Friday, twenty children, six staff, a gunman and his mother were all killed. The 26 people in the school were killed in less than twenty minutes by a young man shooting a Bushmaster .223 rifle, a semi-automatic version of a military weapon. The sheer offensiveness of this act was impossible to fully comprehend, and the reactions of the media compounded the horror with profane, robust disinformation and terrifying, pointless imagery. The nature of the crime was immediately beyond comprehension; obviously the person who killed all of these people wasn't a stable, sane member of society. And while the media rapidly oscillates between "why" and "never forget," we, the country, are dragged through a range of responses that test some of our foundations. How did we end up here, again? What sort of community creates a young man who will be well remembered by a mediapathic society for the horrifying murders he committed? Where did we go wrong?
Saturday morning finds me buying a couple of hundred rounds of .223 and 9mm ammunition. A dispassionate observation of my actions wasn't possible; internally I felt that what I was doing was callous, irrational, and that part of what was wrong with our society was a lack of care about the very basics of decency. I was exhibiting the ruthless, uncaring standard that many of us operate by, were brought up by. And yet.
And yet, what I do with my guns doesn't have a thing to do with violence. It doesn't have a thing to do with killing anything, much less a human, much less an innocent child. What I do with my guns is what some people do with golf clubs or billiards; I engage a set of physics at a level that demands precision and skill, and I do so against only myself and the physical laws of the universe I live in. Plus the nature of the discussion that would have ensued had I suggested we cancel the range day made me weary just thinking of it. I was not in a mood to argue about guns.
And yet. Buying a fairly large amount of ammunition the day after the worst stateside massacre of my particular generation? I felt shame. The folks at the sporting goods store, though, felt differently. For them, it was a very busy day, as reactionary rednecks and hard core gun nuts went into panic buying mode, "knowing" that the government was minutes away from taking their weapons. I had a hard time finding 9mm in my particular configuration, and settled for some cheaper target brass that would do the job just as well as more expensive high pressure rounds.
Got me thinking, what sort of person is the gun nut? They tend to, in my circles, be Republican or Libertarian with a heavy right-wing bent. They profess patriotism but they hate the government. They hate the government so much that they buy a lot of guns to protect themselves from other citizens (because the government won't be able to protect them) and from the government itself. It says so, right in the founding documents. That we have to have guns, just in case the G gets unruly. Disregard any analysis of the verbiage, and throw away all your stats and definitions and supporting material; these folks are armed to the teeth with guns, ammo, and their own multi-billion dollar political and corporate machine. Your mountains of victims demand only more armaments. Your tears of rage and sadness, your questions, they only have one solution: more armaments. More guns in the hands of more people, more more more. Arm the teachers. Arm the kids. Arm everyone. Fuck the government. It can't do a thing. Down here on the streets it's Us versus Them, and They are going to have guns anyway, and They don't listen to law, so They will be a target if They attack me and mine.
The whole contract hinges on being attacked, and being attacked requires a mindset and an enemy. The mindset is fear. The enemy is usually darker skinned than my lily white friends, usually poor, usually desperate for drugs or cash or goods, determined and driven by want or drug induced craziness or all of the above. The enemy is also any politician not wrapped in biblical fervor, any politician that sees the government role as anything larger than a symbolic gesture.
For these folks, guns are a solution to any situation calling for a show of strength; they simply do not understand nonviolence, which they disregard as futile and weak. Their underlying operating code requires a set of fantasies, fantasies of the government collapsing or worse, of the government becoming draconian and controlling. Fantasies of men attacking their homes. Fantasies of terror, fantasies of their brave response to terror. The fantasies are about them taking unquestionable control of fear using tools that are far more terrifying than their fear is. The boogeymen that drive their day-to-day actions, the assassins and terrorists who influence their waking moments have more control over them than any weapon could stop. But they only feel safe with more, more, more.
Not that every gun nut redneck is a gun nut red neck. Feeling safe, feeling secure, is for some a priority above all others. Control by any means. For some folks, this is not an option; their lives were touched or twisted by some set of circumstances that changed their wiring. They live with fear, but are not guided by it. They are not guided by the fear so much as tenuous masters of it, and for them this control requires tools, weapons, faith (even if that faith is just in the positive action of their weapon). These people, a subset of the genre, are the last people you have to worry about. They don't lose their heads. They aren't the sort to use violence as a solution to a problem that doesn't require it. They've soldiered. They've had violence visited upon them in ways we, you and I, cannot imagine. For them, what it takes is discipline, control. And for them, weapons are part of that control. And in America, they can have all they want.
All of this leads to a set of questions about the nature of our society. About what it is that causes this fear and mistrust. About why it is that so much profit is made from so much weaponry. About the very foundation of our society, and the ways it has been manipulated by fear and greed. These are very, very hard questions because they require plunging into the nature of what we are as a country, and that plunge requires working through so many layers.
In my office, we do not speak of gun control. Those of us who support limitations in the weapons available to citizens cannot, with any expectation of rational discourse, speak our minds. In many ways speaking out about weapons is like speaking out about religion or abortion. It is that deeply ingrained, that divisive. The roots extend back to the wars that created our country and the types of people who first settled the country. The roots of the Gun Argument gained strength and wild diversity in the aftermath of the Civil War. The Gun Argument is as old as we are, and momentum is on the side of violence; we now have more than one gun for every person in the country, with just as many opinions about what should be allowed, or what should not be infringed.
Difficult at the very best, the problem isn't one that lends itself to a solution. There are emotional values here that are bigger than mere community. Something in the American nature that says a selfish emotion (fear) is more important than the good of the other. That solutions don't lie with governments, but with our selves and only our selves.
Fear is the foundation of our society. Fear is a selfish position. Fear means irrational responses are accepted as possible solutions. Fear drives markets, makes men do things they would not normally do. Fear means having the tools to destroy any motherfucker that comes through the door, fear means knowing in your heart that you'll need to take up arms against your government. We can say that we believe in freedom, but fear drives that belief.
Maybe it's the way we were formed. Maybe it's the immaturity of our country coupled with the timing of our rise to power, an ascent that took place lockstep with war, a modern rise with media focus. Maybe it's the very bones of us, the religious Scots Irish ballast that settled the south and made so much of us into a paradoxical subservient rebel, eager to please traditional powers while shunning and violently resisting progressive change.
Sunday, I showed up at the range with my rifle, a Remington 700-based .223 caliber bolt action target rig. It weighs 17 pounds, has a .98 profile 24" bull barrel and a Hogue polymer stock whose hollow bits have been filled with #4 lead shot to dampen recoil vibration. The trigger is custom worked, jeweled and filed to a crisp glass-break 2.5 pound pull. The front end uses a Harris bipod. The scope is a Nikon Monarch with a 8 - 32x variable zoom, good for sighting targets beyond the practical (accurate) distance of the rifle itself. I also brought with me two 9mm automatic pistols, and one .45LC single-action Colt 1845 Cattleman New Model six shooter. The range was busy, but on the rifle portion of the range it was all older men, all of us slowly, carefully putting tiny holes in pieces of paper 100 and 200 and 300 yards away. All of us quiet, all of us interested in each other's rigs. My rifle gets a lot of attention, because it is very obviously custom made to specifications that echo the competition focus of it's maker (a friend of mine who shoots competitively at 1000 and 1200 yards in 6.5mm bench rest).
For us, these weapons are not a way of life. To a man, we are hobbyists. To a man, we'd be just as obsessively building model steam trains or any sort of small, precise, disciplined pursuits. Yet due to the nature of our country we were here, some with military grade weaponry, some with single shot rifles designed in the 1800s. For two hours I quieted the parts of my conscience that knew this was all in very poor taste, and I sent 75 tiny fragments downrange, 100 yards away, into circles less than an inch across. For two hours I engaged parts of my brain that I normally use for very different things, and I judged trajectory and did math using intuition when possible, and a pencil and notebook when impossible. And at the end of it, I drove home, exhausted in some ways, wired in others, my normal post-range emotions.
And yet. In the back of my head, I calculated a very different set of math problems. I calculated the cost in life and emotion that this last tragic murder spree had cost us, as a society, as humans. Sunday night, our president spoke about just this. And what he said rang true beyond any measure of implied founding father militia intention. He said, in so many words, that we've had enough. That it is far past time to actually address this very hard problem. That we need to take on the challenge, not the Gun question alone, but the entire set of subsurface problems that allow a young man the ability and the desire to kill 6 year old kids. That it is well past time for us to grow up, and get over the fear that drives us into hoarding violence in anticipation of failure. That we need to get beyond our desire to respond with violence to violence.
"We can't tolerate this anymore," he said. "We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this."
Indeed. It is time to grow up and take on the very hard work that lies ahead. And no, it cannot just be politics that does it. It cannot just be religion. It is not just guns, and it is not just narrow minds. It is not just mental health, and it is not just education. It is a big problem, a sociological one that touches damn near every aspect of our lives. It is a very, very difficult problem and there will not be an easy or single solution. But we must start somewhere, and we must start now.
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