THE EVERPRESENT THREAT OF A GUN (from 2017)
If you are an American, you’ve possibly had an experience like this: You are driving your car, minding the traffic laws. A rude driver cuts you off, or does something equally thoughtless on the road. You are tempted to make an angry motion in response, but then a little thought pops its head up: What if he has a gun?
Or someone is obnoxious in public, talking disruptively in a movie theater or using loud and foul language at a football game, and your first instinct is to call him (or her) on this unacceptable behavior, but again the little gopher of worry appears: ITAL What if this person is armed? Unbalanced and trigger-happy?
Guns are ubiquitous in the United States, which is a point of American pride. They’ve become our national symbol, even more than baseball or apple pie. We love our guns. We are happiest when armed. We celebrate even the weapons whose only function is to kill multiple human beings as efficiently and effortlessly as possible. Guns and ammo are as fundamental to our daily lives as bread and butter; we buy them, sell them, trade them, collect them, hoard them. So it is logical to assume, when we are out and about, as in the above scenarios, that every purse, every pocket, every belt, every glove compartment, holds a gun. It’s the American way.
But does this make us safer? According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun in the home actually makes the chance of suicide three to five times more likely and homicide two to three times more likely. Gun death rates in the states with the highest rate of gun ownership are seven times higher than in the states with the lowest rate of gun ownership. Of youths who commit suicide with a firearm, 82% obtain the gun, usually a parent’s, from their home. Accidents and anger, domestic abuse and depression, are deadly when combined with guns. Guns create the opposite of safety.
A local, sad case in point: an older gentleman with dementia roams his street and behaves erratically towards a neighbor as she gets out of a car. This frightens the neighbor, who fears that the man is armed. She sees something sticking out of his pocket. The police are called with a report of a threatening man who might have a gun. The police respond, but the old man does not. He is shot dead when he doesn’t comply with commands to halt whatever he is doing. The suspected gun in his pocket turns out to be, of all unlikely things, a crucifix. How’s that for tragic irony: a religious symbol of redemptive death is mistaken for a weapon and gets another man killed.
So much is wrong with this story: neighbors who are strangers, caregivers who are inattentive, cops who shoot too easily. But the most telling part to me is the fact that everyone assumed the thing in the old man’s pocket was a gun, because, again, we assume in our great country that everyone is armed. There are approximately 265 million guns in the United States, more than one for every adult, so everyone you meet might be packing. That makes us afraid. That makes police jumpy. That makes everyone look suspicious to everyone else.
If anything else killed over 32,000 Americans a year, wouldn’t we be in crisis mode? Wouldn’t we be funding studies and searching for solutions to stop the madness? But the US Congress has banned any funding for researching the causes and effects of gun violence in society, in deference to the almighty power of the gun lobby. We are so gun-centric that we even acquiesce to sacrificing our first graders to the glory of the gun.
I have been writing and speaking against handguns ever since one killed John Lennon in 1980, which is pretty much my entire adult life. Since then, gun ownership has ballooned and exploded. That we have citizens walking around with assault weapons hanging off their shoulders is unspeakably vile. Most of us believe there should be sane limits on gun ownership, but most of us do not have the ear of our elected representatives in Washington. The state of California is making valiant efforts to limit outlandish types of weapons and ammunition, and good for us. Hunting animals is one thing. Killing human beings is quite another. Despite the NRA’s rhetoric, guns do kill people: children, students, spouses, soldiers, young people, old people, sad people, innocent people. As long as guns are everywhere, we will have an increasingly violent society. Sadly, we are right to worry that the angry guy on the freeway has a gun and is not afraid to use it.