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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

#stopitnow: Bullet Points--or, Me and a Gun, revisited

I originally wrote this after the Tucson shootings in early 2011, and revised it a bit after the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut last week. Members of the #GenFab bloggers' group have been sharing their responses to the Sandy Hook School shootings with the hashtag #stopitnow. What follows are my personal opinions on the generalities of a very complex issue, with links to facts on the matter where appropriate. I've linked to others' posts in a Readlist.

Whenever there’s a newsworthy shooting somewhere in this country, the debate about guns and their “control” gets revived. America is a nation born from war; it wouldn’t have come into existence without firearms. Our Constitution’s Second Amendment was meant to ensure our right to bear arms in defense of ourselves, our families, and our country. However, all too often, they’re used for purposes pretty much unrelated to that right, and activities that, being against the law, are technically unprotected by the Constitution.

My parents were both victims of gun violence associated with criminal activity. When I was twelve years old, they were both shot in an attempted robbery at the liquor store they owned at the time; my father’s knee was shattered when he came out from behind the counter, and my mother sustained a flesh wound when she chased the robber out of the store. (By the way, he didn’t get any money--but he did get arrested a few days later.) My sister and I were in the store at the time--a Saturday evening, the night before Easter 1976--and witnessed it all. It’s no overstatement to say it changed our lives; by the end of that year, my parents had sold the store, our house, and most of what we owned, and we moved from Connecticut to Florida to start over. (This happened roughly 30 miles--and 36 years--from the town where Sandy Hook Elementary School is located.)

When I had a child of my own, I was one of those parents who didn’t want him to play with toy firearms, although I did make exceptions for the occasional water pistol. However, I observed what many parents of little boys do; if they want to play “shooting” games, they can pretend anything is a gun. (I don’t mean that as a sexist statement; girls may do it too, but I only know from raising a boy.) My son wasn’t all that interested, fortunately, but he did engage in that pretend play every now and then. And he spent most of his growing-up years in the South, where gun culture is pretty well entrenched, although we really didn’t know anyone who used them.

I have joked occasionally about the irony that I would leave Tennessee and move to California before I lived with a guy who owned a firearm. Early in our acquaintance, and well before we were officially “in a relationship,” the man who would become my second husband told me that one of his favorite hobbies was target shooting and that he had an interest in collecting firearms. He hadn’t wanted to mention it until I’d gotten to know him a bit--and had a good sense of how non-aggressive he was--but he did feel I should know fairly early on, as it was the kind of thing that might affect my feelings about him. He was well aware that people can have some prejudices against gun owners--but since I hadn’t yet told him about the robbery, he didn’t realize that I might be someone with those prejudices. I surprised myself by how calmly I took this revelation; I told him that it was his thing, and as long as he didn’t expect me to participate in it, I wouldn’t bother him about it.

And I really haven’t, although I am the last person I ever thought would live with firearms in the house. But I also live with someone who is is exceedingly responsible about firearm ownership and usage, serious about safety, and fundamentally nonviolent. Because he’s the only firearms owner I’ve had a close relationship with, I can’t say whether my husband is “typical” or not, but I suspect he probably is; we just don’t hear much about the gun owners who don’t fit the “NRA gun nut” image. My husband’s firearms are stored, unloaded, in a locked safe. They’re removed only for his trips to the shooting range (and occasionally for cleaning); he has no interest in hunting or any other uses for them, and no one touches them without his supervision. Not surprisingly, he’s not as averse to toy firearms as I was when my son was little--my stepson owns a few Nerf dart guns, which he’s not permitted to point at any living creature--but he’s never allowed violent video games, particularly those of the “first-person-shooter” variety, and he’s never pushed shooting with his daughter and son; they’ve used air rifles and accompanied him to the target range a few times, but they’re not overly interested.

taking aim at target range (by Paul Vasquez, used at www.3rsblog.com)

I have mixed feelings about the worth of “prohibition” laws in general. Outlawing the production and sale of alcoholic beverages in the 1920s not only didn’t stop people from drinking, it was a major factor in the growth of organized crime. The illegality of abortion prior to 1972 didn’t stop it from happening then, and efforts to curtail its legal availability now won’t stop it either. But as you might imagine from my experience in that liquor-store robbery when I was twelve, I’ve been quite strongly in favor of gun control most of my life. On the one hand, I (kind of) get the NRA’s “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” position; on the other hand--yeah, people kill people, but in this country far too many of them have much too easy access to guns to do it. Even where there are restrictions and prohibitions against gun purchases, I suspect that a determined criminal mind--or an unstable one--will find a way around them, but the fact remains that stricter gun laws correlate with less gun-related violence.

In the years since, I’ve thought we were relatively fortunate that my family’s experience with such violence happened when it did, the mid-1970s; now it seems like criminals are more interested in not leaving witnesses, regardless of whether they get what they came for, and my parents might not have made it out with just bullet wounds and broken bones. I don’t blame “the media” for what seems to be a more widespread appetite for carnage, but I do believe that as violence in entertainment--and as entertainment--has become more prevalent and more graphic, it’s come to feel less real, to the extent that some seem to disassociate violent acts from their effects on living human beings. That may point to an issue that needs at least as much attention as gun control, and maybe even more: mental-health care and treatment, starting with a hard look at the attitudes and stigmas surrounding it. There are even bigger questions of ethics and morality connected with all this--Is a criminal act less of a crime if it's committed by someone mentally unstable who may not really understand what they're doing? Is it more of a crime if the person who commits it understands it but is incapable of caring about it?--but since we're already struggling as a society with the more concrete questions, I'm not sure when we'll be prepared to tackle the philosophical ones.

I'm pretty sure of this, though: the “right to bear arms” is a significant American one, but the right to health and safety is a fundamental human one--and personally, that’s the right I’m more interested in defending.