Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Let's Talk About Guns, Part II

Guns: Semantics, A Personal History, and a Paradigm Shift

Part II, A Personal History

It dawned on me the night before last, that I do not only have a political stance about gun control laws, but I also have my own personal history - or relationship- with guns.  As I lay awake reviewing the different stages of my life where guns have presented themselves, I became deeply grieved at the role they have played and the marks they have left.  When we talk to each other about the crises of armed violence in our country, I thought it might be helpful for you to understand my point of view, if I gave you a glimpse into that personal history.  

Sure, I understand the draw.  I’ve shot cans as a kid in Texas, on my grandparents property, under my grandpa’s supervision, and clay birds with a shotgun as a college student in S. Carolina.  One of the only “sports” I was ever any good at… and I mean sharp-shootin’ good.  But as hobbies go, I don’t miss shooting things to pieces.  Now I spend my time creating beautiful spaces.


Mostly guns have played a much more sinister role in my life, and laying awake trying to trace their tracks through my biography, I was shaken by how far back that trail leads me.  As a young girl, no older than five or six, as I was still living with my biological parents above a bar called the Show Boat, in the not yet developed neighborhood of Adams Morgan, Wash. DC, some men with guns broke into our bare and shabby one room apartment.  Though I was awakened by the commotion, I lay petrified and pretended to be asleep on my mattress on the floor.  The little money and valuables that my parents had, they quickly hid under my pillow.  As far as I know, no gun shots went off and no one was hurt.  It was not the only time that I faced a robbery while living in that apartment.  No illusions for me about a warm and snuggly world growing up.

Now, some are advocating that it is just this social strata that is most in need of guns as protection.  John R. Lott, called by some as one of the “nations leading gun experts,” who has written, “More Guns, Less Crime,” has said in an interview here, that,  

The bottom line seems to be when you make it costly for people to get permits, fewer people get permits. You particularly price out people who live in high-crime urban areas from being able to get permits, and those are the ones who benefit the most from having the option to defend themselves.”

My first thought is, that by making guns even more accessible to low income “law abiding citizens” to defend themselves, one also makes them more accessible to low income criminals. Like I said in my last post, this is not a sane way to reduce the crises of armed violence, but a form of escalating it under the misnomer of self-protection. 
My second thought is, I am not so sure that adding guns to the volatile cocktail of a choleric, alcoholic father and a schizophrenic mother would have been such a good idea! See, such a view assumes that there are “good, law abiding citizens” and “bad criminals.”  It forgets that sometimes, it is the “good, law abiding citizen” that goes nuts and goes on a rampage.  Giving him a gun, makes the consequences that much more deadly.  On this evening our family was victimized.  But the person I grew up being terrified of every day was my own father.  I am really glad he didn’t have gun.

Teen Years

I was rescued from this domestic chaos when I was seven, but I did not escape the neighborhood or the milieu until much later.  I had some rough patches.  Some shady friends.  Odd ideas of fun.  They included shooting street lamps and cats with bb guns, among other things.  One dark Halloween night, when I was a teenager, I was riding around with my friend and her boyfriend, Tommy in his car.  (Tommy has no innocence that needs protecting by a cover name.  He was not a good guy.)  When some other young teens threw eggs at the car, Tommy stopped and pulled out a gun and shot one of them in the back.  The boy was paralyzed for the rest of his life from the waist down.  I didn’t know that Tommy had a gun.  I don’t know how he got it.  I just know that someone like Tommy should never have been able to get close to a gun. 
I was exposed to too much violence during this time of my life, in a city that would soon be named the murder capitol of the world (in 88-89): gang violence, drug-related violence, violence against women, friends who were beaten by their boyfriends, friends who were raped.  

Never did I think that having a gun would make our lives better.


I grew up. Got out.  Moved away.  Fast forward many years after marrying and having a child in Germany, my husband, son and I (and later the first of two daughters was born) went to work in Papua New Guinea.  Living in the city of Goroka in the highlands of PNG made my experience of violence in DC look like a walk in the park.  We were confronted with reports from friends and colleagues, witnessed, or experienced ourselves, violence or the threat of violence on a daily bases.  Shootings, police brutality, domestic violence, break ins, rapes, road blocks.  I have multiple stories for all of them.  Two that hit closest to home, I want to share.  
Not too long after the 18 year old missionary’s daughter was gang raped in the middle of the afternoon in her family’s home just a few streets away from ours, a gang of “rascals” (as criminals are called in Pidgin) tried to break into our home one night.  By that point we had an unarmed security guard (who mostly slept) and regular drive-by’s from the security company, which initially scared them off.  However they came back and began to throw the unripe, rock-hard avocados from our garden at the house against the barred window of the children’s room.  The next morning, as Naguru, who worked for us and is the most wonderful woman alive, was watering the garden and “reading” the events from the night before in the prints and traces left by the intruders, she found the handmade pipe-gun that they had lost.  That is why they had come back and tried to intimidate us, to look for the gun.  We could not get rid of that gun fast enough.  

Although I spent countless nights, especially as my husband was away teaching courses in the “bush,” getting up sometimes 20 times to check if the loud, drunk voices were in our garden or “just” outside our garden gate, Naguru and I were never more concerned than the day when my husband got an unexpected visiter.  The man was a gang member who wanted to get out.  He wanted to come clean.  He came several times to “confess” to all of his crimes after turning over all of his weapons to the police.  My husband has never told me the details of this man’s confession, but knowing the reputation of these gangs of rascals, I’m well aware that the extent and nature of his crimes were horrifying.  He knew that firearms made those crimes possible, and knowing that without them he would become vulnerable to his ex-gang members and to the families of his victims, he did not choose to keep any of them as protection.  Instead, he wanted to rid his life of them, and the power that they provided, for good.

Once we were back in Germany after our four years in PNG, we became aware by contrast of the level and magnitude of incessant stress and fear we had been living under all that time.  During our four years, we progressively took measures to increase the security on our property.  But never did we consider bringing a gun into our home.  It was never mentioned, not even a thought given to it.  
Never did I think that having a gun in my house, or on our long road trips, where armed road blocks were a real threat, would make our lives better or safer.  I knew, that if we took that step, we would be casting our lot in with the same powers that emboldened these criminals.  The risk of accident and escalation was simply too great to shoulder.

None of this is meant to prove anything.  It is simply part of my story.  They are experiences and impressions that I cannot factor out of the way I approach our national crises of firearm violence.  They are experiences which have goaded me to look for a new paradigm from which to respond to conflict, the threat of violence and victimisation.  

Monday, December 17, 2012

Let's Talk About Guns, Part I

Semantics, a Personal History, and a Paradigm Shift

Part I:  Semantics

 There may be little reason to believe that my conversations with friends and family who “stick to their guns” on the second amendment will generate the kind of creative solutions that will lead to a safer, kinder, gentler society, but if there is one thing that my experience tells me, then it’s that miscommunication will certainly derail us. If we are going to talk about this, then let’s at least start using the same language.


For example, it is being discussed in comments on my fb post, whether “guns are used for good,” and therein have their legitimation.  From the examples given, it appears that by “good,” my younger cousin means “provision” and “protection.”  (“Provision,” we will leave aside, since there is and can be no serious argument for the need to use assault weapons, or any firearms for that matter, to provide food for people).  
By “protection,” I am understanding him to mean, “protecting what is perceived, at a given intersection of time, space and circumstances, to be innocent, human lives from intentions that are disagreeable: physical harm, death, exploitation and domination.”  Or, in other words, “protecting lives that are deemed more valuable over lives that are deemed less valuable.”   A gun in the hand of a potential victim, or 3rd party rescuer, then, is “used for good in that it can enable individuals to instantaneously become prosecutor, judge, juror and executioner, preserving the innocent and eliminating (or in best case scenarios, intimidating) the guilty perpetrator.  I think that is about the extent of the “good” that firearms are able to do in this world.  They don’t heal sickness or disease.  They don’t educate our children.  They don’t help us to connect with each other as a communication devise, means of transport, or language does.  They don’t produce loving families or meaningful community.  They don’t provide shelter, keep us warm and clothed or cool and shaded.  They don’t alleviate discomfort or make us more attractive.  
Their “goodness” is at best, a very limited “goodness,” which is highly subjective, is contingent upon the convergence of multiple other factors to even qualify for a “goodness nomination,” and comes with enormous collateral damage.  The idea of a guns goodness  comes only, if at all, in a worst case scenario as a necessary last resort, rather than as some purely neutral object that “can be used for good.”


Closely connected to the, “guns can be used for good,” language, is the “guns are not evil, people are,” slogan.  “Guns don’t kill, people do.”  This is clearly a misnomer and a confusion of categories.  When I am pleading with my fellow citizens, friends and family to limit the production, sales and distribution of firearms, I am not doing so because I believe a machine gun has “moral agency,” which is a prerequisite for “being evil,” but because I know that guns, any guns, but some even more so than others, are extremely powerful objects, and therefore potentially more dangerous than other inanimate objectsThere is a moral argument to be made, but first, when debating about the objects themselves, our arguments fall into the category of pragmatism.  These inanimate objects are powerful and dangerous and carry a greater potential for harm than a sofa does.  That is why if there is someone who is mentally ill, violently enraged, or morally decrepit in the house, we might not be able to heal, medicate, assuage or convert the person, try as we might, but we would be wise to remove objects that carry a greater potential for harm from the vicinity, even as we continue our efforts to address the human factor of the equation.  This is exactly what Lisa Long did while confronted with the violent threats and behavior of her aggressive, mentally ill son.  She packed up all the knives in a Tupperware box and carried them around with her, all the while doing everything to get the medical/psychological help her son needed.  Exactly because the human element is so precarious… the one says “fallen, sinful man,” the other says “potpourri of mental/emotional/social disfunction”…, that we would be pragmatically wise to limit the availability of these singularly powerful and dangerous inanimate objects with potentially devastating consequences.  
So, when speaking about the actual firearms themselves, it makes more sense to me to use language that designates them as powerful and dangerous, rather than not evil/evil, and then to ask ourselves, “what are wise, pragmatic (effective), and humane ways to halt the injuries and fatalities that result from the availability, misuse and malicious use of these uniquely powerful and dangerous objects?”  Judging from the international statistics of civilian deaths by firearms, other industrialized nations seem to be doing a MUCH better job of this than the United States.  Not to even consider the reasons for their success compared with our utter failure, is foolish.


Third, it is time to call a spade a spade.   By suggesting that the best solution to checking the injurious and fatal potential of these uniquely powerful and dangerous objects is to increase their prevalence and make them more available and accessible throughout every aspect of our society, for every citizen (at home, at work, at school and at play), we are not safeguarding society, but unraveling it.  Feeling you have to drive around with a shotgun in your truck to feel safe from a possible violent attack is not self-defense, it is escalation.  If Peter has a stick, Paul feels he must have a bigger stick to feel safe.  Once Paul has a bigger stick, do you think Peter will be content to have the smaller stick? And so the endless arms race begins.  I understand the natural instinct to armer up.  I feel deeply empathetic to the plight of living in fear, as I have been there myself.  But I will not call a spade a diamond.  Arming preschool teachers with extremely powerful and dangerous weapons would not be a wise, pragmatic (effective) and humane way to halt the injuries and fatalities that result from the malicious use of these same dangerous objects.  It would be an escalation of an already alarming crisis in our country.  
So, during our conversations, be aware that though someone might refer to the “need” to have a gun in the home or to carry concealed weapons to church, to the park, or to day-care as “protection,” I will always read that as “escalation.”  I am looking for ways to de-escalate the violence and fear in my country.  Do you think that together we might try to come up with some creative ways to make our country a kinder, safer, gentler place to live?