In the wake of an event like the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting, everyone struggles to find reason and blame. Was it the arbitrary act of an angry young man, something to do with his dark, “Goth” clothing, the video games, the music he listened to, the broken home, poor parenting, fame, our lack of proper mental health care, poor school security…the guns? Who can we go after, what can we do now, and how can we stop it from happening again? While there is no one fault or solution to gun violence, I’ve been wondering about what we might be missing.
The recent statement made by National Rifle Association Vice President Wayne LaPierre that “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” is at best, foolhardy, and at worst, dangerously ignorant. America can’t secure every school with armed personnel any more than it can remove all its guns. In the way stand 4.3 million NRA members and people outside the organization who support gun ownership, those who are simply concerned with retaining their Second Amendment rights, and still others who want to be able to defend their homes against intruders (or anarchy or the end of the world). And behind them…is nearly anyone who has ever fired a gun.
I didn’t grow up in and around guns, didn’t personally know anyone who openly had one, and I never had a strong desire to hold a gun, until I did. In basic training, we were told to treat our M-16s like our best friend, a lover; it could and would save our lives. During training exercises, in full on soldier mode, we learned to sleep arms intertwined with our rifle’s sling, leg slumped over as if it were possible to spoon an unpliable, hard mass of metal and plastic. Because I was military police, I also learned to shoot .38 and .45 caliber pistols and a 9mm (Beretta), along with the ubiquitous M-16, the M-60 machine gun and other assorted anti-this or that weapons. When first I received my very own rifle, it felt strange and cumbersome—an unnatural appendage. I was given facts to memorize (5.56 mm lightweight, air cooled, magazine fed, semi-automatic…), and learned to disassemble and reassemble my new friend in under two minutes. I hadn’t entered the service, like many of the young men who surrounded me, with a strong desire to go to war or be some badass killing machine, rather I was just trying to escape a bad place and time in my life. I didn’t particularly believe in solving world problems with physical combat, nor had I thought much about what I was getting myself into. And since everything I was experiencing those eight weeks was completely new and different (and I was pretty immature), I didn’t really think much about what I felt when a gun was in my hands; it was upon later reflection that I began to realize the power that somehow osmotically seeped from the cold metal into my bloodstream.
As many people as have been around guns their whole lives, there are those who never have, and never will touch one. On the opposite side of the “arm every school” philosophy, are the peacemakers, and I count myself among them. But I do know something many peacemakers may not, and that is the power of a gun in my hand. If you remember the first time you got behind the wheel of a car—and beyond that—if you’ve ever gotten behind the wheel of a really great car, you may have felt a tiny inkling of this power. I can liken it to another moment in my life when I didn’t realize something was inside me until I actually felt it; the adrenaline rush of driving ridiculously fast on the German autobahn. (You might not know you want to drive very, very fast until you are behind the wheel with virtually no speed limit.) But there still isn’t much to compare to the feeling of holding, aiming and shooting a gun, and it is both boon and bane that one may not understand until or unless you pull a trigger. I haven’t fired any weapon since I left the military, but I can still close my eyes and (feel that rush) vividly remember a perfectly weighted pistol, the power of it in my hand, aiming and slowly releasing my breath on an exhale. There’s that click sound of the hammer falling, an ever so slight kick and the inescapable exhilaration that immediately follows. It is intoxicating. You can’t feel nothing—this power is somehow ingrained—even though the ability to shoot a gun is not innate. But the problem of guns—one of the problems of guns—is that it makes killing too easy.
I don’t see myself ever killing anyone, except in self-defense (or defending someone else), but if I had to do it, I’d use a gun. It removes direct physical contact. I can stand a certain distance away. I could aim, and if I so chose, close my eyes and still reasonably presume to hit my target—especially if I had a semi-automatic or automatic weapon. A sniper can be so far away or hidden that no one ever sees what’s coming. Whether or not I am mentally ill or purely evil, or on a mission from a devil or a god, the gun will feed my fire and make me feel invincible. If someone wants to commit mass murder, a semi-automatic rifle will fuel the thunder in his brain with its firepower and sound effects—even with its sulfurous odor. And beyond all that, a killer can assuage any lingering guilt or worry, because the gun can eliminate suffering in an instant—we all remember the movies and stories of putting down a horse to be merciful. The lame creature was never stabbed, nor strangled; he simply got a bullet to the brain. Finally, if a killer is afraid of consequences, or just wanted to make a name for himself, he knows how to quickly, easily, painlessly get out of that mess, and he simply aims the gun toward himself. This hunk of metal, this powerfully simple tool, it knows how to take charge of every situation; it knows how to take control of you.
What Wayne LaPierre and the NRA seem to have forgotten when he made his recent speech, is that every good guy has the capacity to be a bad guy, and that there is no certainty as to whom is which. It is distinctly possible a person might not recognize himself until a gun is in his hand, and even more likely, that a gun could fall into the wrong hands. It makes no difference whether you are professionally trained adult, or a ten year old with a rifle handed down from your grandfather; the feeling of power inside you will be the same. Perhaps that is a secret the NRA wishes to keep.
So what shall we do, other than limiting or banning the sale of assault rifles to civilians, which would likely only limit the number of casualties in shooting incidents? We who are parents can teach our children how to respect themselves and others, how to handle and express their anger; we can try to recognize when things are wrong—but what can we do against our uncontrolled egos, armed with guns? I honestly have no idea.