How the legibility of firearms belies the reality of violence

I only understand the mechanics of firing a gun. Racking is a technical gesture where the slide of the handgun cocks the hammer. You will see this happen on single-actions and semi-automatic handguns. The gun’s design expresses a certain readability. When I search for handgun slow motion videos, the action of the slide is clearly visible. The cocked hammer releases and the rack slides back, releasing the fired shell and loading another into the chamber. The hammer is cocked back by the action of the slide and the gun is now ready to fire another round. This chain of events is legible without technical knowledge of the unique parts, or even hands-on experience, such is the graphic engineering of guns.

Racking the slide represents the entire mechanism of the handgun because it prefaces a shot. The action is so charged with potential that many films and television shows dedicate scenes to highlighting a character racking the slide. Witnessing someone perform a rack in public is probably rare. It’s a particular gesture, intended to prepare the gun to be fired. Then again, I’ve lived most my life in California and New York, two states that do not allow open carry.

I studied film in college with the belief that I should be willing to watch any work in my field, including graphic depictions of violence. My initiation was the horror genre. Those films that are critically acclaimed, technically experimental, or notoriously terrifying. When I come across a film that warns of extreme violence, I start reading forums, and Wikipedia plot summaries, YouTube comments on which gory set piece to prepare for. Cursory descriptions of what is done to the body on screen. What’s shown and what can be heard. How long the gore remains in the frame. While this routine spoils a film’s plot, it leaves the visual experience unfulfilled. I avoid the fundamental component of what makes a movie a moving image. What I wanted was to get close to the procedural facts without visual evidence.

Chapman was facing Rankin when the officer shot him twice. But “standoff” is my language, and criminal justice only speaks that of Rankin, witnesses, and the coroner

This sidestepping the immediacy of violence has carried over to my reaction to police shootings. If I’ve learned anything from cinematic violence, it’s that what’s left to the imagination can be more disturbing than reality. I wonder, when Sergeant Hugh Barry shot Deborah Danner for picking up a bat, was he responding to the mental image of her swinging it right through his skull? Usually the movie camera is positioned to induce a narrative or visceral effect on the viewer. George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is rather tame in black and white; nevertheless, its dark shadows and silhouettes of violence create a haunting world. 28 Days Later uses digital cameras to capture the chaotic slices of a machete and frenetic spurts of blood. When I watch police shootings I am surprised to learn that shooting a body in the chest with a 9mm handgun is less bloody than I imagined.

Nobody recorded William Chapman, a black 18-year-old who was fatally shot in the face outside of a Walmart in Portsmouth, Virginia. According to Virginia police, officer Stephen Rankin responded to the suspicion that Chapman was shoplifting. Rankin approached Chapman but Chapman broke free. Chapman was facing Rankin when the officer shot him twice. Chapman’s skin did not have traces of gunpowder, soot or stippling. This means that Chapman and Rankin were probably more than 30 inches apart. The term standoff comes to mind. But that’s my own language, and criminal justice only speaks in the language of Rankin, witnesses, and the coroner.

When Darren Wilson describes fighting Michael Brown, in his grand jury testimony, he describes Brown’s progression into a monster. Consider it supplemental reading on gun mechanics.

“And when I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” said Darren Wilson.

“Holding onto a what?” asked assistant prosecutor Ada Whirley.

“Hulk Hogan, that’s just how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm.”

Weighing in at 6’4” and 210 pounds, Wilson isn’t beyond comparison to a fighter or athlete himself. In several accounts from detectives and police officers, Michael Brown had challenged Wilson with the playground appropriate taunt, “you are too much of a pussy to shoot me.” Reading Wilson’s testimony is like analyzing the stage directions for a combat scene. Threats and rebuttals, layered on top of each other in the past progressive, leading up to the act of Wilson pulling the trigger.

“I felt that another one of those punches in my face could knock me out or worse. I mean it was, he’s obviously bigger than I was and stronger and the, I’ve already taken two to the face and I didn’t think I would, the third one could be fatal if he hit me right,” Wilson testified.

The conflict began, at least according to Wilson, with his request for Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson to walk on the sidewalk. The only sure details are the consequences: Brown was shot seven times.

The gun’s mechanisms work in perpetual fear of a threat. Behind the existence of the police is the presumption that some people need to be killed

“…[H]e looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked. He comes back toward me with his hands up.” Later on in his testimony, Wilson describes the way Brown looked in the moment before Wilson fired his gun. “He turns, and when he looked at me, he made like a grunting, like aggravated sound and he starts, he turns and he’s coming back towards me.”

Manslaughter is a bizarre offense that doesn’t excuse murder, but allows for ethical justification in a spontaneous moment of violence. However, the result of pulling a trigger follows an implied order, bullets are fired with a degree of certainty. And the gun’s mechanisms work in perpetual fear of a threat. Because behind the existence of the police is the presumption that some people need to be killed.

The racking a gun tutorials I find on YouTube are all less than 10 minutes. “How to Rack a Slide” by National Association for Gun Rights has good production value and clear instructions, focusing on basic gun safety and common mistakes. “How to rack a slide” by Loni Glock highlights proper finger placement to avoid injury, and targets women. “Today in this video I want to show you how to rack back a slide,” she says in her introduction. “Especially for girls, ’cause it could be really hard for them to rack it the normal way and the way guys usually do it.” Videos for women, taught by women, are among the most popular results. “Racking a Slide Like a Lady” by KeepingPiece2010 is at 71,000. “Racking a Slide with Weak Hands” by Melody Lauer has over 100,000 views. As Melody says at the start of her video, “This is just going to be a quick little tutorial on a very common technique that you can use.” Very true.

Personal Defense Net’s video “Personal Defense Tips: Pistol Handling: The Overhand Method” has 74,000 and 1netrat’s “Condition Three: Draw and rack with one hand” stands at 88,000. Many of the authors, instructors, show their faces. This intimacy felt relevant when I started to notice a demographic pattern: They all looked like a jury of Wilson’s peers.

I avoided the video of Oscar Grant’s death for several years. The shooting occurred in my hometown of Oakland. At the time, it was the first video of a man’s death that stuck to my political and media consciousness. Stills from the video were unavoidable. Questions on how Officer Johannes Mehserle mistook gun for taser went round circles of protests and talking heads. What I know after reviewing the video feels depressingly thin. I can see the position of Grant’s head with an officer’s knee planted in his neck. Another officer is grappling his legs. The cellphone camera is jostling in the train car as we see Mehserle draw his gun and we hear a quick snap.

The Alton Sterling shooting was recorded on a cellphone, and the quality is strikingly clear. The frame jumps at every shot and the audio peaks in a hollow pop. Similar to the Walter Scott video, similar to Oscar Grant, the audio is startling but we don’t hear Sterling in pain.

Gunshots recorded on police dashcams are choppy, the muzzle flash is too quick to be picked up by the camera sensor. The cataloging of a killing with little gore

Laquan McDonald’s death is posted on the YouTube account FOX 10 Phoenix. The video is titled “Raw Video: Chicago Police Dashcam Video of Laquan McDonald shooting,” and the description reads, “WARNING: Graphic Video, viewer discretion is advised. Chicago Police released dashcam video that shows a police officer shooting 17-year-old Laquan Mcdonald in 2014. #laquanmcdonald.” Once the dashcam video starts, there is a quick audio pop and a quiet static in the background. The police car picks up speed, cutting into the oncoming lane to pass traffic. The siren lights bounce blue against tree-lined streets. A flashlight quickly strobes back and forth, hitting sidewalks, parked cars, and front lawns. The siren is audible now but still muffled. Three minutes in, no sign of McDonald. As the camera passes under stoplights, other cars aren’t moving. When the camera catches up to McDonald, he is running through an intersection, away from the dashcam, caught in a one-point perspective. Flashing lights from oncoming police cars obscure McDonald’s silhouette. The dashcam car keeps pace with McDonald as two cops on the left side of the screen raise their guns. McDonald doesn’t slow down but starts veering off to the right side of the street. You don’t hear the gunshots, but McDonald’s momentum twists him to the ground, and curls of smoke shoot from his body and dust jumps off the concrete from each bullet impact. The car comes to a stop, angled to the right side of the street, as McDonald’s body lies at the edge of the frame, and the street vanishes above him in white light.

Gunshots recorded on police dashcams are choppy, the muzzle flash is too quick to be picked up by the camera sensor. But the timestamp in the lower right-hand corner tells us the duration and date of the shooting. Technical details, like the mechanics of a firearm. The cataloging of a killing with little gore. I trust the violence captured by the camera, because I see the cause and effect. Body cameras will supposedly promote police accountability. But body cameras are prone to malfunctioning and panicked camera movements, the obvious stability issues of mounting a low-resolution camera on a person’s chest. And if a police video is hard for me to watch, it’s a matter of presentation, not content. In the same way The Blair Witch Project might drive away viewers who get nauseous from the handheld camerawork.

Halfway through Lavish Reynolds’s recording of Philando Castile, the stream freezes. Reynolds’s daughter has picked up the phone as the police are escorting them to the station. Her head is turned in near profile. We see her braids, a spot of color from her shirt; her face is in shadow, the blue sky background has the gradient of white hot sunlight. The frozen expression of a child, the suggestion of action, a narrative interrupted. And in an age where execution videos are available on a video-sharing site worth billions of dollars, these aesthetic details verify the tragedy. Reynolds’s recording is steady and clarifies the aftermath of gunshots into a body. And isn’t this compositional clarity the intent of body cameras?

I’ve never fired a gun, but I like to think I’ve seen the full extent of their power.

Thuto Durkac-Somo is a cofounder of the zine Us Neither and a video editor in New York.