Thursday, December 20, 2012

It Can't Just Be Guns

Americans are a special case in the history of the world for many reasons, not the least of which is our seemingly violent nature and obsession with guns.

The recent shooting in a Connecticut elementary school prompts me to write these words, but it certainly isn't the first time I have thought about gun violence and the impact it has had on me personally.  It is, however, a good moment to talk about the subject, though, because now, with the focus of so many people on the question of what to do about mass shootings we may have an opportunity to effect some kind of change.

The question isn't so much what to do, because I think we all agree that the 'why'(we all know that these shootings are wrong) or the 'what' (we all want to stop these shootings from happening).  The real question, of course, is how.  And, of course, it's more than one question.  I have come up with three.

How can we keep people from killing each other?
How can we keep people from killing each other with guns?
How can we keep people from killing each other with guns en masse?

What is the answer to these questions?  Is there an answer?  Would it be it a change in law?  We already have a laws that actively discourage killing.  A change in culture?  Paradoxically, here in the U.S. we also have a culture that actively encourages the ownership of guns.

We do our best, however, to reconcile the conflicts between our culture and our laws.  I think, on the whole, we can say that we have a very safe and civil society.  I say that even while addressing what seems to be a overwhelming tide of gun violence that is threatening to tear us apart, figuratively, socially, literally and physically.  It is fair to ask, however, if I can really claim that.  After all, what do I know about gun violence?  I do not live in, nor have I been to truly violent places in the world.  I don't have to have lived in fear of death from all sides to know that here in America, I am as safe as I can be.

Or am I?  An article recently written by a Canadian from Toronto, Gwynne Dyer, asks the rhetorical question: 'Are guns really the problem in America today?'  The answer is a bit surprising.  Dyer writes that, "...the American rate for murders of all kinds—shooting, strangling, stabbing, poisoning, pushing people under buses, etc.—is seven times higher than it is in [the] other 22 rich[est] countries [in the world]."

I have to agree with Dyer,  "It can’t just be guns."

But my lifetime has been marked and in some ways measured by guns.  I have experienced what seems to be a particularly American form of violence -- shootings.  I have to qualify this by saying that I know that the phenomenon of gun violence and the mass shootings that continually bring our awareness to the condition are not confined to the U.S.  A recent mass shooting in Norway is evidence of this.  Nor is the urge to kill lots of people (especially innocent and utterly defenseless people like schoolchildren) confined to the West.  Recent knife attacks in China illustrate this point.

I also know that the impact of gun violence on a society is difficult if not impossible to actually measure in a meaningful way, especially since I am not personally affected by gun violence.  But that doesn't mean I cannot or should not try to find answers.  Just speaking about it in personal terms is not an answer, but again, it is worth a try.  I can--I must--speak about the ways that guns and gun violence have affected me personally.  Perhaps explaining here about how gun violence has impacted and consequently influenced me may be taken as first hand evidence of what gun violence is doing to real people.  In any event, it will be useful to me, if only as a sort of therapy for the hurt I feel today.

It has to be said at the outset of this observation that of course, I have never been personally impacted by gun violence.  The reason for this have to do primarily with who I am and where I live.

What does that mean?  Well, practically speaking, it means that I happen to live in a place where I simply do not see gun violence first hand at all.  I live in a very safe, working-class neighborhood, where most of my neighbors, I would be willing to bet, have at least one gun in their homes.

I don't own a gun.  I never have, either.  Oh, I owned a BB gun when I was a boy (cf Dodging a Bullet) and have, on occasion, fired a gun.  I've been skeet shooting a few times and have even fired a handgun at a range a time or two.  I mention this because I want to establish that I am not opposed to guns and respect the right of people, especially here in Texas where I grew up, to own guns.  In fact, because I grew up in a gun culture, I have come to terms with them.  I am not, for example, so extreme in my opposition to guns that I would never touch one.  In fact, I'd kind of like to own a handgun.  In some ways, a gun seems like high-tech gadget, and as both readers well know, I am all about gadgets.

But of course, guns are not gadgets, no matter now high-tech they have become.  They are not toys, no matter how cheap and easy they are to get.  Guns are not even code, even though the latest 'innovation' in personal weaponry, so-called 'printable guns' have raised that question.  However 'cool' guns might may seem, though, I am not about to become a gun owner, let alone an advocate of unregulated gun ownership.

The fact that I am neither a gun owner/advocate nor a resident of a place where I am threatened personally with gun violence does not invalidate my premise that I have been affected by it.  Actually, in light of recent incidents,  I even feel an obligation to talk about it.  Gun violence is rightfully on my mind and the minds of many Americans right now.

There seem to be two poles of opinion that define the limits of the spectrum of belief about the 'right' to own guns.  On one hand we have the conservative, fundamentalist hunter with delusions of being a defender of American freedoms and basic human rights.  On the other hand, we have the nihilistic gang-banger with delusions of being the next Scarface.  Both ends of the spectrum share something with each other that they do not share with me, and I suspect, with those of us caught in the middle: a psychotic obsession with and irreversible addiction to the perceived power of firearms.

It seems to me that the ends of the spectrum are lit up of late with the fire of the crazy, burning with abandon toward the rest of us in the middle.  Here the reasonable people with a reason to own and use firearms--law enforcement, hunters, sportsmen, gun collectors and simple enthusiasts, moderates all--are being threatened.  Against their will, they are being forced to protect people that they find despicable and to defend positions that they not only do not hold but which they actually oppose.  Why?  Because such people and positions threaten their moderate way of life--that is to say, their guns.  Given the false choice between unlimited guns and unstoppable gun violence or no guns and an unaccountable state, even moderates are forced to choose extreme positions.

How has this happened?  How have the fringe elements taken the good intentions of moderate people hostage to their insane and obviously dangerous beliefs?  It doesn't have to be this way.  I do not know, nor will I be able answer that question here, in this essay.  The best I can do is to trace the origins and development of my own belief, in hopes that it is in line with others who feel similarly trapped and are looking for a way out.  This subject is both personal and publicly important to us all.

I was just seven years old when I first had to come to terms with a gun death.  November 22, 1963 was a school day like none that I had before nor after.  The assassination of President Kennedy was my first foray into the realm of unexpected and unnecessary violence.  The grief and sadness that I witnessed among the adults in my world on that day, that morning in my second grade classroom, shaped me in a an instant, before I even knew I'd been changed.  I thought that feeling of transformation, as incredible and forceful as it was, was unique.  I thought that I would never know a more powerful, more world-changing event in my lifetime.  That may be true, for the first time is always the most powerful, and longest lasting.

But of course, the first was not the only.  It was not unique.  The circumstances changed.  The victim(s), the murderer(s), the gun(s).  The time, the place, the witnesses all changed.  The rest of us changed too.  I changed.

Next, Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in public.  Then Bobby Kennedy.  George Wallace.  Kent State.  During the Sixties and even the Seventies I felt like a wave of gun violence was washing over us.  I saw murders on the front page of the paper and on the back.  People spoke of an epidemic of gun violence.  But no one did anything.

The wave continued in the Eighties and Nineties, beginning with the assassination attempt on President Reagan in 1981 culminating with Columbine in 1999.  Again people spoke of an epidemic.  The Brady Gun Law was passed in 1993, more than a decade after the President and James Brady were shot.  Although the Brady Law shifted the gun culture slightly by opening the door for background checks on gun buyers, the law was essentially ignored and allowed to die in 2004.

The wave rolled on.  For every fatal shot, two more bullets were manufactured to take its place.  For every gun registered and paid for legally, there were ten thousand more being made and sold illegally.  For years, people have bought as much or more ammunition than the bullet makers can produce, and it shows no signs of slowing down.

In fact, the response to the recent shootings has been an increase in gun sales and the multiple-round magazines that make already deadly weapons into frenzied death machines capable of killing many people as quickly as possible.  Again, it is those burning fringes, but their fire is out of control, eating up all the oxygen in the surrounding area, where the rest of us rely on that benign gas to live.  Even if the prospect of putting out the fire of gun violence is impractical and unlikely, I think those of us in the middle getting burned could do something to diminish it, even just a bit.

But how?  How can we reduce gun violence?  Should we even bother?  As a grand social experiment, America has interwoven firearms into its history in a way that no nation has ever done before.  Some argue that it's just a part of the 'DNA' of the nation.  They say that mass shootings and gun violence in general are the price we must pay for liberty.  Really?  Must schoolchildren die to protect our freedom?

I don't think so.  We are Americans, after all.  We can find creative and innovative solutions to the most vexing problems.  I think we can find a way to protect our liberty and our schoolchildren at the same time.  In spite of the most recent tragedy, I actually have hope.  While it might seem like we are experiencing a spike in mass shootings, things are not getting worse.  To me, this is strong evidence that not only is America is the most progressive nation on earth, it has the most productive people and is consequently possessed of the greatest potential for good and positive change that the world has ever seen.

But to take advantage of this potential, I think that America must 'evolve' culturally, if only slightly and only in some places.  If future generations of Americans may be said to be counting on us, the current generation, for anything at all, it is not our ability to balance the books and bring our fiscal house in order, but our ability to keep from killing each other so often and so efficiently with firearms.  We can do this.

1 comment:

Travis Chumley said...

I agree, there is a solution, but its not black and white simple. The older I get the more realistic I become(wiser I guess), and one thing that I realize is that things aren't as simple as just getting rid of the problem. There is a spider web of consequences and downfalls to every option. The pros and cons must be weighed out carefully. I enjoyed your well written post and subscribed to your blog.
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