We’ve all been thinking and talking and some of us have been writing a great deal about guns in the past few months. This week, with signs that various gun-control bills will be debated in congress, guns are even more in the news. Since Newtown, I have been thinking about guns, reflecting on my own experience with them, and my own attitudes about them.
Others have written eloquently about the cultural divide between gun owners and non gun owners, about the relationship between guns and masculinity, about the culture of fear that seems to lie behind much of the demand for high-powered weapons. As I’ve read, listened, and reflected over the past months, I came to realize how very different things are today than in the world I was raised.
I grew up in small-town middle America. I grew up among farmers and hunters, although no one in my immediate family was either. I have shot a gun exactly one time. I’m not sure how old I was at the time, but I know I was younger than thirteen. We were visiting my grandmother on the farm and for some reason, my uncle took a couple of my sisters and I out behind the barn. He had his rifle, put up a bulls-eye target on a fence and showed us how to shoot. I aimed and fired and missed everything because of my poor eyesight. That was it.
Like most rural dwellers, my uncle had a rifle (and a shotgun, if memory serves me correctly). He used it to kill pests around the farm and after he died, my aunts kept the rifle and told stories over the years about going after groundhogs that took up residence around the house. There were hunters among my classmates at school; the first day of deer season meant a few more absences than usual, but even they were relatively few. By and large, at that time, in that community, guns were a tool used for controlling pests. They weren’t regarded as protection and even those of us who didn’t own them had internalized basic rules about gun safety–they weren’t to be played with; they were meant to be kept under lock and key.
Fifteen years or so after that target shooting, I was visiting my in-laws in South Georgia. I remember getting in a pick-up truck with someone as they moved a pistol from the cluttered seat so I could sit down. It was the first time I had seen a handgun in any other context than being carried by a law enforcement officer. I was struck then by the nonchalant attitude toward having a handgun in one’s vehicle. I was also deeply affected by the thought that such weapons might have been commonplace. We would later joke that when we moved to the South from Boston, we were moving to a much more violent culture.
That same uncle who showed me how to shoot a rifle had been a conscientious objector during World War II. He also told me one of the most famous stories in American Mennonite history–the Hochstetler massacre. During the so-called French and Indian War, a raiding party attacked the Hochstetler homestead but the father, Jacob, refused to allow his sons to shoot at the attackers. Eventually, several family members were killed and others taken captive. Jacob, the father escaped on his own and two of his sons were released after several years of captivity.
This week, we’ve heard stories about the horrors created by the ubiquity of guns. A four-year old boy killed his uncle’s wife last weekend as the uncle, a sheriff’s deputy, was showing his weapons collection to a relative. Megachurch pastor Rick Warren’s son committed suicide using a weapon he purchased illegally over the internet.
There is a great deal of cultural commentary about the ubiquity of guns in American society, about the pervasive violence in our culture, about our tolerance for horrific events like the two I just cited. There are also deep fissures that divide us on this as on so many other issues. It seems to me that a society willing to tolerate regular occurrences such as the accidental killing last weekend, a society willing to suffer mass shootings like Newtown, is a society that is deeply dysfunctional. If we can’t take rational steps to balance the safety of our populace with the freedoms we enjoy, we will continue to hear stories like those I mentioned. Most of us don’t even realize the human cost of easy access to weapons. In Utah, for example, 89% of the gun deaths in 2011 were suicides. In fact, there were more gun deaths by suicide than traffic fatalities in Utah that year.
Bishop Edward Konieczny of the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma wrote this week about his own experiences with gun violence and his evolving attitude toward the ubiquity of guns. A former police officer who has a concealed carry permit, Bishop Konieczny has this to say:
By acknowledging the complex part that guns and gun violence have played in my own life, I have come to understand that it is possible, and reasonable even, to be both inured to and incapacitated by violence.
This happens to us as individuals, and it can happen to us as a society. We get used to living with something because we cannot bear the raw emotions we would have to confront to change it.
Adam Gopnik writes:
And so the real argument about guns, and about assault weapons in particular, is becoming not primarily an argument about public safety or public health but an argument about cultural symbols. It has to do, really, with the illusions that guns provide, particularly the illusion of power.
It will be interesting to see how the debate in Congress proceeds.