as it might apply to gun control in the US, by asking him if he thinks a whole country could become addicted to something — in this case, the power that comes from wielding a firearm.

Brand, who’s British and finds the whole US fascination with guns slightly strange, took my question in a slightly different direction:

I spoke recently to a British journalist named Gary Younge who lived in this country for a long while, and he’s written a brilliant book about the number of children killed by guns in America in a 24-hour period. He took a day at random. He analyzed it, chronologically, and over the course of that day, I think like nine kids were killed. One kid picked up a gun and shot himself. Another kid was shot because someone was trying to shoot their mum. He said, “This is just an ordinary day. If I’d have picked the next day, these are the ones it would have been. The day before, it would have been these kids.”

It makes you wonder. When there’s something as severe as the Las Vegas massacre, it makes you realize what is the resistance to not even gun control, but let’s just not have guns everywhere? It seems like such an obvious sort of solution. It’s only when you think, well, what does this attachment mean, it must mean something very deep in the American psyche about power, [and] I would suggest, masculinity.

How can it be practical, really? How can it be a practical thing if it’s for defense of my home? The brilliant Australian comedian Jim Jefferies does some excellent stand-up on that matter. I think it’s to do with fear, a deep fear, and confused ideas around maleness. I suppose it’s one of those areas where you see how big government — as opposed to what I’ve been talking about before, the devolution of power wherever possible — could really make a difference, by imposing regulation.

The UK has all of its obvious and particular problems, but it has knife crime. It doesn’t have gun crime, and less people are killed as a result of that. Also, it doesn’t seem to me that we’re at the behest of a hegemonic and draconian government any more than America is. We can form ourselves into militias pretty easily. We are equally hypnotized and managed by power structure, not more, not really less. But less people are killed by guns.

What does it represent? What do we talk about when we talk about guns? What is this unwillingness to relinquish it? As someone who’s been to gun ranges and fired guns, it is tremendous fun, and brilliant power to have one in your hand, but it doesn’t seem like it’s worth the misery and pain that it’s inflicting.

For more with Brand, on his book, being a new father, and his relationship with bees, give the full episode a listen. It’s a wide-ranging conversation I think you’ll enjoy.

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.

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