WHEN PEOPLE SHOOT PEOPLE
Where do guns belong in the Kingdom of God?
He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
– Isaiah 2:4
This is a piece of scripture that I’ve always found beautiful, but it only gets better with age. The visual of instruments of violence being repurposed and made into instruments of creation and gardening is moving. I mean, this is the Old Testament, so when gardening’s mentioned thoughts go immediately to the Garden of Eden. The ideal of perfect relationship and the absence of violence.
When you’ve lived through numerous public shootings and when you’ve seen entire countries collapse all before your thirtieth birthday, the idea of a world without wars both wakes up a deep hunger for it to finally come true, and a deep sadness of how far we are from that point.
I totally get the latter feeling. I’m at a point in life where I realize the evils in the world, violence and bigotry and hatred, aren’t going anywhere. In fact, things like racism, that I was led to believe had ended in the sixties or eighties have proven themselves to be fully alive. If anything, it can feel like we’re moving backwards as a society.
Still, there’s a slight tickle that comes with the hope that there might be some truth to this Old Testament prophecy. I know the people who have brought the most needed changes to this world throughout history have been the ones who haven’t lost their imagination for how the world could be. We know them as the MLKs and Mandelas, but I suppose you could throw my stepdad into the mix.
My stepdad married my mom at a later part of his adulthood. He regretted a lot of things from before they got married, but now he really saw the new relationship as a chance to do things right. He was extra motivated to have an eight year old in the house. This was also shortly after he had recovered from a pretty intense operation, so the saying “new lease on life” really fits in this scenario.
In a cold-turkey fashion that you almost never see, he was able to drop his former lifestyle of excess. Smoking and heavy drinking and all the things he didn’t want me to grow up around were now out of the picture.
I also remember the day, a few months in to their marriage, when we drove as a family to a gun shop and he sold his old pistol and ammo for some cash. He had always kept it “just in case” but with an eight-year old in the house, he was done.
“Why not just keep it?” I asked, surprised that he even had it under the bed. “You never know.”
But the world where he wanted me to live was one where guns were of no use.
The year after my stepdad married my mom came the attack at Columbine High School. The news immediately covered the events from every single angle you could imagine. Graphically animated replays of the scene in the library. Personal profiles of the students martyred for their faiths. A whole lot of publicity for the shooters, and perhaps this set the worst precedent possible for the following decades.
In the years that followed, I started going to middle school. I heard of Columbine referenced a lot as a landmark moment in time that changed things. I wasn’t aware of that at the time. When you’re ten, every news story seems historical. Plus, school shootings happened from time to time. A couple more made headlines during my middle school years, including one at a high school on the outskirts of where I lived in San Diego. It wasn’t until a teacher talked to us one day that made me realize the big deal.
“These things didn’t happen when I was growing up. They were unheard of. The fact that you seem to have gotten accustomed to them says it all.”
That started to open my eyes to what it looked like when you zoomed out your perspective. Schools, these institutions of youth and innocence and safety, were no longer safe.
In 2007, I was applying for colleges. A student at Virginia Tech brought an arsenal of weapons with him to campus and killed dozens. I remember the vigils and the moments of silence at sporting events and the flags at half mast. I mostly remember Allie, a year older than me, writing something on Myspace about not being too enthralled about entering “the real world” if this is what’s out there.
When I graduated college, I stepped into a summer full of change. I began dating a friend I had managed to be “just friends” with for three years. I had started to explore what was next for me in terms of jobs and where to live. It was an exciting summer, but also a confusing and intimidating one. In the middle of it all, a shooter came in to a movie theatre and killed people as they watched The Dark Knight Returns.
Before that year had ended, another man would enter an elementary school and shoot kids as young as four. I don’t think I’ve ever seen darkness invade news headlines as horrifically as it did that day. I remember finding out in the morning at my internship and feeling sick to my stomach all day. These were kids. As young as four. Seriously, something must be done at this point to make sure that never happened again. If this couldn’t be a breaking point for the country, I don’t know what could be.
There was some talk about tightening up the way people could access guns in the country. More background checks, more regulations. I thought that sounded like a good response. If we surrendered convenient air travel after September 11, surrendering convenient gun purchasing after this shouldn’t be a major sacrifice.
In the long run, that wouldn’t happen. People freaked out about guns. Some other people started talking about how much they loved them and how a better idea would be to put guns in the hands of teachers, so the next time a shooter walked in the room, it could at least be a two way shoot-out, with the bullets flying over the heads of the kids in both directions. The people in favor of gun control grew more vocal, which I’m afraid created more backlash. In the end, nothing was changed. No laws changed. And the shootings, well, they continued more and more often.
The summer I proposed to my girlfriend began with a camping trip I took with my cousin and her boyfriend. I had told my friend Daniel that I would talk to him a week before, and we’d played phone tag for a while. I finally got ahold of him and when he picked up the phone I asked how he was doing. Not good, apparently. Daniel lived in the neighborhood where I went to college, and that night, a shooter had gone on a rampage and killed six students from my alma mater, UCSB. It hit close to home, so close to home. I remember hearing one of the students’ dads angrily lament the fact that if the regulations were tightened back after the earlier shootings, his son might still be around. Still, I had little confidence in seeing anything change. It felt like defeat.
In the months that followed, I lost my ability to keep track of it all the time. In between major life events, people would get shot. A shooter would unload on a Seattle campus. I started teaching in Bakersfield. A kid brought a gun to a nearby high school. I moved to Oregon. Another movie theatre was shot, now in Louisiana. I started grad school. Shooters erupted in a church in Charleston and on live TV in Virginia. I got married. The president got on TV to express that we’d gotten numb to the shootings. I suppose he was right.
The other week, I saw my new home state of Oregon mourn another school shooting. Umpqua Community College. It felt wrong being a veteran of such communal grief. It reminded me of UCSB a year and a half before. These events have gotten so common place that they seem to be everywhere I live.
I don’t think any sort of emotional impact can dislodge the stalemate we’re in. If the shooting of four year olds couldn’t do it, I don’t know what could. Are we waiting for it to be so commonplace that everybody knows somebody who has been affected?
I’ve seen the back-and-forth arguments on gun control before, and over the past few years, I don’t think I’ve seen anything new. I’ve seen the Facebook debates, and usually those go nowhere and just make everybody angrier.
For the most part, I avoid any social media posts about anything controversial. I get that it’s hardly ever a good venue to discuss some things. But here’s what I don’t get. Why does this have to be a controversial issue? People should be able to go to school or work or to movies without the possibility of being shot. We should be able to go into next year with the reasonable expectation that there will be no other mass public shootings. Instead, if the stats hold up, there will probably be a dozen or two.
Here’s just some time to be honest. As much as I like pleasing people, trying to see both sides of an argument, trying to understand where people are coming from, I don’t want to live in a world where guns can be easily had, and easily used to take other people’s lives. I love and value human life too much to want that.
I also can’t believe that the best solution for a “bad guy” with a gun is a “good guy” with a gun, because people tend to be pretty bad judges on whether or not they’re bad or good. Also, even the Bible says to call no person “good,” and I see where it’s coming from. Based on what I’ve seen in recent years, I know humanity is messed up.
When a shooting like the one at Umpqua breaks out, man, I can’t deny I want things to change. This just needs to stop. I care less and less about what mechanism brings these things to an end, but they need to end, and that needs to happen now.
And when I see people talk about how much they love their right to carry guns around right after an event like last week’s, I have a hard time seeing it as anything other than cruelly insensitive. I would trade that right in a heartbeat if it could bring back six UCSB students, 33 Virginia Tech students, 9 at Umpqua Community College, and so on.
The truth is, if and when something is finally done to prevent this from happening again, I will be very, very happy and relieved. There’s no argument that will prevent that emotional response.
I should point out that when it comes to guns, I’ve seen responsible ownership. I’ve gone out to shooting ranges several times and had a good time- I’m actually a pretty good shot with clay pigeons. I have a friend who uses a rifle to hunt, and I respect the fact that he is under no delusions about where his meat comes from.
Based on polls, the majority of gun-owners actually favor universal background checks, tighter dealership recommendations, storage laws at home, and prohibition periods on those with certain marks on their record like assault or domestic violence.
Cars can be deadly too, which is why we require drivers’ licenses, mandate liability insurance, and invest in safety technology. It’s a well regulated privilege, and it has cut the fatality rate of auto accidents down substantially from when they first appeared on the market.
Thomas Jefferson put it well, though, when he said “the care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government.”
If the way we understand our “rights” doesn’t contribute to that, it’s time we revisit them.
I hope we aren’t as far away as it feels from the time where we actually take steps towards reducing the amount of lives taken by gunpoint. Like I said, I will be very happy if and when these things finally happen. I’m tired of mass shootings being a parallel thread to my major life events.
There are a lot of heavy hearts in Oregon right now. The leaves are changing here too. Trees will be bare soon, and the rain will come in a couple of weeks. Right now, though, it’s gorgeous. The trees are a fiery red and orange, and life is still worth living, even on difficult weeks.
It’s my hope that we all value human life enough to wonder about how we can protect it and to not lose sight of a world that’s better than the one we allow ourselves to settle for.