Sunday, April 05, 2009

The Reckless Search for Meaning: Another Week, Another Headline about Gun Violence in America

Gun violence in America. And the elements of the story always seem to be the same. A frustrated main character. Questionable motives. A slew of guns and a bullet-proof vest. A seemingly random place. The explosive moment(s). An innocent group of victims. Then widespread reports in the media.

The aftermath is always the same, too. A public outcry, the pointing of fingers. Some blame the gun industry, its producers, the sellers, the market, the buyers. Others take aim at the National Rifle Association, the organization that the late actor Charleston Heston represented. Those who either own a gun and/or who believe that gun ownership is as American as apple pie will blame only the perpetrators themselves. They claim that America is a country overwhelmed by the criminal and the insane, a land of too many psychoses and vices for any law-abiding citizen to ever give up his or her guns.

In reader comments written in response to an article that documented the recent massacre in Binghamton, New York, one writer suggested that had the immigrants and others who were killed been carrying guns, they would not have died. When reading that, I had this vision of an immigration officer at the US border issuing every entrant a new handgun, just in case.

No matter who is to blame, everyone agrees on one thing: gun violence is out of control in America. The image of hundreds of millions of guns strikes many as a sea that can never be crossed. The stat of thousands of gun deaths every year gives people worldwide the sense that America is still in its Wild West phase, that it's a place where shooting from the hip or getting gunned down in an argument is as routine as singing the country's praises.

When I was a kid in southern Ohio, owning a gun was certainly routine. All my friends, it seemed, had guns, generally used for hunting and for target practice (an odd sport, I now think). I was not from a hunting family though. Neither of my grandfathers and my father never brandished a gun in my sight. My brothers and I did briefly own pellet and bb-guns, which we used for shooting rats at my dad's grain elevator. But those were mere toys compared to the more common rifles and shotguns.

I remember the only time I ever did "real" hunting with a rifle. A friend and I were out looking for groundhogs in a pasture on his farm. I actually got one in my sights, and I shot it on the first go, I think. But before I could reach it, it had managed to crawl 10 meters then back into its hole (where I assume it died). Retracing its death march, I was sickened by the sight of the poor creature's blood lacing the ground from the spot where it had been shot to its home. Oddly, that was a "cathartic" experience for me, and my last outing as a recreational hunter.

Now as an American who has been removed from his country's shores and its "gun culture" for nearly half his life, I find the whole thing absurd. For me, from the outside looking in, using a gun to kill anything, whether a deer or a rabbit or a sparrow, seems as anachronistic as the old practice of burning widows must seem to the modern Indian, or as ridiculous as conducting female genital mutilation must appear to the contemporary African.

Killing humans, sadly, is just a few steps beyond killing other animals. (Look at how many of us train for that option in the military!) Granted, the vast majority of hunters would never do such a thing. However, with recreational hunting so popular and so many guns in circulation, and with TV and film showing us all just how easy it is to pull a trigger and how easy it is to "take someone bad out," the message gets through loud and clear. The gun option is on the table for those who want or need to use it.

And for many Americans, having the gun option is a must. They see it not just as a right enshrined in their country's constitution but as an element of their culture as deeply ingrained as their religious beliefs and their value for family. In that way, it's part of many Americans' identity. Owning a gun is one part security, but three parts self-image. For those characters at the extreme -- whether American or not (it's not a national thing, really, only a question of availability) -- their having and using a gun can become the ultimate power trip.

For this reason, I am not hopeful: the situation in the US will not change, at least not within the foreseeable future.

And for those of us who would rather not live in fear, who would rather that our children (generally) be safe at school and our other family members, friends and fellow citizens be out of harm's way, there are alternative places to spend parts of our lifetimes.

For more on this issue, read here.


One Day's Top Ten Local Stories from an Ohio Newspaper

Below are the "top ten local stories" from the Columbus Dispatch, central Ohio's most widely circulated newspaper. The first story refers to two female university students being robbed at gunpoint. Four of the others also refer to gun incidents. That's 50% of the top ten local stories for a Monday morning.

Consider these headlines in light of my previous post on gun violence in America.

from The Dispatch:

Today’s Top Stories

2 OSU students robbed at gunpoint near campus
Man's body found on West Side lawn
19-year-old man dies in ATV accident
2 die in crash near Circleville
Columbus man killed self, shot girlfriend on East Side, police say
Police ID victim in East Side alley shooting
Male shooter sought in West Side market robbery
City ponders extra $6.5 million paid for paramedics over basic EMTs
'Green' visitor toilets to grace Governor's Residence
Census jobs plenty popular this time around

I love Ohio, and America in general, but this is ridiculous!


Woody said...

The root of this issue is the arguement of cultural preservation versus modern civility.

It can be argued that it was important to keep guns at one's side in the past for self defence. This may be because America may not have been as well policed in the days of the "wild west" as it is now. People had to defend themselves against "raiding red indians", real-life bandits and a whole slew of wild animals. I think it can safely be said that America was much more dangerous in the past than it is now for the average person.

In modern America, with proper laws and constitutions having been set; with a police force backed up with all the scientific knowledge, technological support and readily available manpower, the average citizen does not face as much danger going out into the streets. I feel that this is an old mindset than need to be addressed by the country as a whole. There are other viable alternative methods of self-defence.

Yes, a gun can be an effective self-defence weapon but the other edge of this sword can wreak devastating consequences. Comparing a gun to a knife or blade, both of which can be used for self-defence or attacking people, it is evident that the lethality of the gun far surpasses that of the others.

In the case of an attack, I think that it would take much more nerve for a person to try to stab someone than pull the trigger on someone. At the very least, the victim has a greater chance of evading a melee attack because of the close proximity needed to deliver the blow and the slower speed of the attack.

In the end, the gun-toting Americans need to have a change in their mindset and see that a modern society where guns are much more strictly controlled can be much more safer. Self-defence can be enforced through defensive martial arts or even better, violence and be reduced by equipping people with the diplomatic knowledge and skills to solve conflicts.

Brad Blackstone said...

Thanks, Woody, for your comments. It's always interesting to hear how others view the American scene.

On the idea of America being more violent in the past, I wonder about that. I guess it depends which "past" were talking about. I'm not sure that the chance of being murdered in the year, say, 1809 was any greater than it is now. (Were studies done then that could produce data on the chance of being harmed by a gun? I doubt it.)

What I do know is that my fear of gun violence as a child in Ohio in the 60s was not the same fear that people today hold. (Of course, at that time we worried about nuclear annihilation.)

Things changed fast though even on a personal level. I was at a party in college where a drunk guy suddenly brandished a gun and began threatening to shoot one of my female friends. I had just gone to the toilet, and when I came back into the main room of the party, I found my friend on her knees pleading for her life. Eventually, someone grabbed the gun from the would-be killer, and my friends and I left.

Many years later, when visiting Oakland, CA, with my family, I experienced another gun incident, with a disgruntled shop clerk waving a pistol first at my wife and then in my face. So there are guns out there, no doubt.