(Note: I sent this out as an email with a link to CT. Senator Blumenthal’s petition to support his background check for ammo purchase bill. It’s one of many steps we can take…) So the shooting thing in Newtown turns out to be my breaking point. Not like there haven’t been hundreds of crises and more every year. But this one was kids, and the response of the right wing extremists has shown just how thin the veneer of our civil society is. (And maybe that is all it ever was, veneer. And maybe things only ever felt safe if you were part of white middle class America in the baby boomer years. And probably then you only felt truly safe if you were male, the rest of us whistling in the dark or being very busy with denial.)
So the shooting happened and it would be just one more horrible random act of violence by a crazy person, except that the gun nuts went crazy and gun & ammo sales went through the roof. Some of the parents of the murdered children and some of community out in Sandy Hook who stepped up to help have been harassed by gun fanatics frantic that their guns would be taken away. Their guns are important to them, decency is not.
Now, I’m not a ban-every-gun person. Granted my politics lean left. I’m no mere tree hugger, I’m a tree humper. But I’m not a vegan. And I hunt, in a manner of speaking, I collect shells, sometimes taking live animals and killing them. The desire to hunt is hardwired into many people, just in some folks it manifests in prowling Filene’s basement or the Brimfield antique markets or, I dunno, the singles listings on Craigslist. Though the latter might refer to an entirely different set of instincts.
I understand the pleasure in guns for sport. At summer rec, back when I was maybe nine, I was a dead shot at archery and I loved it. Now, if we are at a country fair and they have one of those squirt gun games and you happen to be under twelve and hankering for a giant plush SpongeBob to collect dust in your room, I’m your gal. I’m getting older and so is my vision, so it might take me two or three tries. But I’ll win it for you, I promise. I like aiming and shooting at stuff. Hit or miss, it’s fun.
Last year, my son and I had even discussed going to a range and learning how to shoot, simply because we were curious and because guns had become such a big part of the culture. Neither of us wanted to pursue it beyond that. We just wanted to try it. Well now, you can image, it seems about as appealing as drowning puppies. Not to mention that new studies indicate the lead in the air at shooting ranges can have a detrimental effect on mental health. Like I need one more thing besides melting glaciers, hypoxic estuaries, bleaching reefs, burning forests, rampant drought, tar sands, fracking, privatized jails, the collapse of journalism, violence against women, the increase of fundamentalism and wingnut cults, greedy-ass bankers, sociopathic corporations and ulcer-ridden starving whales to push me over the spittle-flecked edge. But I digress.
Like most boomers raised in suburbia, my early experience with animals was either with family pets or cartoon characters or on the dinner table. When I got old enough to make the connection between animals and dinner, I tried to stop eating meat. (If you know anything about my family history, you can imagine how that went.) At that point in my life, I would have put hunters in jail because killing Bambi was murder. And then I didn’t think much about it for decades until I moved out to Flagstaff. Maybe the first week in town I was driving behind a dusty dually with a bloody severed elk head tied into the bed. I don’t remember if the head was facing towards me or not. What I do remember was the spread of the antlers. The rack was huge, like something out of the Peabody Museum.
It was a “Dorothy-you’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore” moment*. The second week in Flagstaff was when I noticed the booze, bait & ammo store on the other side of town. They had a drive-through, which makes sense, because really, if you are going on a drunken killing spree, why should you have to get out of your car? And then you might want to do a little fishing to relax afterwards. Of course, there aren’t a lot of places to fish in northern Arizona, which is one reason you might want to make a run down to Mexico afterwards. I swear it existed, the booze, bait & ammo store, but it closed before I came back east. Just think, if they’d hung on for another ten years, they’d be making a fortune now.
* Nowadays an easy way to tell if you aren’t in Kansas is to ask a school kid if he knows what evolution is or if the Earth is round or flat. If he’s clueless about science, you are in Kansas. Or maybe Texas. Or possibly Arkansas.
The culture of the West was shocking to my New England sensibilities, but I got used to it. The next door neighbors were very calm practical people. I used to hire the boys to feed my chickens when I was out of town. Their dad taught a gun safety class. Not the kind of people you worry about having guns. And hunting may not be my cup of tea, but neither is bowling. I believe hunting can be done responsibly. It’s not perfect. There will be some damage. There will always be some damage. There are too many of us. We all do damage just by being here.
So who do I worry about having guns? There is a lot of talk now about screening out those with mental illnesses and I see that as mostly noise. Who is doing the screening? Do we set up a national mental health screening system solely for the purposes of gun control? Are we really going to do that? As if we could determine all these mental conditions with a blood test or a throat culture. Will we follow through with a national mental health system for treatment of all the mental health problems we turn up? It seems indicative of a diseased culture if we diagnose simply to stigmatize, and not to help. Oh yes my friends, it gets complicated.
There are as many kinds of mental illnesses as there are physical illness. How do you determine which ones pose a threat? In my fantasy world, we could screen people by having them watch FOX News and if they believed any of it, if they weren’t flat out offended, then they probably shouldn’t be allowed so much as a slingshot. But then in my fantasy world, everyone would have ice cream and ponies and no one would be lactose intolerant.
I live about three miles from a shooting range, a rod and gun club. It never used to bother me. It was an occasional thing. Bang bang, pop pop. Sportsmen, I figured, hunters and maybe cops out practicing. I figured some day I’d go give it a try.
But about a week after the slaughter in Newtown that changed. When Newtown happened, I figured it would make the gun people stand down a bit and probably the NRA would finally admit that they should back off on some of their crazier-ass shit. Au contraire! As we’ve all seen on the news, the gun extremists have gone berserk. Three years worth of ammo sold in as many weeks. Want to celebrate Christmas after a classroom of first graders have been mowed down in your tiny state? What is more holiday themed than red for blood and green for money? Let’s have an automatic weapon under the tree. One Beretta? The gun nut needs dozens.
I’m a tense person at the best of times, and my best coping method is to go off into the woods (or sea or desert or mountain or whatever natural habitat presents itself) because when human behavior makes no sense to me, the natural world does. I can be wound so tight that my jaws ache from clenching them, but if I spend a couple hours examining a wrack line or poking around a hillside seep or kicking over rocks in a stream, so help me I almost feel normal.
But after the Newtown Shooting, there was no peace in the woods. I feel like one of those guys in the old jungle movies raving about THE DRUMS, THE DRUMS!
On weekdays, it was especially bad at lunchtime. On weekends it was non-stop. Many more guns than ever before. Bigger, louder guns. They beat an angry tattoo through the woods, DO NOT TAKE OUR GUNS, WE WILL SHOOT YOU IF YOU TRY. And that sort of attitude, to me, is indicative of someone who should not be allowed to have a gun in the first place. Then the weather got bitter cold and chased them all indoors. Never have I been so grateful for an arctic cold front.
I don’t know what route takes people down the road to gun obsession. Some people grow up in gun culture the way, say, I grew up in sailboat-racing culture. (Don’t blame me for it. And it didn’t stick, even if I could afford it.) These gun people worry me less, as a rule, than the newer gun nuts. I believe a lot of the people in old gun culture are hunters and probably pretty responsible. Maybe I’m kidding myself. The ones that get me, and this is just my emotional response, are the suburbanites with a basement full of guns the way their fathers used to have a rec room with a bar and a pool table.
And oh, all those fancy pretty guns are expensive. There is so much money here. Follow the money. People getting rich, rich, rich off of blood. Cabela’s has the only affordable hip waders that fit me and good cheap glomitts, but so help me, no store that sells firearms will ever get another nickel from me.
I had a boyfriend in high school named Brice Dowaliby. No middle name. His mother said, “What could you put between Brice and Dowaliby?” Brice had a lot going for him. He was funny, he was smart. He went to Dartmouth and majored in Eastern Religions, mainly because he liked to argue. OMG, did he love to argue. He read almost as fast as I did, worked in various shady newsstands around town, places like Bookworld, places like Superbooks open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Places that sold your pre-internet, pre-home-video porn and lots of it. But thanks to working there, Brice could feed me a steady stream of science fiction novels, good stuff, new wave stuff.
Over the course of the three years we went together it became clear that he felt I should defer to him and when he developed a pattern of being condescending to me, I broke it off. I was perfectly willing to be friends as long as it was a relationship of equals. Brice was a guest at my wedding and he came to visit when my son was born.
Brice had been living up in New Hampshire, and I hadn’t seen him in several years. When he came to the door, I thought he was some biker. He was wearing biker sorts of jewelry and his hair was long and he looked fierce. Well he had always looked fierce, now he looked a little scary. He came in and admired the baby. He presented me with a silver dollar to give to my son when he got older. This came with a long lecture about how this gift was for the baby whereas most baby gifts were actually for the parents. What? Most baby gifts, he said, were baby clothes and those were really for the parents. Like I was going to squeeze into those onesies, but whatever. His reasoning was very odd, so after a couple of loops of trying to understand it, I just thanked him on the baby’s behalf and changed the subject and we had a nice visit. He was a bit weird and stilted, but Brice had always been a bit weird and stilted. He wasn’t unpleasant. And if you could have met him, and gotten past the biker look, odds are you would have liked him. He was outgoing and he liked people.
Not long after this visit, Brice’s mother died suddenly. She’d been living in New Haven and Brice had to come down from New Hampshire to clear out her apartment. I didn’t go to the funeral. I’ve always been very bad about that sort of thing. But I’d adored his mom and I knew he felt a special bond with her, so I helped him pack up her place.
We chatted and rolled crystal into tubes of newspaper and stuffed them in boxes. And somehow guns came up in the conversation. He told me that he had a collection of guns and that he always carried one with him. Like now? Yes. Like when he had come into my house and held my newborn baby? Yes.
I was not pleased.
I let slip that I was for gun control. I didn’t go into any more detail than that, not how much gun control. It didn’t take any more than that. Brice went into a rage. He called me a Nazi.
Now you know damn well I am fully capable of arguing. But Brice lived to argue, and he wasn’t usually as emotional as this. I knew there was no winning. I also knew there wouldn’t be any great exchange of ideas that would profit either of us. Hard as it might be for you to believe, I stood down.
“So you have a gun on you now?”
“Wow. I’ve never held a real gun. Can I see it?”
So help me, he pulled it out of his pants. It looked like a Luger type thing. I only call it that because when we got squirt guns when were kids, there were basic two models: revolvers and what we called Lugers. Sometimes you went for the six shooter because it was more American cop/cowboy while the “Luger” was the German/bad guy gun. But sometimes you opted for the Luger because it was in a color you liked better and you had to admit, the shape of the crisp translucent plastic felt better in your soggy little hand.
Before Brice handed the gun to me, he pulled out the clip. As he did so, a bullet fell out onto the floor. I bent over to pick it up, to hand it to him. I stood up and looked at it.
I remember we were in a sun room. I remember the light on my hand and the pretty metallic colors of the bullet. I probably know less about bullets than I do about guns, but this one had a copper nose with a big dimple on the end, a hollow tip. I looked up at Brice and I actually staggered back a step.
“Jesus Christ, Brice, this is a hollow tip, this is a DUM DUM! What the hell do you have dum dums for?”
He was definitely on the defensive now.
“If I have to shoot somebody, I’m going to want to kill them. Think about it!”
“What? WHAT? WHY IN GOD’S NAME? Why are you going to want to kill them?”
“Because if I have to shoot somebody, I’m not just going to want to wing them, I’m going to want to kill them. Think about it. THINK ABOUT IT!” He was shouting at me now.
“No. I won’t. I refuse. And I don’t know why YOU are thinking about it. The odds of your needing to defend yourself with a gun are on a par with being hit by lightning. I don’t know why you think about it so much. I sure as hell refuse to.”
“JUST THINK ABOUT IT ELLEN, IF SOMEONE ATTACKS YOU.”
“No. I don’t and I won’t. I read the statistics when I trained for rape crisis. Owning a gun is not usually helpful and sometimes it just gets you killed. No. What’s with you? I live in a city**, a population center. I walk around without a gun. You live up in the fucking woods, out in the middle of nowhere. What, are you afraid a chipmunk is going to break into your house? Do you need hollow bullets to stop a groundhog from attacking you?”
** But let me take this moment to rant about those people who think that New Haven is such a dangerous place. Like nothing bad ever happens in nice suburban towns like Newtown or Cheshire.
And he shut up. And I shut up. I think we just changed the subject. Not like we hadn’t banged heads many times before when we’d been together. This argument wasn’t a big deal, but the subject was troubling.
About a month later, give or take, Brice was dead. He’d collapsed in the shower. He had heart problems, had bypass surgery before he was forty. But he’d loved his mother a lot and part of me thinks he died of a broken heart. And stress can kill you. He must have been stressed. At his funeral, no I didn’t skip that one, his dad said he’d slept under a rack of guns. That is fear. That is stress. His dad didn’t understand it. Brice, he said, was gentle. I can think of many good words to describe Brice, but gentle might not have been one of them. But he was not cruel. And he was not violent. And like I said, he wasn’t stupid. He was thoughtful. Where his thoughts took him were often unexpected places, but he was a good person.
I wish he was still alive, for a lot of reasons. There are a lot of conversations about a lot of things I’d like to have with him. There are some arguments I could win now. There’s a fair amount of shit I’d call him on, sexist shit. Mostly I’d like to hang out and laugh.
But right now, I’d want to talk to him about the gun thing. Would he be in this extreme NRA camp? He might well. He sure as hell would not be libertarian, he wasn’t selfish. The man had an ivy league liberal arts education. Brice might have read comic books, but he wasn’t modeling his life on drivel. He wouldn’t be tea party. He had way too much compassion and a strong sense of justice. He was deeply concerned about racial justice and intellectually he was a feminist. Though, like many good men, he was better about it in the abstract than the day-to-day. Privilege will do that to a guy.
I want to be fair, so I think about Brice when I try to understand just what is up with these NRA extremists. Some of them are the icky -ists, racists and what all. I’m sure there are those who figure that when it all hits the fan, they’ll go to war with folks who are not of their clan/tribe/group. I don’t know what to say to those people, the FOX News people. They make me think of Bosnia, of Rwanda and they scare the shit out of me. But I don’t see arming up for neighborhood door-to-door combat as a salvation. That’s comic book bullshit. What we need to do is protect the rule of law and to make damn sure that the laws are just. This is an ongoing process. Societies are not static any more than the sandy shoreline. Natural processes move them. Storms move them. Disasters move them. Keeping things as fair as they can be requires participation. You are a stakeholder baby. We all are.
Some NRA extremists are survivalists who are stockpiling beans, bottled water, MRAs and toilet paper as well as bullets. Well, yeah, I get that a little bit. But if it is all going down, the big push will be not the economic collapse, but environmental collapse. That means food and water and shelter are the issues. And sure, the guns and seven years of groceries will buy you some years. All you do is delay your demise, extend your misery. Doesn’t it make more sense to fight to try to protect our ever-battered environment? Isn’t that saner than fighting for the right to keep your guns? What are bullets against a hurricane? Against forest fires? Against drought? Nothing. Do you give a damn about your kids? About your grandkids? A generation or three down the road and your guns mean nothing.
And some of these gun crazies are afraid of the government. Once upon a time I’d have dismissed each and every one of them as total nutters. But the way society and the laws have changed, I even feel some empathy for these guys. There has always been corruption in government. But nowadays? It’s been almost 20 years since the mere mention of Washington didn’t lift the hair up on the back of my neck. Nothing seems to matter except profit, and those profits funneled to a very small elite. To flip one of Mr. Spock’s lines upside down, it’s the sacrifice of the many for the good of the few. Digital wiretapping, privacy thrown to the wind, online tracking, gov’t accountability going the way of the passenger pigeon, the social safety net a vague memory. Honey, you don’t need a grassy knoll or alien chem trails in the sky to start twitching. We all feel betrayed. But your fancy guns are going to be about as effective as a tinfoil beanie when it comes to protecting you from government gone bad. However big your private guns will be, governments have bigger and better and more. So maybe, just maybe, the way to protect your freedom is to roll up your sleeves and deal with the dirty ugly reality of politics. To dig in your heels and fight to keep it fair, to make sure it heeds the will of the many. And while you are at it, don’t look at the people who have less than you as the problem. They are not screwing you over. Look up and then look up and then look up. Yeah. You bet your ass this is a class war. But you are NOT rich, so don’t be confused about what side to be on.
The thing is, I am damn sure that Brice would agree with me about 99% of this. But I’m also damn sure, for reasons I cannot fathom, that he’d still want to have his guns. If he was alive, I could talk to him and maybe understand it better. Because he wasn’t stupid and he didn’t lie.
What I’m left with now is this: In the USA, guns are not going away.
More guns is not the answer. Holy crap, armed guards in schools and first grade teachers packing heat are not the answer. Kindergarten should not be the OK Corral
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Making a big moral issue about all guns is not going to be helpful. There are fine people who own guns. But guns are dangerous and we do need more controls. And I think the answer might be to treat guns like we treat cars. You need a license. You need to pass an exam. Your car needs to be registered. And you have to have insurance on your car too!
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And maybe there should be some kind of a cap on how many guns you can own. I believe in Texas it is illegal to own or promote the use of more than six, um, sex toys at once. Perhaps the same law would work for guns. Though if you can use six or more at once (guns or, uh, toys), you should probably be in a circus, though not one for children.
Cry, laugh, rage, do something, something constructive.
Sign the petition at the start of this long ramble. Pass it around. It might just be a start.
You might also find the following article interesting: The Speech I Wish the President Would Give