The Semantics of Semi-automatics.

January 25, 2013

In the wake of a spate of mass shootings, national interest has been understandably reawakened in an assault weapon ban, or at least regulation. Putting momentarily aside the fact that people who ignore statutory prohibitions of murder are unlikely to follow any ban, or the fact that some of the “assault” weapons proposed for banning are semi-automatic rifles which fire at roughly the same rate as Wyatt Earp’s 1872 Colt Peacemaker (and, in many cases, with considerably less velocity), the fact remains there exists no precise definition of an assault weapon. This situation is well-suited to emotional reaction which defies logic in its clamor for a ban of what would amount to almost every gun there is. It is equally suited to the popular predilection toward leaping without looking.

The heart of the trouble is that the voices raised loudest in support of assault weapon bans belong to folks who don’t know the first thing about guns, people who would ban anything made of black plastic. Like most well-intentioned but ill-informed pundits, those favoring the enactment of a ban prior to a definition of banned items give thought to form first, function later, and would see the creation of dangerously over-broad laws – and, as a matter of history, over-broad laws are ripe for abuse. America’s 1994 Assault Weapons Ban (part of that year’s Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, 18 U.S.C. 921) specified only semi-automatic weapons, which category includes most shotguns used in duck hunting (and would also outlaw Earp’s Colt, which fired a bullet per trigger pull).

Josh Sugarmann, author of 1988’s Assault Weapons and Accessories in America, described the trouble accurately: “The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons – anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun – can only increase the chance for public support for restrictions on these weapons.” Mr. Sugarmann was, notably, an early gun control activist, a role to which he did credit in citing as a source of support for assault weapon bans “the public’s confusion.”

That confusion is dangerous. It smooths the way for a ban on guns meant for anything but assault, born of ignorance and fear. Are there dangerous weapons manufactured with which the public at large has no business? Certainly. Fully automatic weapons have no place in the home; nor do magazines which accommodate in excess of ten rounds, silencers or sawed-off barrels. But to ban weapons because of their appearance, rather than their function, is like a fear of mean-looking dogs… simultaneously understandable and illogical. Banning an entire category of personal property with no thought to definitive distinctions within that category is less understandable.

Note: Your editorial staff’s opposition to over-broad assault weapon bans is less the result of any affection for guns – though we own a few – and more the product of distaste for (and fear of) government by reckless emotion.


Mrs. Astor Collects.

January 14, 2013

Brooke Astor on collections and collecting, as published in Architectural Digest, 1982:

Taste is a very elusive thing. The person who dresses with style and taste may have a banal or even hideous house. The one who collects magnificent pictures may have no idea how to hang them. Some people have good taste in everything but food; in the most delightful surroundings, they may serve you a half-cooked meal. And worst of all, some of the nicest people have dreadful friends.

I have found that my taste changes with the years. I used to love 18th-century English furniture—mahogany sideboards and large breakfront bookcases; paneled rooms with sporting prints on the walls. Then, by way of a divorce, I moved away from the English furniture and the house, into an apartment, where I had French furniture—small, pretty chairs, which were easy to draw up for conversation, and small round tables. Now I like a mixture. I want pure comfort, with some good wood pieces and low Chinese tables—and mirrors in every room. My mother used to say, “Mirrors in a room, water in a landscape, eyes in a face—those are what give character.” My mirrors are a mixture of French and English, all in old gilt, and they are there to reflect the room and to give it spirit.

There are two volumes on taste—The Economics of Taste, by Gerald Reitlinger—that I advise new collectors to read. Of particular importance is Reitlinger’s warning that you should not be so foolish as to throw away your grandfather’s stuffed bear, or your great-aunt’s ivory glove stretcher, because they may become the rage overnight and the bids will soar at Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

Collecting is a personal matter, which is why museums with the most complete and unusual collections can be overpowering at times. The point of view of a museum is to show as much as possible, in a gallery, of whatever that gallery is meant for. A museum must look for the best, but, at the same time, offer a range of lesser art, in order to illustrate the evolution of the perfect example and to satisfy both casual visitor and scholar. To accomplish all this, the museum must be totally objective. A museum must judge with an eye from which a great deal of passion has gone. There is no place for frivolity or for slipping in an unworthy object just because it is amusing or has an odd charm of its own.

Unlike the museum, the private collector can run totally amok. He can put the most outré painting on his wall and place below it a fourth-century Greek sculpture and an Axminster rug. His is not necessarily a happy mixture, because to be a collector does not always mean to be endowed with good taste; it can be purely a case of a desire to possess.

I caution that there are three catches to collecting: The first is the changing of your own taste, which entails a good deal of weeding out—a rather difficult process if you are at all sentimental. I recall asking a friend of mine, a delightful lady in her middle 90s, who was incredibly full of life and charm, what the secret was that kept her so young and on her toes. She answered thoughtfully, “I think it is because I try to make one new young friend a year. It challenges my outlook.” I did not dare to ask what she did with her old friends. Did she slough one off each year? Second, must you send one of your treasures to a thrift shop or auction room every time you replace it with another, so that your collection will not outgrow your house, but will show the fruits of your choice to advantage—not squeezed together, making a hodgepodge? And, last of all, possessions are a responsibility. They need care, as does everything. They must not be allowed to collect dust. China and glass must be washed. Pictures must be cleaned and restretched periodically. Books must be taken off the shelves, their bindings oiled and then rubbed down with lamb’s wool. Bronze must be guarded against the bronze disease. Nothing can be beautiful forever, if uncared for.

I started collecting paintings of dogs about 15 years ago. Dogs have always been a part of my life; I don’t believe I could survive without them. Inspired by their ever-loyal friendship, I started to adorn my walls with pictures of them. I chose works from the 19th century, mostly English, with a few Spanish and French, and have stuck to that. Queen Victoria, who was as sentimentally addicted to dogs as I am, had every one of her pets painted and her courtiers quickly followed her example. Thanks to that prolific period of dog lovers, I now have 74 dog pictures in the front hall and on the staircase wall of my house in the country. I have never bought a costly dog painting—say, by Stubbs—but I have Landseers, Herrings, Ackermanns, and so on. I have pictures of dogs tearing up a newspaper with a picture of Gladstone on it; dogs obviously adoring their masters, and carrying notes or slippers or gray top hats in their mouths; dogs mourning their masters; dogs sleeping or playing; and others simply posing. The dogs are my only really large collection, and the staircase was the right place for them, although they now also fill the upstairs hall.

In my smaller collections, the important thing is arrangement. I like to arrange objects as I would arrange a bowl of flowers, making a mixture that is pleasing and that brings about the best in each flower or object. In my New York apartment, the rooms are not large; so the objects all had to be fairly small.

In my blue “morning room” (named for the morning sun) there are several arrangements, including one of my favorites: Against a blue-fabric-covered wall I have hung five large Meissen plates—the heart of a dinner service painted for Frederick the Great of Prussia, to be used in his hunting lodge. I hung them over a Hepplewhite satinwood cabinet, on whose top I placed objects to enhance the animals painted on the plates.

I have a collection of teapots, also. One group is on a Regency black-and-red stand, and the other is on what is meant to be a hanging shelf, but I have placed it on the floor. The teapots are mostly European, late 18th and early 19th century, with some Oriental ones thrown in.

In the hall leading to my bedroom, a Brazilian marble dog prances between English candlesticks atop a console, and in my bedroom two Chinese Chippendale-style étagères hold a collection of English porcelain dogs.

All these things are not particularly rare, but even at the risk of sounding smug, I do think they are attractive together. I, myself, when I happen to look at them at night on my way to bed, feel they have found a good home, and I like them where they are. Anyway, they make me happy, and I hope it will be many years before they find their way into the auction rooms. I hope that then they will be loved as much as I love them, because I believe that nothing exists that is unresponsive.