Monday, July 23, 2012

Rat's Nest

This Feministing graphic was the tipping point  for my writing this post.

It keeps coming back to guns. 

There are a handful of things I keep wanting to write about, for different reasons, but haven't written about, for one reason. It keeps coming back to guns. I wanted to write about Trayvon Martin and racism. I wanted to write about the book "The Trouble With Boys," and my own feelings about our elementary school's policy about "playing guns." I wanted to write about the death of Margaret Anderson, a Mt. Rainier park ranger killed by a suspect in another shooting. I wanted to write about a three year old child, dead because parents left her unsupervised in a car that also contained a handgun. But I keep stopping, ambivalent about my own rat's nest of feelings about guns.

Erica & Guns: A History
My dad had a .22 rifle. He kept it on the top shelf of his closet. I don't know where the ammunition was, although I'm sure it was far away from the gun. Occasionally, he went target shooting with a friend. He did a stint with the French army in his youth, and presumably knew how to handle a weapon. I don't ever remember handling it, with OR without permission.

I grew up in a hunting community. I didn't personally have any interest in hunting, but my first boyfriend did. He taught me how to shoot and we occasionally went tromping around his property, shooting at tin cans, etc.  I knew that I did not want to be responsible for the death of an animal, and I didn't particularly want to be around when he killed an animal, and I freely expressed my feelings about the senseless death of small woodland creatures. By "senseless" I mean, killing for the sake of killing. Killing for target practice. I felt -- and still feel -- okay about hunting animals that become a meal. It might not be technically hunting for survival, but at least it isn't wasteful. I'd rather have fresh venison than factory-farmed steak (not that I eat either with any frequency). Point being, I respected his right to hunt and he respected my right not to hunt.

I felt okay about hunting rifles. I still feel okay about hunting rifles. In my personal experience, they tend to be used as useful tools by sensible people.

Then there are handguns, where my ambivalence intensifies.

In college I met a woman in the Students for Choice organization who carried a handgun. She had been assaulted, and started carrying a gun afterwards. She was both comfortable and skilled with it. During the time we knew each other, she told me that she'd stopped carrying the gun. Walking home one night, she was startled by someone coming up on her out of the darkness. She pulled the gun before she even thought about it, and then realized that it was just a kid on a bike. Her own quick, instinctive reaction scared her.

In college I also started carrying a pepper spray key chain, after going to a self-defense workshop. One of the points the speaker made was that carrying a handgun could just put you in greater danger -- if you're overpowered, the gun can be used against you. Not that there was any risk of my carrying a handgun. But anytime someone (usually male) asked me why I bothered with pepper spray when I could just pack heat, I pointed out that I didn't want to provide anyone with a weapon they didn't already have, and pepper spray was about the extent of what I needed.

Do we really need handguns? Well, I don't. But I get it, some people really want one so they feel empowered to defend themselves and their homes. And, honestly, it's fun to shoot a gun, in the same way that it's fun to watch firecrackers. If you're a rational, cautious adult with a safe and no history of abusive behavior or drug and alcohol problems or severe mental illness, then I generally feel okay about your owning a gun. Not good, not great, but okay.

Or do I?

Guns Are Tools. Except When They's Not.
Three years ago, we lost a family friend to an accidental shooting. The details could not have been any more devastating for all concerned. The young woman, who I used to baby sit, was an investigator for federal public defender's office. She was accidentally shot by her father while they were cleaning guns after a morning at the shooting range. Both were experienced with handling guns. No one was behaving recklessly.

The point is that accidents happen. Even if you are intelligent and well-trained and cautious in handling guns. Even if you are completely sober and you are with someone you love very much, enjoying time together doing something you both enjoy. If an accidental shooting can happen then, imagine the possibilities when the people involved are untrained, drunk, on drugs, angry, abusive, mentally ill, etc.

A few months ago I participated in a discussion about guns on a friend's Facebook page. It started out as a conversation and rapidly devolved into a polarized discussion, which infuriated me. I posed the question, "How can we uphold a constitutional right to bear arms while also recognizing and PREVENTING the senseless deaths (both accidental and intentional) guns enable?" It's not a rhetorical question. I really want to know. The response was knee-jerk and not helpful - cars kill people, too, and we still use them.

I'm sorry, but I need a better fucking answer than that.

Assault rifle similar to the one used in the Aurora, Colorado shooting.
The whole "guns don't kill people" argument makes me livid, because what exactly was a handgun designed for? Or an assault rifle? In the case of an assault rifle, I think the name sort of gives it away. It's made for assaulting people. See also: Jason Alexander's controversial tweet where he points out, "So basically, the purpose of an assault style weapon is to kill more stuff, more fully, faster and from further away. To achieve maximum lethality." (Take a look at the picture of Benjamin Colton Barnes below; In January 2012, Barnes killed Park Ranger Margaret Anderson. Is it really a surprise to find that he killed someone with this gigantic fucking CANNON? What else do you use a gun like that for? It ain't squirrel hunting, people.)

And, since I'm turning to entertainers to help me make my point, here's what Eddie Izzard has to say about "The Gun Thing":

Kids & Guns  Further complicating my ambivalence is the fascination my kids have with guns. Not with real guns - they have never seen a real gun before. They don't get to watch TV programs that have guns in them. They don't play games that have guns in them. But they are little boys and they are fascinated with destruction and explosions and things that go bang. Like guns.

My husband is NOT ambivalent about guns. He doesn't think that anyone should have a gun, for any purpose. Before we had children, I was adamant that they not play with Barbies and he was adamant that they not play with guns. I think this is a really difficult thing to enforce, since not actually having a toy gun does not necessarily prevent kids from playing with guns. I remember playing with the neighbor's air rifle as a kid, and I have yet to see any statistics supporting the theory that playing with toy guns leads to (or is even correlated with) aggression in later life.

I don't want to micromanage my chlidren's play. But I really don't like listening to them talking about blowing things up or shooting things. At age 3-4, kids seem to have nonsensical catch phrases that they say all the time because they a) are amusing to the kid, and b) annoy other people. Dylan's catch phrase was "Cat-pan!" (long story). Conrad's is, unfortunately, "shoot your head off." Or "shoot his head off" or "shoot my head off," etc. It pushes my buttons, and though he doesn't know why, he knows that it does. And that gives him additional incentive to use the phrase. In the wake of the shooting in Aurora, my patience with the phrase is at an ebb low.

I'm not sure what it will take to demonstrate to him that guns are not toys and shooting is not fun. I don't know, maybe I should make him watch the evening news? Or find a video on YouTube of someone getting their head shot off? That seems extreme. I'm at a loss.
Benjamin Colton Barnes showing off his weapons. 

Do Guns Keep Us Safe?
Here's an interesting parallel. The US/Soviet arms race was based on the idea that the best way to maintain peace was to stockpile as many weapons as possible. That same argument is now being applied to guns.

John Swift wrote about the arms race, "There were widespread fears that humanity could not survive. A single reckless leader, or even a mistake or misunderstanding, could initiate the extinction of mankind. Stockpiles of fearsome weapons were built up to levels far beyond any conceivable purpose, and only seemed to add to the uncertainty and instability of the age."

Our nation has already come to a conclusion about stockpiling nuclear weapons. It doesn't make us safer, it just scares us and puts us in a position where some nutball could destroy lives with a minimum of effort. When are we going to reach a similar conclusion about assault weapons?  Want a peaceful society? Then we need MORE GUNS! If only there were MORE GUNS, then the horrible tragedy in Aurora, Colorado might not have happened!

In an article about the Aurora shooting, Daily Beast special correspondent Michael Tomasky concludes that, "...this will happen again. And again, and again. In fact, as I said above, we are likely headed for a day in this country like the following. At a movie theater, in a mall, at a commuter rail platform, in a restaurant—some glory-seeker opens fire. Most people duck and scatter, but a decent percentage of them produce their pieces. The gunman goes down like Warren Beatty in Bonne and Clyde, but, since “most people” aren’t marksmen, maybe a few other people do too, and maybe, oh, a three year old. But hey. There’s always a spoilage factor. Rights are sacred. From their cold, dead hands. . . . 

Why are these acceptable losses? In a society where conservative legislators are trying to prevent the demise of every egg ever fertilized, in the face of our constitutional right to privacy, you'd think every human life would be viewed as sacred, and the senseless end of life something to be decried and prevented. But apparently we are supposed to just shrug and let these lives be the price paid for a constitutional right to bear arms. Gun advocates of America, I really want to support your constitutional rights. But can you work with me a little? You want your guns, and I want to stop hearing about this useless, pointless, PREVENTABLE death. Tell me how this is going to work.


robina said...

This is a really powerful entry, Erica. Thank you for writing it.

Sarah said...

This reminds me of a really sad incident. Years ago, we had a conversation about guns at church and one woman became very passionate about her right to have a gun in her home. She was a single mother so I could see her point but couldn't understand why this usually mild-mannered person became so vehement on this subject.

Several years later, her teenaged daughter shot herself in the head with this very gun. I have always wondered if she got rid of the thing or kept it.