Note: Forgive me if the following is more disjointed than usual. It may veer into the incoherent. It is so hard to process the unspeakable tragedy of the mass murder and suicide at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
A darkness has descended on the season of the Festivals of Life. The laughing children just yesterday awaiting Santa are gone, their families in anguish, their school mates traumatized, a whole nation stunned once again by senseless, but no longer surprising, gun violence.
On top of his post is a picture of an ancient Pennsylvania flintlock long rifle passed down in the Murfin family for more than two hundred years. It is the only heirloom of family history I have older than my father’s generation. It was, by clear physical evidence, a much used working rifle which put food on the table and likely was carried or used in the wars between the settlers like my ancestors and the Native Americans that caused the frontier along the Ohio River and the old Northwest Territory to bleed for decades. That gun is part of the American story.
Some think that the romance of that gun, the six shooters in the hands of impossibly square jawed handsome men in white hats, the spitting Tommy Guns of gangsters and G-Men, the cannon sized pistols of Dirty Harry and fantasy vigilantes are the problem. That our national obsession with them has turned us into a nation of gun worshipers who if we don’t kill personally indulge in rich fantasies in which we and our arms are heroes.
Maybe. But it is deeper than that.
I responded to the inevitable pro-gun Facebook claim that armed staff members might have prevented the killings from happening. This is part of what I wrote:
There are no easy answers. We dug a huge, murderous hole for ourselves in this country unmatched anywhere in the world. As many guns as people, probably more. More licensed dealers than grocery stores. More annual deaths than any on-going war. A greater percent of our population in prison for much longer times than any place save China and Iran. A pervasive culture of fear and suspicion. Mental health care rationed as if were treasure. Macho posturing passing for manhood. And none of it has done any good. We are no safer. Your answer—more guns, more prisons, more fear? We have to make deep changes, all of us, me and you. Talk to each other instead of demonizing each other. Put our children ahead of our pride. Give a little something up. Give a little more back…we all have to give something. Pride first.
I think the poster is wrong as he can be about guns. He undoubtedly thinks I’m a gun grabbing communist. It would be easy to stare at each other over the abyss filled with the bodies of children and forgetting them, hate each other for who we think the other is.
But I know Bill is a guy who sits on a sofa every morning with his five year old granddaughter, sharing old movies, cookies and funny stories. He loves his grandchildren as much as I love mine. He means no child harm. And he genuinely grieves for the loss.
Hours after this exchange, I posted, “It has been suggested in honor of the children lost today, we post a photo of ourselves at 5 years of age as our profile picture. I posted this one recently used for the holiday season. It is a reminder of our own once tender selves--and all of the lost years the children slain today have been denied.” Moments later Bill posted a fuzzy photo of a grinning blond boy proudly showing off two nice fish. He understood. Across the chasm of our differences our five year old selves joined with the five year olds snuffed out in Connecticut.
It’s going to take deep, deep work and decades of pain and sorrow to turn around the culture of death, violence, revenge, and fear that have turned our nation into a daily carnal house.
Five hours ago I had paragraphs of angry words composed in my head, waiting for my fingers to caress the keyboard. I was filled with righteousness and a spirit of wrathful vengeance. I wanted to spit defiance at every gun nut, every well paid slick lobbyist, every craven politician that enabled the carnage.
At the same time behind locked doors terrified men cradling their darlings leapt over the bodies of the children in a panicked response that the killings would cause the gun grabbers to knock down their doors in the dead of night. They were filled with murderous rage, too. Against the shooter, but also against their neighbors who feel differently about guns.
Look, I’m not making a case for any namby-pamby moral equivalence. None of that one-hand-on-the-other-hand bullshit or the pseudo impartial “balance” of the professional press. I have a firm grasp on the morality of this cultural obsession and I know there are real villains in the plush suites of the NRA, Fox News, and the arms lobby
But unless the ordinary folks on both sides of this divide can find a way to recognize each other’s simple humanity and reach out to find whatever shaky common ground we have we are sliding into the very civil war which I think frankly the worst of the other side not-so-secretly yearn for.
I have no magic solutions, but maybe a few what ifs that will require us all to give up a little something.
What if we acknowledged that there are just too damn many guns in this country and that any idgit, criminal or psycho can get ahold of them without breaking a sweat?
What if we found ways to reduce the numbers of those guns out there, starting with the essentially military weapons designed not for hunting, target practice, or self-protection but for the efficient killing of other human beings?
What if every dick in America could not get a Federal Gun Dealer’s License on the strength of a form requiring far less information than securing a car loan and what if they couldn’t deal guns out of car trunks, kitchen tables, and gun show to any piss-a-hole-in-the-snow warm body that shows up with cash?
What if we really checked the background of all buyers not just for criminal histories, but for demonstrable mental illness, those with active orders of protection against them, those who are known to belong to hate groups, militias, and insurrectionists?
Sounds like the usual “Liberal anti-gun agenda?” Notice it does not call for confiscation of all weapons, allows for hunting and sports shooting, and even for the possession of reasonable self-defense weapons by responsible owners.
And you gun control folks—give up the illusion that in this country hand guns or all guns can be simply made illegal or that the Second Amendment having been abused, needs to be rescinded. It ain’t gonna happen and you need to acknowledge that.
The folks out in my home country of Wyoming and broad swaths of the West and South and plenty of pockets of hunters and shooters in the rest of the country are not just kidding with their “you’ll get my gun when you pry it from my cold dead hands” rhetoric. A lot of them are ready and some are eager to take to the hills and wild places and make like Afghan mujahedeen waging a guerilla war. The US Army literally does not have enough troops to win that war.
And remember that the majority of guns in this country are in the hands of frightened middle class folks in their suburban villages and safe urban enclaves. No American politician, whatever black helicopter fantasies gun lover may harbor, is going to authorize police to kick down their doors in the middle of the night to size their guns.
Even if you could outlaw all gun sales, an efficient black market would be in place the next day. Our coastlines are long, our borders porous, and our smugglers experienced and creative. Guns would continue to pour in to the country, probably in greater numbers than ever just as prohibition and drug laws increased the appetite and usage of the banned substance.
At best we will get a slow attrition of guns on the streets which will take decades to come down to reasonable levels.
In the mean time we have to work to make mental health services easily and widely available on the same footing as any other health care. And since we do such a damn bad job at providing even general health care, we are going to have to have a little dose of “socialized medicine.” Don’t like that? Sit down, shut up, and deal with it.
We have to stop sending every 17 year old with a joint to prison. Our draconian drug laws enable the street wars to control a thriving black market, send huge numbers—mostly Black and Latin—into the universities of crime, and stigmatizes them for life so that they become essentially locked out of legitimate employment. The highly lucrative prison-industrial complex needs to be smashed.
Even harder will be bridging the oceans of fear and suspicion that divide us by race, religion, language, politics, gender, sexual orientation, and class. We’ve grown too comfortable in our cocoons and too attached to a casual bigotry we pretend does not exist. We need to get to know each other not because it’s a nice thing to do but because our survival as a society ultimately depends on it.
This last is the deepest soul work we must all do for ourselves and together. Pride, ego, and decades of carefully nursed grudges and resentments will all have to be put aside. It will be painful. It will be wrenching.
But not more so than the next massacre of the innocents.