Guns ‘n’ Bread ‘n’ Roses

GunBy Sarah at ProgressiveKid

This is a call to arms. The kind that are attached to hands and often linked via shoulder and neck to heads with brains, eyes, ears, and mouths.

After Seung-Hui Cho killed 33 people last Monday and President Bush responded in part to the massacre by reaffirming his commitment to guns, I was reminded of my friend Victor. I knew Victor about 20 years ago when I worked for a teacher-training program in Chicago. We met at an Act-Up meeting. Victor, an intelligent, soft-spoken, powerful, opinionated, gay carpenter, was the guy we called in to help train our future teachers on how to work best with gay students.

One day, during one of his presentations to our students, Victor mentioned—I can’t remember the context—that he was a firm supporter of the unfettered right to bear arms.

I was surprised. Victor was what we might call a liberal in every other dimension, not the sort to oppose gun control. He went on to explain that if one tinkered with the Bill of Rights on one issue it wouldn’t be long before the others started to get tinkered with as well. And he added that he felt it was important to be able to defend himself against those who might wish to do him harm.

He wasn’t talking about violent muggers. This was the 1980s, at the height of the U.S. AIDS crisis, and Victor was referring to his desire to protect himself from gay bashers and those gay haters who operated on a more sophisticated level. Because I liked Victor and admired his reasoned approach to life, and because I was living in the 1980s too, his words gave me pause. Even though I didn’t agree with him about guns, I wondered if there were some legitimacy to what he was saying.

Some Guns

Fast forward to last Monday and the massacre at Virginia Tech, newsworthy in its extremity, in its sheer volume of deaths—but on another dimension, hardly unexpected. Every day in America, in its cities and in its rural areas, people are killed with handguns and semiautomatic weapons, sometimes wielded by lunatics, sometimes by drug abusers, sometimes by thieves, and sometimes merely by angry and disappointed people. Here are the statistics and estimates:

  • The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) reports that, in 2005, 477,040 victims of violent crimes were confronted by offenders armed with guns.
  • In that same year 423,000 incidents of violent crimes of rape and sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated and simple assault involved firearms (Bureau of Justice Statistcs).
  • Of the 16,137 murders in 2004 in the United States, 66 percent were committed by people using firearms (Bureau of Justice Statistics).
  • In 2005, the number increased to 68 percent (Bureau of Justice Statistics).
  • According to estimates by the Geneva-based Graduate Institute of International Studies, we Americans own more than 200 million firearms—please note that there are approximately 298 milion Americans, so some people are clearly shopping in bulk. This would mean there were more privately owned guns in the United States than in any other country in the world.
  • Although we don’t know how many guns are owned by private citizens in our country, the 2004 national firearms survey conducted by the Department of Health Policy and Management of the Harvard School of Public Health estimates that there is at least one firearm per adult, with the trend toward higher concentrations in the hands of fewer people.
  • The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reports that 2,879,049 firearms were manufactured in the United States in 2005 (their website shows totals only by type of gun, but if you add them yourself this is what you get).

What’s surprising is that this kind of tragedy doesn’t happen more often.

Our society, while vigorously defending the right to bear arms, has grown increasingly violent and decreasingly respectful of life. This is not surprising either. Our American government is rooted in violence. It didn’t come about with an election but, like many others, through a bloody revolution. And since that time Patriots have held dear the image of the Minutemen ready to stuff their muskets full of gunpowder and maintain the line of defense against any invader and any unelected regime. But if terrorists came wearing bombs, what good would a handgun be to stop them? And faced with an unexpected attack on a school campus by a mentally unstable man with a cache of weapons, even the Minutemen would have been ambushed.

Top Guns

Because our culture delights and trades in images of violence, even as real people with malicious intent delight and trade in real tools of violence, it should come as no surprise that right in front of our eyes, guns are being pointed between our eyes. But meanwhile, a different kind of attack is happening behind our backs, out of view, where a gun can have no defensive effect. Quietly and steadily, our government has been eroding the other rights presumably protected by the Bill of Rights of such concern to Victor, the Patriots, and most Americans. One of these attacks was, ironically, called the Patriot Act.

This pernicious offensive, cloaked in a form of defensive reason, is protected and advanced by the best equipped army in the world. We cannot defend ourselves against such an attack with weapons just as we cannot arm ourselves with enough weaponry to outperform the lunatics and the muggers. The musket and its replacement, the M16, are obsolete in this arena.

If Victor’s primary concerns were (1) protecting the Bill of Rights and (2) defending himself, his strategy failed. The Bill of Rights is being whittled away, and none of us is safe from the violence of guns. I wish I could talk to my old friend now to find out if he maintains his former firm position or if he thinks the battlefront and the stakes have changed.

I Want My Bread and Roses

Bread and roses are great, but I’m a selfish American. I also want (1) to live and (2) to have my democracy. The Patriot strategy of having democracy to guarantee the bread and roses and having guns to guarantee the democracy is not working. We do not need another campus-based massacre to shoot through our heads the idea that we are not safe, that we are not succeeding at defending ourselves from violence. But what do we need to convince ourselves that, in the background, while we’ve been following in the papers our bloody war on the other side of the world and watching on TV the aftermath of a bloodbath at home, the democracy we have so much faith in is being diluted and co-opted?

I fear the answer is that, as more and more such incidents occur, we will not be driven to action but instead lulled into a passive acceptance of the belief that, as free Americans who have the fairly unlimited right to bear arms, it is our burden to accept violence against civilians.

Great Guns

What I envision is something different. I envision all of us erupting in righteous anger that we express not with violence but with determined unity. When we do, I see us taking up metaphoric arms against the right to bear arms indiscriminately, using our best weapons which are our voices, and demanding gun control. And I see us, undistracted and unafraid, devoting our energies to safeguarding that which we claim to want so much to defend: our democracy and the important rights that come with it.

Gun supporters say that we should not politicize the Virginia Tech tragedy. New flash: This issue was politicized a long time ago. It is a political issue, as well as a social one and an issue of morality. Some people just don’t want you to know. It is apparent to me, as a parent, that if I don’t speak up now, some day my daughter might be confronted by a similar terror. And, over time, 33, which looms now, won’t seem like such a big number.

©2007 ProgressiveKid. May not be reprinted or redisplayed without permission.

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