I'm a pretty conventional woman in her early 60s who, although I’ve spent my adult life mostly in cities – LA, San Francisco, Seattle, New York and, in the mid-70s, Tucson, Arizona -- has never been the victim of a violent crime.
And yet, my life, including a childhood spent in rural and small town places, has been touched by an awful lot of gun violence:
· The first funeral I ever attended, as a 12 year old child, was for a family friend, barely 6 years older, who had been killed accidently by a stray bullet when she entered her backyard to tell her recently-wed husband, who was practicing for a competitive "quick draw" event, that dinner was ready.
· Three other childhood friends suffered gun injuries of various levels of seriousness, two self-inflicted.
· As an adult I’ve worked with two co-workers who, non-lethally, shot themselves while playing with their guns.
· A casual social acquaintance in Tucson, who dealt guns as a sideline, accidentally killed a customer. It was late at night and much drinking was indulged in by both the victim and the shooter.
· A professional colleague in San Francisco and a very close friend from college committed suicide by gun.
· When I was a newlywed during a summer when my husband served as a seasonal ranger in one of our western National Parks, I endured the agony of waiting for the outcome of a many hours long standoff, in a nearly fully occupied but remote campsite, approachable only by boat and helicopter, between park personnel and a sniper intent on killing as many others as he could before killing himself. (Fortunately, he was the only one who died that day, by his own hand.)
· 3 years ago my sister in law, a nurse, working that evening in the emergency room of a hospital in a small Montana town, and her husband who had stopped off at the hospital briefly to bring her a Diet Pepsi, were seriously injured by sniper fire when they went to the aid of a fallen hospital EMT volunteer – dead as it turned out -- in the parking lot. The EMT was a mother of four. The shooter, a "loner" with no connection to any of the victims or to the hospital itself, was later shot, after an hours-long manhunt, by authorities. No motive for why he chose to lie in wait to pick off victims in the hospital’s parking lot will ever be known, other than perhaps, in such a small community, the hospital made for the largest, most accessible location for him to play out his paranoid stand against authority.
These kinds of gun deaths and injuries happen every day in America, without ever making the national news -- or the news at all. And they happen, in persistently large numbers, for one rarely admitted reason; as a culture, we refuse to take guns seriously.
Other countries have high rates of gun ownership without our high rates of gun violence, accidents and deaths. Why? Perhaps it’s because they enjoy cultures that still take firearms seriously as hunting tools and deadly weapons, while in the US, guns are, more than we admit, considered "recreational." Not simply recreational in their use, but fantasy objects, and affirmations, of potency and “lifestyle.” And, of course, because guns have been aggressively marketed as such (including powerful, deadly weapons of war) in the US since at least the Civil War.
A culture that doesn't have a useful, practical attitude toward guns will never have a useful, practical attitude toward gun safety and law. What has recently become frighteningly clear is this; as our personal lack of seriousness about guns increases, so does our lack of legal seriousness; leading to dangerous, fantasy-based, legislation like “Stand Your Ground.”
American’s “recreational” gun use doesn’t include much hunting. The number of Americans who own guns has grown briskly, and the demand for bigger, “badder” guns has grown right along with it, while, over the last couple of centuries, and even more so over the last 50 years, the number of Americans who hunt has continued to decrease dramatically. Gun ownership also continues to grow despite the fact that Americans are more and more likely to live in well-policed, urbanized environments in which the rates of violent crime are decreasing.
The explosion in “Stand Your Ground” legislation, demands for “open carry” and for the right to carry guns in increasingly inappropriate places – church, bars, public parks and playgrounds -- like the explosion in gun ownership, isn’t a response to crime. It’s a response to fantasies about the potency of guns – and, in large part, to intentionally created fantasy paranoia, political and personal, encouraged by a gun lobby that has absolutely no practical, financial interest in public safety. Quite the opposite, in fact.
There is no practical reason for a person with the easy access to law enforcement protections that were apparently available to George Zimmerman, for instance, to prowl his neighborhood armed. Nor is there any responsible reason, other than recreational play or mass murder, for most purchases of the kind of weapons used by the perpetrators in mass shootings at Ft. Hood, Virginia Tech, a political rally in Tucson, among many other tragedies endured in the last few decades. The only “serious” use of these weapons is dealing as much death as possible in as short a time as possible.
Unfortunately for the victims of those shootings – and the increasing number of victims of irresponsible Stand Your Ground legislation that played a part in the death of Trayvon Martin and others, the gun industry can’t easily and conveniently serve its merely playful customers without easily and conveniently serving its murderous, and dangerously foolish, ones too.
Personally, I’m tired of arguments for ever-more-irresponsible gun legislation made in the name of “responsible” gun owners. I actually know a few “responsible” gun owners. Responsible gun owners don’t strap on weapons to bully other participants at political rallies and in other public places, they don’t sue, as some fool did here in Seattle a couple of years ago, to carry at the kiddies’ pool, and they don’t act out fantasies of an authority they don’t actually possess in armed pursuit of unarmed teenagers. In other words they don’t allow paranoia and fantasy to overcome common sense – nor do they insist on supporting laws that throw common sense to the winds.
Responsible societies, and citizens, don’t argue for protection of the kind of deeply foolish and dangerous behavior increasingly promoted by the NRA.
That widely distributed picture of Jeb Bush, a smart man, with a hot pink suited and motherly looking NRA representative beside him, stupidly signing the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law (while grinning as inanely as if he has just signed off on candy and Xboxes for all of Florida’s children) should be deeply embarrassing, not only to him -- but to every American with a lick of common sense, gun owner or not.
It’s time to be a lot more honest about the real reasons we haven’t, and perhaps never will, adopted effective, practical firearm and public safety policies in this country – why increasingly we seem less concerned with keeping the general public safe from mass murderers, and our neighborhoods safe from fantasy-addled vigilantes, than we are with keeping even the most lethal weapons safe for extremists and nut cases. Those reasons have nothing to do with the melodramatic constitutional arguments put forward by the gun industry and swallowed hook, line and sinker by its clientele. Those arguments are marketing strategies at heart -- aimed at stroking the egos, flattering the self-importance, and inflaming the paranoia of potential customers. Ginned up by an industry that has long known that in an increasingly well-policed, urbanized society selling guns based on genuine consumer need for weapons and hunting tools can never provide the sales volume they can enjoy by marketing them as status-conferring, ego-stroking, endlessly collectable, recreational and “life-style” toys.
We don’t have to give up our gun rights. But we do have to stop accommodating the greed of the gun manufacturers, and the fantasies of fools.