Good Guys, Bad Guys—and Crazy Gun Laws
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By M. L. Long
“They’re coming for our guns” is a refrain that gins up resentment, fury, and arms-buying sprees among America’s gun-toting minority. But with increasing frequency and urgency, an even more chilling thought occurs to many of the rest of us: “They may be coming for us with guns.”
I’d like to talk about a fundamental kind of physical self-determination: the right not to have one’s body ripped apart by bullets.
Who needs to fear being slaughtered by one of the hundreds of millions of guns in circulation in the U.S. today? First of all, black men and boys, who are statistically more likely to be living in poor, dangerous neighborhoods where they’re at a greater risk of being shot by criminals, gang members, or the crazy guy on the corner who happens to be packing heat. Not to mention the threat they face from police officers with explicit or implicit racial bias and a hair-trigger, as documented in the sickening videos of police violence that have surfaced with distressing regularity the past few years.
According to an analysis of 2012 federal data from the Violence Policy Center, blacks are about 13 times more likely to be murdered than whites. Think about that: 13 times more likely to be murdered. And 84 percent of those killings will involve a firearm. Numbers like that should have us all out on the street brandishing “Black Lives Matter” signs. Hell yes, all lives should be valued and protected. But because the lives of black people have been the most devalued and endangered, that’s where we’ve got the most work to do. That fact feels undeniable in the autumn 2016, after the recent police shooting of yet another black man, this time Keith Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina—as well as a violent and divisive season that some dubbed the “Summer of Hate.”
Two black men living more than a thousand miles apart were killed by cops in the days after America’s Independence Day holiday. Alton Sterling died in Louisiana on July 5; Philando Castile was killed the next day, during a traffic stop in Minnesota. Both victims were armed, but they weren’t threatening police officers when they were shot—and they both lived in states where it was legal to carry guns.
The day after that, the carnage—and the awful irony—that arises from the massive proliferation of firearms in America resurfaced in Dallas at a Black Lives Matter protest against the police shootings of Sterling and Castile. Texas is another of the country’s 45 states that allows people to openly carry handguns, military-style assault rifles—or, in the infinite wisdom of the great state of Texas, both. Given that, it’s unsurprising, albeit perverse, that some of the protesters decrying gun violence were armed themselves. Though looked at another way, it’s understandable. I’m sure some armed themselves as a way of standing up to a police force that they believe sees blacks—and shoots them—as if they were sitting ducks.
There are many tough issues that need to be unpacked and addressed if the examples just related are going to become rare in America’s poor urban neighborhoods, not grimly predictable, as they are today. For starters, persistent racism—sometimes overt, sometimes unconscious. And the attitudes and procedures of police forces all over the country. Then there are the issues of underfunded public schools, limited job opportunities, out-of-whack drug and prison policies, and inadequate mental health programs.
But there’s something else huge that America must confront, and it’s the thing that unites the dramatic scenarios of the past months, as well as many thousands of others: Guns have caused deaths that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, or they made the carnage infinitely worse.
Cops in the Crosshairs
With the ambush of police officers in two separate incidents this past summer, first in Dallas, then an attack that killed three more cops in Baton Rouge, a new horror is arising from America’s gun proliferation: Police are not only in the line of fire in the course of performing their duties, they’re being targeted by fringe elements who not only resent being targeted by cops—they’re armed themselves.
The causation is clear in terms of how America’s lax gun laws put weapons in the hands of the unhinged individuals behind those two attacks on police. While the connection is less linear, it’s only common sense to acknowledge that guns weren’t only the means of those police slayings, they were part of the motivation. An armed populace makes cops fearful for their own lives and hence, more likely to shoot others. And that increase in the numbers of citizens killed by police is now leading to more cops being shot in retaliation. The “war of all against all” that Thomas Hobbes envisioned in the 17th century looks like it’s breaking out in 21st century America.
One of the cops murdered on July 17 was Baton Rogue police officer Montrell Jackson, who was deeply affected by both Alton Sterling’s death and the retaliatory killing of police in Dallas three days later. He was acutely aware of what it was like to be distrusted in some quarters because he was a cop, in others because he was a black man. In a July 8 Facebook post, Officer Jackson wrote, “I swear to God I love this city but I wonder if this city loves me. In uniform I get nasty hateful looks and out of uniform some consider me a threat.” In the same post, he said: “These are trying times. Please don’t let hate infect your heart. This city MUST and WILL get better. I’m working in these streets, so any protesters, officers, friends, family, or whoever, if you see me and need a hug or want to say a prayer. I got you.”
Instead, some fucker with an assault rifle got him.
Enough Ammo to Take Us All Out
Who else in America needs to fear losing his or her life to a gun? Pretty much everybody, although most of our odds aren’t as bad as those of police officers or black males. Certainly, politicians are at risk, as evidenced by the example of Presidents Kennedy and Regan, and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head by one of her constituents in a supermarket parking lot. Not to mention musicians like John Lennon, gunned down outside his apartment on Central Park; or the singer Selena, killed by the founder of her fan club.
And it’s not just adults. American children have plenty of reason to fear that they’ll be shot and killed. Kids from all over the country, in all kinds of circumstances, from 12-year-old Tamir Rice—shot by Cleveland, Ohio, police for playing with a toy gun—to 6-year-old Jack Pinto—one of the 20 children and six adults murdered by the deranged shooter at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School. Those are the most shocking and publicized cases, but there also are heartbreaking—and far more numerous—cases of children who accidentally shoot themselves, or are shot by a sibling or parent, with the firearms stored in their homes.
The reality is that in America today, guns might take you out whether you’re reading in the library, drinking in a bar, or pretty much anywhere. Even church is no sanctuary. At any moment, someone might start shooting up the place for any number of reasons—to protest abortion, as happened in 2009 at a house of worship in Wichita, Kansas; or simply to kill people because of their skin color, as occurred last year at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
As we learned from the June 12 Pulse nightclub shooting, it’s possible to smuggle in a rifle that will do immense damage even when security guards are checking for weapons at the door. Forty-nine people were slain that night, making it the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history—so far.
And the Pulse attack wasn’t carried out by a gang or a terrorist cell, it was a single individual. A single individual who was able to legally obtain an assault rifle, despite the fact that he’d been investigated by the FBI as a possible terrorist. And the fact is undeniable: without that rifle, the slaughter would never have reached the hideous heights attained that night.
As after many of the other mass shootings that have taken place in the U.S. in recent years, people said Orlando would mark a turning point. The madness simply could not continue. Some Democrats in Congress even tried to make a difference, staging a sit-in to force a vote on common-sense regulations such as mandatory background checks for all buyers of lethal weapons, and keeping guns out of the hands of people who are on the ‘’no-fly” list of suspected terrorists. Imagine, having to stage a sit-in to get Congress to take action on legislation as tepid as that. When a vote finally did take place on those puny restrictions, Republican legislators voted them down. No one was surprised. Nor, sadly, is it all that surprising that in the month following the Orlando massacre, more than 2,700 Americans were killed by gun violence.
But it’s not like Republicans have totally abdicated their responsibility to safeguard American lives. At the GOP Convention this past summer, the party platform bravely singled out pornography as a “public health crisis.” That document talked about guns, too—specifically, ensuring that they are as restriction-free and deadly as possible. Whatever your take on porn is, it’s pretty clear that the Republican position on guns is obscene.
America’s Original Sin
At times, especially if you follow the news and live somewhere else, it’s easy to believe that every man, woman, and dog in America is packing a gun. But we’re not. Depending on the study you go by, about 65 to 80 percent of American adults do not own a gun. Opinion polls vary as well—in part based on how the question is phrased—but somewhere between 70 percent to more than 90 percent of Americans believe the current toothless gun-control policies should be expanded.
So why isn’t that happening? A big part of (dis)credit goes to the NRA, a relatively small group with disproportionately massive clout due to the relentlessness and rabidity of its membership. (If you doubt that, check out the comments section of any published article that hints at sympathy for even minimal gun control.) Besides money—and the NRA has plenty of that—the other things U.S. legislators tend to pay attention to are squeaky wheels. And gun folk tend to be louder than their automatic weapons. That’s why, in the perverted thinking of the legislators that the NRA has bought or bullied, the right not to be torn asunder in a hail of bullets comes second to some yahoo’s right to strap on a loaded AR-15.
I think there’s another reason more legislators, journalists, celebrities, and regular citizens aren’t standing up to end the gun madness. To put it simply, they’re scared. I’m scared myself. Because many so-called “gun-rights” proponents relish making the threat explicit: If we come for their guns, they’ll come for us.
So many of presidential candidate Donald Trump’s pronouncements are frightening—and so many of them are meant to be. But perhaps the most chilling of all is his repeated reference to how “Second Amendment people” may opt to take things into their own (well-armed) hands to oppose Hillary Clinton and other gun-control advocates. He was threatening Clinton with assassination, and not only was there very little outcry, his poll numbers went up.
It may seem Americans’ right to bear arms was set in stone when the Second Amendment was penned back in 1791, but it was only in 2008 that the Supreme Court narrowly ruled that the right to bear arms applies to individuals, not just the “well-regulated militias” stipulated in the amendment. That 5-4 court decision was an incredible disaster for our country, in my view. But in this age when gun advocates act like their “right” to own and openly carry guns is sacrosanct and unassailable, it’s hopeful to remind ourselves that a mere eight years ago, that position was very much in doubt.
Trying to Pull Back from the Brink
One way to begin what will undoubtedly be a rough journey back to sanity is to abandon the “good guy with a gun” theory beloved by the National Rifle Association and its anointed candidate, Donald Trump (terrifyingly, the Orange Menace packs heat himself). To be fair, in incredibly rare instances, that “good guy” theory actually works: In Dallas, on the very same day as the police ambush, a patron with a handgun took down a rifle-wielding man who’d robbed staff and customers at a Waffle House. But far more often—as the fates of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling testify—having a gun makes you more likely to die of gun violence, not less. And what about those of us who just want to eat a goddamn waffle without bullets whizzing by?
The way the Dallas police ambush was finally resolved embodies the seemingly endless escalation that will ensue if we don’t rein in our galloping gun culture. A weapon few of us knew police forces had in their arsenal—a robot that can use explosives to take out human targets—blew the gunman to smithereens. Will we be seeing more of that as more of us become armed—and afraid of others’ arms? I’m not sure that’s a world I want to live in.
Commentators—especially the country’s boosters—talk about “American exceptionalism.” I’m generally allergic to that phrase, but at the moment, I agree: America is exceptionally fucked up about guns.
M.L. Long is a journalist and essayist from New York.