What’s with all the shooting?

What’s with all the shooting?

Clint Eastwood

My first awareness of violence was of the family kind. I have no memory of witnessing the violence, rather my memories are of mind-numbing fear that started in my stomach before it froze my bowels as if I’d been stabbed through and through with huge icebergs of pain. It took me until my adulthood to comprehend that I’d witnessed that kind of violence–and to come to terms with what it meant.

That searing experience changes a person one way or another and goodness knows how many children walk around with PTSD without the fanfare that accompanies soldiers coming home from war or the counseling that’s available to first responders after they experience something particularly horrific.

Gun violence adds yet another patina of pain, suffering and misery to the litany of personal violence that is a seeming epidemic that keeps rolling on.

My own relationship to violence was odd.

On the one hand, my parents were radical pacifists for a time and organized “Ban the Bomb” rallies in the late 1950s and early 1960s while violence at home remained in the hidden recesses of our family’s psyche — with no sense of the remarkable contradiction between the public and private spheres of our lives.

Ban the Bomb Rally, City Hall Park, New York City, 1959

My own education about violence was related to the atom bomb. As a six-year-old, I probably knew more about the effects of nuclear radiation on human beings than most adults do now. I also knew about the shadow people — shadows left behind like one-dimensional ghosts of the people who had been killed mid-stride when the bomb hit Hiroshima. The thought of nuclear war haunted me and if I heard a lone plane flying over head at night I would wonder if that was the “one” that would finally bomb New York.

Annie OakleyMy pacifism aside — I was still attracted to guns.

After all, they were everywhere.

They were America.

They were the good guys: cowboys, soldiers fighting Nazi’s (even at six, and pacifism aside, I figured that one out), and crime fighters.

They were the West: America as rugged individualists.

Heck even Annie Oakley was a sharp shooter. What could be wrong with that?

Also when I was six, and having my tonsils out, I was offered the choice between two presents: a doctor’s kit or a gun. I have a keen memory of agonizing over the choice. I really wanted the gun, but opted for the doctor’s kit figuring it was easier to take the path of least resistance rather than having to “explain” the other choice.

Fast forward to what feels like a million years between 1960 to 2013 in terms of the cultural changes in the United States, and one can find an important constant that remains in place: our fascination with guns. The ubiquitous gun, however, has taken on other meanings. I would argue that it has become a pawn in our continuing cultural wars not only along the fracture lines of our blue state/red state dichotomy, but along our class wars: with images of the slick urban dwelling post-modernist  versus the community loving, church going denizen of “heartland” small towns, not to mention the constant of the racial divides that continue to eat away at our souls.

Tony Montana, ScarfaceIs it any wonder that a youth without prospects for education or meaningful employment would find in a gun an opportunity for empowerment in an otherwise nihilist pit of existential dread otherwise known as a sense that his or her life is without purpose and that the only likely opportunity is prison followed by an early death?

A long sentence I know, but that’s likely what that sort of powerlessness feels like. A long sentence with nowhere to go.

Such powerlessness, however, is not only in the purview of a gang-banger from The Bronx or a meth-head from rural Arkansas.

Along the cultural divide there is the powerlessness against that changes that have brought many of us enormous social progress. That social change can be thought of as a tone poem to President Johnson’s Immigration Act of 1965 (his other Civil Rights act) as it allowed peoples from all over the world without regard to color, religion or nationality, to immigrate to America based on the skills they would bring with them. This has led to an enrichment of the cultures and religions that make up America and has literally changed the social reality that defines who an American is. To those who feel threatened by this new reality, the horizon of the future is often a dystopic vision fraught with images of marauding bands of killers, akin, no doubt, to the thundering hoards from the East who “threatened” Europe in bygone eras. For the preppers and others who follow similar lines of thinking, the answer has been to circle the wagons of old with lots of weapons at the ready just in case the dystopic vision actually happens. In some cases this amassing of weapons has had tragic outcomes as in a recent case where a man mistook a couple in a car who’d rode into the wrong driveway for a pair about to perpetrate a home invasion.

We also have a nightly diet of violence from cop shows and even medical shows — some that run for years and years — all of which rely on guns for drama whether it’s a hostage situation in the ER or the mandatory weekly shoot outs on our favorite police procedurals. They also tend to perpetrate the worst dystopic visions of urban dwelling and often paint the criminals who commit crimes as an assortment of Blacks and Latinos with nothing more on their minds than drive-by-shootings and robbing bodegas.

On the “good guy side”, I’ve lost count as to how many people Michael Weston’s killed on Burn Notice — just about all without remorse, but jeez, along the way, he and Fiona sure have put together a lot of really cool weapons. And I guess that’s the point — it gets to be a form of soft porn. ‘Real easy to watch ’cause it’s not too hard-core, no consequences to speak of and seems in the realm of the possible when it comes to empowering the “little guy.” Isn’t that what Weston’s doing, a sort of vigilante for scared victims of bad guys aka bullies? Sound familiar?

As to where they get all those groovy toys (obviously illegally) — I guess it’s the same place young kids get them: somewhere in never, never land, where “legal” guns disappear and morph into Saturday night specials that kill children in the crossfire. So my question is, if we abhor this kind of violence so much how come it’s still so easy to obtain guns illegally? It’s not as if there aren’t any laws against it.

As for legal weapons, does this infatuation with the gun explain the lone crazies that arsenal up with all manner of assault rifles and related gear, figuring that if they’re going to go out they’ll do it splashed all over the headlines? Does it resolve the dilemma of how many of these shooters have been on prescription drugs for mental problems? Hard to say. I’ll add that some percentage of those medications come with serious side effects that include things that say, may exhibit violent tendencies, homicidal rages and the like. Can we develop the will to resolve that?

I’ll add that before we rush to judgment, warehouse mental patients, ban every weapon or send five-year-old kids to lock-up because they bring their Mommy’s (legal) pistol to school for “show and tell” — we might want to ask ourselves some fundamental questions about our infatuation with the gun as a notion of America and as the “peacemaker” that resolves all of our problems. We might also want to ask about our addiction to watching, if not participating in violence given the number of felonious assaults, and instances of rape, domestic violence and child abuse perpetrated on a daily basis in the media and in real-life.

When it comes to violence, we have a remarkable capacity to perpetrate it. What guns offer is that little something extra that threatens lethality with its remarkable power giving one that “big man on campus” rush. It is however, not the “be all and end all” of violence, after all, a million Rwandan’s died not from gunshot wounds but by men wielding machetes.

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