Living on the trigger’s edge

I am always worrying about our vulnerability as individuals living in a contaminated environment, or about the instability of our planetary ecosystem now that global heating is underway.

But one thing I don’t usually worry about is whether my son will be shot and killed on his way to buy candy at the corner store.

This is a mark of my privilege as a white person living in a predominantly white neighborhood in a small, relatively wealthy town in New England.

My sons are in fact half Hispanic—their father is of Mexican heritage—but they “look white.”

It would never have occurred to me, before learning of Trayvon Martin’s recent murder at the hands of a neighborhood vigilante, that one of my kids, coming home from the local convenience store wearing his hoodie up because of the rain, could be accused of robbery and fatally shot by one of my neighbors.

There is so much that is wrong about this scenario that I hardly know where to start.

I deplore the racial profiling that turned an innocent kid into a moving target.  I abhor the despicable behavior of the local police department, which chose to let the killer go free—with his gun!—without even holding an investigation.

But there is a more fundamental issue here that we as a society need to confront.

Why are there so many civilians with guns in our country?

This is at the heart of all the school shootings that have been occurring with alarming regularity in recent years.

It is of deep concern to the millions of victims of domestic violence in our country, who must live in fear of the gun in the drawer.

It is certainly at issue in the Trayvon Martin case, where a young man lost his life because of a trigger-happy “neighborhood watch” patrolman gone bonkers.

It is high time we as a nation stood up to the NRA “right to bear arms” folks and began a serious national conversation about gun violence in our country, and around the world.

***

I spend quite a bit of my professional life teaching and writing about violence that happens in other countries.

When you teach college classes in literature and human rights, you are often reading accounts of genocide, civil war and ethnic cleansing in places like Africa, in Asia, Central and South America, the Middle East.

My students and I regularly read horrifying stories of how civilians are caught in the crossfire between heavily armed warring groups.

One side is usually the state-funded military and police, the other side an oppositional force, labeled “terrorists,” “subversives,” “rebels,” or “freedom fighters” depending on your ideological viewpoint.

In between are the ordinary civilians who are generally just trying to keep their heads down and survive.  Women are especially at risk in these situations: vulnerable to rape themselves, they are often forced to watch their children raped and tortured, their husbands executed.

It’s easy for us to think about this kind of violence as something that only happens far away, and to feel that we here in the U.S. are morally superior and righteous.

Easy, that is, until we stop to consider two important aspects of these faraway conflicts that are almost never discussed in the news media or in college classrooms.

One, in virtually all cases of civil conflict worldwide in the past 50 years, the guns and other weapons have been supplied by U.S. arms manufacturers and dealers, or their European counterparts.

Two, in many cases, the folks on the ground in hot spots like Iraq, Afghanistan, or Congo are fighting proxy wars for First World corporate control of resources. In other words, they’re fighting Wall Street’s wars.

So we here in the U.S., despite our self-righteous sense of moral purity, are in fact deeply implicated in every violent confrontation taking place over there in other parts of the world.

***

What does this have to do with Trayvon Martin?

Let me spell it out.

The same gun manufacturers and dealers who are arming, say, the Syrian Army and the “opposition forces,” or the Ugandan Army and the Kony “rebels,” are also supplying guns to American servicemen like Sergeant Bales, who flipped out and massacred innocent Afghan civilians in their beds last week; to American police officers who regularly appear in the headlines for unwarranted use of lethal force; and to American civilians like George Zimmerman, who shot an unarmed teenager walking home through his own neighborhood—a supposedly safe gated community in Florida.

And this doesn’t even begin to touch on gang violence worldwide, or narco-violence, all of which is carried out at gunpoint.

With so many guns floating around in our society, it is inevitable that innocent people are going to get shot, all the time, every day.

Here in the U.S., and around the world, we need to rethink the heedless way we have given gun manufacturers and dealers such freedom to operate.

Giving anyone and everyone access to a semiautomatic weapon is just asking for violent confrontations among civilians, and between civilians and police.

As a global civilization, we have put too much emphasis for too long on unbridled freedom to create, even when what we are creating leads to destruction and mayhem.

Chemical companies are given a free hand to churn out thousands of new chemicals and put them into the market without sufficient testing for longterm effects on humans and the environment.

Car manufacturers are given a free hand to drive national transportation policy, prioritizing highways over mass transit at great cost to the environment.

Oil and gas companies are allowed to drill ever deeper, their profits pushing our entire political system into a status-quo paralysis just at the time when we need to be vigorously mounting a huge R&D effort in renewable energy sources.

Shooting a kid, bulldozing a rainforest, poisoning an aquifer…these are just differences in degree.

Next time it could be my kid, or yours—at the hands of a crazy civilian, or an enraged policeman.  It could be your tap water catching fire from gas fumes, or a tornado spawned by global heating running amok in your neighborhood.

I’m tired of living under the constant threat of violence.  I say it’s time to hold the gun manufacturers and dealers, the oil and chemical companies, the car manufacturers and all the other agents of destructive technologies accountable, and tell them in no uncertain terms that enough is enough.

Let’s use our prodigious technological capabilities to make our lives better, not to create ever more sophisticated means to take lives away.

Leave a comment

15 Comments

  1. And yet, Jennifer… every household in Switzerland has a gun, and yet it is a peaceful country where gun misuse is rare.

    It has also been shown that if a community is known for its women being armed, rape there is almost nonexistent.

    Dunno. I don’t really believe in prohibitions. They make a problem worse, invariably.

    You should be asking, what can we do to build trust? What can we do to build communities that foster trust? What are the million ways this particular way of living deprive people of trustworthy streets, trustworthy neighbors? And it goes all the way to trustworthy politicians, bankers, merchants, companies.

    Reply
    • According to the statistics that I have, there are 56 guns for 100 people in Switzerland. There are 90 guns for 100 people in the USA. In my home country the ratio is 30 guns for 100 people (still too many guns, but at least we have the lowest crime rate in the world).

      Swiss gun laws are more restrictive that any US federal or state laws, for instance while transporting weapons the ammunition must be separated from the gun and carrying permits are limited to and must be renewed after five years.

      The gun ratio in Switzerland is high in comparison to other developed nations because Swiss reserve soldiers (about 200,000 men) keep their personal equipment, including the rifle, at home in case of a mobilization.

      The majority of gun crimes involving domestic violence are perpetrated with army weapons and there was an emotional debate after a series of tragic incidents where men shot dead their wives. In 2007, the Swiss Federal Council decided that soldiers don’t get ammunition and all previously distributed ammunition had to be returned. Only special rapid deployment units and the military police still have ammunition stored at home.

      Reply
      • Would it be a happier world if those men killed their wives with knives or run over them with cars?

        I have a friend who lives alone on the edge of a small community, on the edge of the woods. One night, she heard steps on her flat roof over the bedroom. They did not go away for a long time. She was terrified, and helpless. She went out and got the lessons and got the gun. Now she is not helpless any more. What would you have suggested instead? (And getting a large dog is not a possibility — she has 17 cats).

  2. R. Dean Ludden

     /  March 24, 2012

    I wonder if it is peaceful, as you say, because of the guns? Are we peaceful because we are “strong?” I don’t think so. Guns are for killing; that is what they are good at–and they seldom do it with good results. Where guns are prevalent, tragedy is too often the result.

    Reply
    • Switzerland gained its independence from the predatory princelings surrounding it through the use of guns. If they were not willing to defend their mountain home, you think the predators would not have been happy to flood it? America gained its independence via guns. Without guns, what would you have done? Ask the king “pretty please”? Guns are prevalent in Switzerland — so why don’t you challenge yourself and find out how come a tragedy does not result? Maybe what you find will be of use here as well.

      Reply
      • That is exactly what the proponents of “Deep Green Resistance” argue.

        If you are not willing to defend nature you think the loggers and poachers will not be happy to destroy the last patches of forest and kill the remaining animals?

        Without guns, what would we do? Ask the loggers and poachers “pretty please”?

        I don’t share this opinion, but if one follows your argumentation one could easily come to the conclusion that we have to take up arm.

        “why don’t you challenge yourself and find out how come a tragedy does not result? Maybe what you find will be of use here as well”

        OK, lets go to war for the noble cause of preserving nature!

      • R. Dean Ludden

         /  March 24, 2012

        Damn straight! Kill everything and we get to start with a clean slate. (But of course
        then we got a problem of what to do with the guns.)—Oh yeah, I know! We just save
        ’em until the new bad guys are born. Then we blast them. Isn’t that fun?

      • R. Dean Ludden

         /  March 24, 2012

        ANY killing is a tragedy.
        We will never kill all the bad guys. Look what Ghandi accomplished with non-violence. On a world scale, it would be even more effective.

      • I understand now, more guns, more safety.

        That is the reason, why concealed weapons shall now be allowed on campuses and in bars.

        I wonder, why I didn’t discover this simple logic by myself.

  3. I think I should also write a blog post about this issue, because the proliferation of weapons and the ever increasing number of weapons is maybe the biggest threat to mankind, bigger even than the ecological destruction. But here first a preliminary study camouflaged as a comment:

    Concerning the USA:

    The USA has a history of violence. The nation was founded on the genocide of the Native Americans (which in sheer numbers exceeds the Holocaust), and on the abduction and enslavement of Africans. Beyond that, the Americans also slaughtered each other in big numbers. 620,000 soldiers died in the Civil War. Assassinations of political opponents are common throughout the history of the USA (Lincoln, Kennedy, M.L. King), and homicide rates are higher that in any other developed country.

    The USA has a rate of 90 percent hand guns per capita, the highest percentage in the world. It is three times more than in Germany, France, Sweden, 2.5 times more than in Iraq. From an estimated 860 million privately owned firearms worldwide, 280 million are owned by Americans. The USA has 4.6 percent of the world’s population, but accounts for 21 percent of all private guns in the world.

    Though overall violent crimes decreased, the USA is in fourth place in the world with murders by firearms. In 2007 there were 12,632 gun homicides and 17,352 gun suicides. Another 69,863 Americans received non-fatal gunshot wounds.

    In 2008, 7,451 women were treated in emergency rooms across America for gunshot wounds, 66 percent of which were assault-related. In 2007, 1,865 women were murdered with firearms. Firearms are more common in abusive homes, and batterers often threaten their victims with guns, sometimes implicitly, by cleaning, holding or loading guns during arguments.

    The situation is getting worse:

    All indicators point to an energized weapons industry, with firearm manufacturers reporting increased production to meet the growing demand of the marketplace. Distributors and importers are enjoying brisk business and dealers indicate a surge in firearm sales. There are conflicting numbers about gun sales because the nation’s 60,000 retail gun dealers are not complying with record keeping and lose track of an enormous number of guns (since 2005, 3,847 inspections have documented that 113,642 guns cannot be found).

    There are no completely accurate measures of either gun purchases or gun ownership, but a Gallup poll in October 2011 showed that gun ownership in the USA is rising and that most Americans want less regulation on gun sales and ownership.

    Based on adjusted FBI data, 2011 was another record year for gun sales, with 11 million firearms sold and purchases in December topping 1.4 million (if one wondered, what US citizens like to buy as Christmas gift beside iPhones and iPads, that should be clear now).

    Ammunition manufacturers report that factories are producing at record rates, operating 24/7. Despite these efforts there is a nationwide shortage of ammunition because Americans are stockpiling supply and buying ammunition by the pallets.

    http://www.sodahead.com/united-states/why-gun-sales-are-on-the-rise-in-2012/question-2496633/

    http://akhost.chacha.com/chacha.com/infographics/firearms.pdf

    In January citizens gathered across the country and held candle-light vigils commemorate the Gibbons shooting one year ago. Bells were ringing and emotional speeches held.

    Every new mass shooting causes nationwide hand wringing and a flurry of comments, statements, background articles, blog posts.

    The average US citizen yet is unmoved and just keeps buying more guns and ammo. How many pages of text, how many vigils and speeches do you think will be needed to turn the tide?

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  March 24, 2012

      These statistics are terrifying. I still think there are more peaceniks than warmongers in the world, and in the US, and if we who believe in non-violence actually stood up and said so, loud enough and long enough, we might get somewhere. At least it would be better than, as you say, wringing our hands out of sight, on the margins.

      Reply
      • We will do what we are able to do and what we are allowed to do. Our actions will have to be intelligent and well prepared. Writing blog post, statements, manifestos is useful to present and discuss ideas and to contribute to the paradigm shift that is now taking place in our circles (pacifism, environmentalism, feminism, transition town movement, anti-globalization, slow food, etc).

        It will not be enough unfortunately, and in this respect I agree with leavergirl. I don’t see much promise in armed resistance though, because the paradigm shift that we want to bring about has to include the complete rejection of war, weapons, and violence.

        We will have to discuss our options very thoroughly!

  4. R. Dean Ludden

     /  March 24, 2012

    Jennifer, I am grateful that you have continued to “stand up and say so.”

    Reply
  5. Now you make sense, Mato. Surely, knee-jerk prohibition is not the answer. After all, the governments are the biggest gun runners (legal and illegal) on the planet. (And if you add all the guns your Wehrmacht and police own, you’d get different stats.)

    Reply
  6. I hesitated to “like” this post–because of course I deplore the very things you discuss. But we need to hear them, again and again if necessary. Thank you for adding your voice.

    Reply

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