Monday, February 26, 2018

Thoughts and Prayers and Hollow-Point Bullets

After my grandmother died, her old cat hung on for a while. It was ratty and sick. Threw up in the corners. My mom, tired of cleaning on her annual trips home, yelled at Grandpa to “take care of it.” One weekend as I was visiting, my uncle came up for breakfast. While I ate pancakes, the two men talked in the kitchen. A few minutes later, Uncle Hal went out the door with a quilt. Weird, I thought, and then, Man, this syrup is delicious. Suddenly, BOOM! The blast echoed across the mountain. My uncle came back through the house, put the rifle back in the cabinet, and left. Grandpa leaned inside and said, “Tell your mother I took care of the cat.”

I used to tell this as a funny story, but my city friends were horrified. Growing up on a farm, you learn what guns are for: quick and efficient death. Lame horses, old dogs—they’re taken out back and shot. Vets are expensive, and anyway, farmers take care of their own. An animal dies in the place that it lived, with relatively little stress.

That said, people in my family only ever owned hunting rifles. The opening of deer season was a state holiday. My cousin, on his first trip into the woods, wounded a doe and tracked her for miles but never found her. Said he felt sick for days. Even so, he became an avid hunter and lover of guns, as most of my northern kin are. One of my cousins had a camouflage wedding. You can’t see him in the pictures.

Battle of Townsend Plantation
© 2018 Alison Lockwood
Once, Grandpa accidentally shot a turkey hen. (Only toms are legal.) He hid the bird in his freezer for months, finally asked my advice on the matter. You can’t bring it back to life, I said, so you might as well eat it. Make its life worth something. He donated it to church for a potluck supper.

This is a long way of explaining that when I talk about guns, they’re part of my culture. My people fought in every American war, starting in 1776. My ancestors were part of that “well-regulated militia” that everyone talks about. My dad never owned a gun, but he grew up in town, a gentleman farmer. He trained as a sharpshooter at Camp Breckenridge during the Korean War, but never shot again. I was secretly glad. As a tender-hearted kid, I couldn’t understand how people took pleasure in killing animals. When my friend checked his muskrat traps, I didn’t tag along. He carried a gun because sometimes, the critter wasn’t dead. I got sick to my stomach just thinking about it.

Still, I knew the name of every cow that put a steak on our table. Helped load that cow on a truck, said my goodbyes, and watched it come back in neat little white-paper packages. Death was a necessary part of life. There were people who volunteered to kill as part of their jobs—butchers, soldiers, cops—and I was grateful for their service. Thanks to them, I didn’t have to think about guns.

And then one night, my 19-year-old friend put a pistol to his head and blew his brains out. The description is harsh, but literal. He’d been depressed. There was a gun in the house. End of story. That was the first time I’d ever heard of someone keeping a gun not for hunting, but for protection. Not long after, a relative died the same way. Then, a neighbor shot his wife. Suddenly, it seemed, everyone had a gun, and no one was safe. After we moved to Orlando, I started hearing the term “gun hobbyist.” One of our friends owned a small arsenal. He drilled his family on home invasions. When we met for drinks, we had to sit outside, because he couldn’t carry a concealed weapon into a bar. Instead, we sweated to death.

Once, he actually had me convinced that I needed a “lady gun” for my purse. After a few drinks, it started to make sense. Yes, I’d feel safer at night. Yes, I needed to protect myself. After I sobered up, I realized: If I bought a gun, I’d be making the choice to kill someone. Not that I ever would, but if push came to shove—if that gun was used for its designed purpose—someone could die. I wasn’t willing to make that bargain for the safety of my wallet. And before you start suggesting all the other awful things a bad guy might do, don’t worry, I have an active imagination. The worst might happen, but I refuse to live my life in fear.
Flower Power, Bernie Boston © 1967

Once you start carrying a gun, you have to make that constant calculation: bad guy or good? It’s like the old saying: If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. What if you hit the wrong target? What if your shootout at OK Corral kills innocent people? Frankly, we watch too much television. Trained police officers have an 18% hit rate during gunfights. God help us with trigger-happy citizens.

Living in a house with a gun doubles your risk of death by homicide, suicide or accident. In all my years, I’ve never known anyone who fended off an armed assailant. On the other hand, I know three people who died by their own guns. You may remember my elderly neighbor, who accidentally shot his bed while trying to prove that his gun wasn’t loaded. It’s funny until it’s not. At least 2,500 kids are killed by guns each year, and another 13,500 wounded.
If you have kids or teens in the house, or family members with depression, dementia, or mental-health issues, I believe you’re being personally irresponsible to keep a gun within reach. You can argue with me if you like, or you can ask yourself what you’re trying to do. Keep your family safe? Here’s a statistic: More than 75 percent of first and second graders know where their parents keep their guns and 36 percent admitted handling the weapons. Here’s another: More than 80 percent of guns used by youth in suicide attempts were kept in the home of the victim, a relative, or a friend.

Jim Rassol, Sun Sentinel © 2018
After the Parkland shooting, we can’t keep saying we love our kids while using the Second Amendment as excuse not to change. Here is that text in its entirety: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

I support the right of every able-bodied American to own a musket, and even a pair of dueling pistols. But we have no constitutional right to weapons of war, or cannons, or nuclear arms. To me, the most important words here are “well regulated.” The founding fathers believed in gun control as much as we do.

The Port Arthur massacre in Australia prompted sweeping reforms in that country in 1996. There hasn’t been a mass shooting since. Please, take a minute and read about a gun-control program that actually worked. We’re not powerless. We don’t have to rehearse our deaths every time we walk into a movie theater, or a church, or a club, or a concert hall, or a school.

Here are some commonsense reforms:

Ban semiautomatic assault weapons and accessories. If you want to shoot a weapon of war, join the army. No civilian should have the ability to fire 150 rounds per minute. As for the argument that there are already too many weapons on the street, fine. They’ll become more valuable, more expensive. Harder for the average crazy person to buy. For those of you who already own one, congratulations. It’ll become a collectible. Maybe one day, your kids will turn it in to law enforcement or have it destroyed. Here’s one gun owner making that choice. As he says, “Is the right to own this weapon more important than someone’s life?”

Minimum Age to Purchase & Possess. We set legal ages for activities that require maturity, such as voting, driving, and drinking alcohol. Owning a gun is arguably a bigger responsibility. As a parent, if you want to buy a gun for your kid, you should be held responsible if that kid later kills someone. You provided the murder weapon. You’re an accomplice.

Tighten background checks. It’s harder to buy Sudafed than a gun, and loopholes have made the U.S. system even leakier. All sales at all venues—gun shows, Walmart, online sites, private dealers—should be held to the same scrutiny. The following should disqualify a person from buying or owning a gun: 1) felony or drug conviction, 2) being on the no-fly list, 3) a restraining order or conviction for domestic violence or stalking, 4) “adjudicated as a mental defective” or “committed to a mental institution” (an existing law recently repealed by the Trump administration), 5) disciplinary action during military service or dishonorable discharge, 6) deemed unfit to own a gun by a doctor or mental-health professional. A doctor can tell the DMV that you’re not fit to drive. The same should be true for weapons.

Enforce a 10-day waiting period. This provides enough time for a thorough background check, along with a “cooling off” period for impulsive acts of violence—especially suicide.

Repeal the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA). Signed in 2005 by President Bush and lauded by NRA President Wayne LaPierre, this law protects gun manufacturers from being held liable for crimes committed with their products. We can sue McDonald’s for hot coffee, but we can’t sue the maker of a product that kills 93 people a day. If manufacturers and dealers were held responsible for their guns getting into the wrong hands, the industry might begin policing itself. It worked for car and tobacco companies.

Vote for candidates who aren’t owned by the NRA. The National Rifle Association used to represent the interests of recreational gun owners and sportsmen. Now, the bulk of its money comes from gun manufacturers. Many companies donate a portion of their sales directly to the NRA. Think of it. The proposal to arm millions of teachers with guns purchased by state or federal funds would mean a windfall for the NRA. They work hard every day to make you feel less safe, so you’ll buy more guns.

Spend money on gun buyback programs, not putting more guns in schools. After Australia instituted a mandatory buyback program for firearms banned by the 1996 law, a study found that buying back 3,500 guns per 100,000 people correlated with up to a 50 percent drop in firearm homicides and a 74 percent drop in gun suicides.

For years, we’ve been held hostage by the gun lobby. An entire generation of kids grew up in the shadow of Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook. Orlando’s distinction as site of the largest mass shooting in U.S. history only held true for 16 months, until 58 died in Las Vegas. We’ve become numb to it all. No more. The NRA only represents 5 million people. That's 2 percent of our population. We have the votes, and the power to change. We’re the only civilized nation that allows its citizens to be slaughtered this way. Why do we accept it as normal?

Pray for the Parkland victims, but even more important, make the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School matter. These brave kids weren’t a statistic. Don’t let them die in vain.

For more information, explore the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Giffords: Courage to Prevent Gun Violence.