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.
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.