Safety By Gun

When I was a teenager, a boy held a unloaded handgun to my head.  He was joking and he was laughing–perhaps his certainty that the gun was unloaded made the entire thing feel like a child’s version of Russian Roulette to him-but for me, the sting of cold metal against my temple sent a shock of waves through my nervous system, instantaneously causing me to break out into a cold sweat and start shaking. Have you ever wiggled a garden hose at a cat and watched them hop backwards like a grasshopper, as if their feet were on fire? Or held a flame in front of a dog and watched them shrink back in fear like a dying plant?   Evolutionary theory suggests that animals-and even humans to an extent-present an innate fear of these objects, both reminiscent of primal environmental threats. It was like that with the gun.  A gun without bullets and without a finger is a cold hunk of metal.  A gun on its’ own cannot kill.  It is the potential for death, violence, and injury that is suggested by a gun that inspires terror.  It is its’ symbolic value.  I had never seen a handgun before, but my body reacted, unable to assimilate the boy’s reassurances that the gun was not loaded.  I screamed for him to stop.  He pulled the gun away from my temple, but waved it around for a while.  The power that was so funny to him in that moment, proffered for me the tiniest glimpse of what it is like to live surrounded by guns, by the threat of guns, by the power dynamics that both feed and are fed by guns.

As a Canadian, guns are generally not part of my everyday life.  Handguns in particular are largely relegated to the hands of law enforcement and criminals, but that does not mean my life has been untouched by gun violence.  My mom’s brother lost his leg at 11  in an incident involving the accidental discharge of a hunting rifle.  When I was 15, a classmate’s brother was shot and killed at point blank range while watching Donnie Brasco at the local movie theatre.  The boy who works at the gas station down the road from my family cabin sustained a brain injury as a child while he and his brother were playing with his father’s gun.  I grew up in one of Canada’s most affluent postal codes, but it is an area that defies traditional logic about poverty breeding gang activity and consequently I have known many people who have shot someone or been shot.   I have personally witnessed two drive-by shootings.  

This is just a sampling from a longer litany of gun-related horrors to which I have been peripherally related.  And this sampling in turn, is just the smallest speck of dust on the swiftly tilting planet of mass shootings, domestic violence, suicides by gun, military occupations, gang violence.  Once in university my science teacher asked us to stand up and stretch our arms out at our sides.  He told us to imagine that our outstretched arms represented all of Time.  Next he said to take one hand and brush the tips of the fingers of our other hand.  The dead skills cells sloughed off in that action, he said, represent the lifespan of humanity.  In much the same way, my experience with guns is only the thinnest sprinkling of the terror and devastation that has been wrought by guns.  But that small swath is still unimaginably horrible.  Can you imagine what it might be like to lose a teenage son to gun violence?  To help an 11-year-old adjust to having lost a limb?  A 5-year-old to having lost part of their brain?  Each of these small swaths in isolation contains enough pain and hardship to warrant a drastic reconsideration of our relationship to guns.

Now imagine the tidal wave of shock and pain and loss inspired by the deaths of 58 people.  Throughout the world there is currently violence and genocide, carnage and slaughter, torture and massacre on such a scale as to make 58 seem puny.  Think Myanmar, think Palestine, think Syria, think Chechnya.  Think of the slower trickle of deaths by police brutality, mass incarceration, domestic violence, people without access to healthcare.    Think of the genocides people here often don’t talk about: Armenia abroad, Indigenous people here at home. I don’t mean to suggest that mass shootings in America are the world’s biggest problem.  They are not.  I don’t mean to suggest that gun violence in North America kills people on a larger scale than all the aforesaid horrors.  It does not.  I do however, feel as though the potential to make a dent in gun violence with policy and legislation is real.  And it is this potential, in light of recent events in Las Vegas, that leads me to write these words.  It is this potential that leads me to want to understand all those Americans who ardently oppose changes in gun legislation; who defend their right to bear arms with furor and zeal and passion, despite bodies littering the ground, despite children scattered across school campuses, despite all the research showing a direct correlation between firearm ownership and death by gun.

In 2011, I was living in Tucson, Arizona when Jared Lee Loughner shot 19 people in a Safeway parking lot.  He killed 6 people, including a 9-year-old girl, and infamously shot congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at point blank range.  I was nowhere near Safeway when this happened and my reaction to this event was chiefly one of muted shock.  Like when you are screaming at the top of your lungs in a dream and wake up abruptly to a naked silence; the realization that you didn’t make a sound is a jolt to the system. The shooting was jarring and yet deadening in its familiarity.  My geographical proximity did nothing to humanize this tragedy in my mind.

In 2002, the University of Arizona was the site of a school shooting.  An ex-nursing student opened fire killing three people.  In addition, my graduate seminar at the University of Arizona in Positive Psychology was taught by a man-once on death row, then deemed criminally insane, then released, then tenured-for a shooting rampage in a college dormitory wherein he shot and killed a fellow student as he slept.  This is story for another time.  I mention it only to highlight my plethora of rather dramatic connections to guns while living in Tucson.  Despite the sensational, albeit no less tragic, nature of these two connections, they failed to impress upon me the true nature of living in a country full of guns.  And there were other stories.  There were so many stories.

What made an impression on me, was something more simple.  What made an impression on me, was seeing people in Tucson carrying guns on the outside of their clothes.  It was the young shirtless man on a bike, driving up my street with his gun tucked into the back of his waistband.  It was the well-dressed man with the cowboy boots and the greasy hair, who stood in front of me at the 711 with a gun hugging his hip, packed tightly in its’ holster and warm from the sun.  

In Arizona, gun laws are lenient, and a person can acquire a gun without a permit.  There are large ugly billboards advertising gun shows at the corner of every major intersection.  Just in case someone needed more incentive or a reminder on their way to getting a hamburger.  In Arizona, people can carry a gun concealed beneath their t-shirt or strapped to their ankle beneath their pant leg, or they can wear it on the outside of their body, a statement, a warning, a threat, an assertion of power.  

Think about this.  Think about what it means to wear a gun like a necklace.  In this context, a gun symbolizes one person’s power over another.  It say, don’t mess with me.  It says, you better mind your manners.  It says, I have the power to take your life, to “take your body”- as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes.  It says don’t let your guard down.   The world is a dangerous place and I can be a dangerous person.  You are not safe. I am not safe.  I think it was Anne Lamott who wrote that “anything you HAVE to HAVE, own YOU”.  People who feel they HAVE TO HAVE guns are by definition not free.  A gun says a lot of things, but I am free is not one of the things I hear. 

There is no reason, as far as I can see-and despite reading what I consider flimsy arguments to the contrary on pro-gun forums and websites–to wear a lethal weapon like a piece of jewellery, except to assert power.  This need to assert power springs from living within a system that is ordered by patriarchy and white supremacy, a system that cowes people on the basis of their gender, sex, the colour of their skin.  As you can imagine, this system promotes feelings of deep insecurity. But feelings of deep insecurity also spring from knowing those around you are carrying guns, so that even those at the top of the societal hierarchy feel that their life is in constant jeopardy.  It is an insanely vicious cycle.  

You could argue that guns–particularly those worn on the outside of the body–are social equalizers, giving power to those who might otherwise be denied such power under misogyny, patriarchy, white supremacy.  However, the cost of such equalization is high for all.  The societal underdogs are empowered and simultaneously disempowered by the right to bear arms.  Along with the right to bear arms comes the threat of more guns, bigger guns, automatic guns, guns with silencers.  But more importantly, the consequences for one person who shoots vs the consequences for another are largely determined by patriarchy and white supremacy, such that in reality there is no equalization of power of ever possible.

Personally, seeing myself surround by guns made me feel infinitely LESS safe.  On my first day in Tucson, I accidentally cut off another driver while switching lanes before a light.  The driver pressed on his horn so that the air resounded with his anger, a bleating cry of perceived injustice.  I raised my hand in the rearview mirror to suggest my irritation.  When I stopped my car at a red light, the man got out of his car, approached my driver side window, and began repeatedly punching the glass with a closed fist.  He continued until the light turned green and I was able to pull away, leaving him standing in the middle of broken yellow lines with fists still clenched.  This was my first day in Tucson.  It  was before I ever saw ankles bulging with hot metal, before I came to recognize the familiar geography of a gun silhouetted against the underside of a thin cotton t-shirt.  By the end of my time in Tucson, I knew these things well.   As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says: “If we see the same thing over and over again, it becomes normal”.  I don’t know that I ever got used to seeing guns in Tucson, but its’ abnormality certainly wore off.  This normalization resulted in the fact that, by the end of my time in Tucson, other drivers could do whatever they wanted to me.  I allowed myself to be tiny bumper car awash in a sea of giant SUV’s, placid and passive and submissive.  I didn’t need to see the angry driver and the gun paired with one another.  Seeing them each in isolation, over and over, was enough to let me know I was not safe.  And I often did not feel safe.  I was sometimes afraid not to smile at the man in the 711 line up.  This might sound dramatic, and don’t misunderstand me; I didn’t actively believe this man was going to shoot me for snubbing him–although people have been shot for less.  But it was the layering of one type of power on top of another type of power-a combination so potent that no actual violence was necessary.  Knowing violence was possible was enough to keep me in line.  It was enough to help me understand I was not free.

This is what is so paradoxical about the largely American myth of safety by gun.  I’ll lay it out for you:  Americans value their freedom above all else, or so the story goes. And so the possibility that anything might infringe upon that freedom–say gun control-is taken as a direct assault on this freedom.  Right away, this is problematic.  Because no country in the world, not even America, allows its citizens unfettered freedom.  In America for example, you cannot kill another person, you cannot rape another person, you must wear a seat belt, children must attend school, parents cannot physically or sexually abuse their children, nor can they neglect or emotionally abuse their children (although the latter examples are far less well regulated), children cannot buy cigarettes or alcohol, you cannot steal, a person cannot drink and drive, a person cannot kill an endangered animal, a person can only kill x animal during x time of x season.  And these are only examples of legal restrictions on freedom; think of all the things that are taboo or socially restricted.  There are so many.  There are limits on freedom, because most people agree that in order to maintain order and safety and well-being, a certain degree of freedom must be sacrificed.  But somehow, this utterly reasonable understanding of compromise completely breaks down in the face of gun control.  A certain segment of society feels that their freedom as a human being is directly contingent on their virtually unrestricted right to bear arms.  

It is my contention that guns make the powerful feel more powerful and they create the illusion of empowerment for the disempowered.  This empowerment of the marginalized, finally, make the powerful feel less safe, which only reinforces their desire to own guns.  Now the powerful have power and guns and more guns.  The powerful are now super powerful.  The less powerful feel understandably unsafe, even less safe than before they had guns. They also want power, but mostly they just want to be able to defend themselves, to feel safe in this world.  So they need guns (more guns) too.  The powerful and disempowered alike know how many guns are out there, and this makes them all feel unsafe.  They need to feel safe.  They need more guns.  Some want to feel powerful too.  They need more guns.  All of this under the guise of wanting to be free.  Guns, you sully the concept of freedom.  

More people die each year in America by suicide than by guns.  “A person pulls the trigger, but the trigger also pulls the person”.  Having a gun increases aggression and it also makes a person more likely to harm others or themselves.  So we need to talk about murder, but we also need to talk about suicide.  Suicide is so important to talk about in the context of mass shootings and it is a piece that is often overlooked.  

I have tried to understand the other side, but so far, I just don’t get it.  Maybe I have misjudged the motivations of others, the reasons people want to carry guns, the logic between the association between freedom and guns.  I have a hard time understanding how a person can ever feel free if a person doesn’t feel safe.  If a person doesn’t even feel safe to withhold a smile, to rebuff the harmless flirtation of the man in front of them in the 711 line,  because they don’t want to flirt, because they are tired, because this man reminds them of an ex-boyfriend who was abusive, or simply because they are just not in the mood-well, where’s the freedom in that? Where’s the freedom in feeling utterly constrained in the smallest and seemingly most inconsequential decisions?  The inability to act as one chooses as one goes about one’s daily life, that is the real prison, that is the real definition of enslavement.