January 13 – Volume 14, #1
“We can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all the other possibilities.” -Winston Churchill-
“And we going to the wake, to make sure all the crying and commotion ain’t a motherfuckin’ fake.” – Biggie Smalls, Things Done Changed-
On the morning of December 15, 6-year old Ana Marquez-Greene became one of the nearly 9,000 Americans who lost their lives to gun violence last year. Although the Sandy Hook elementary student is far, far, far more than a statistic, it is important for us to understand how these statistics paint a bigger, much more gruesome picture. And moreover, that we understand the role that we all play in painting this picture.
10 out of every 1000,000 Americans will lose their lives to gun violence in 2012, a rate that easily outpaces other industrialized nations. For example, 3 out of every 1000,000 French men will be killed by a handgun this year. Germany, home to the Third Reich, has a steady rate of 1.10, more than four times the rate of their European frenemy, Britain, whose rate is just 0.25. Among industrialized nations, Canada comes closest to us both geographically and homicidally with a rate of 4.78. More people will lose their lives to gun violence this year in my beloved hometown of Chicago than will face their mortality in this manner in all of Japan. Hell, more people will lose their lives to gun violence THIS month on the South Side than what Japan will face in an entire calendar year. Or 20 calendar years.
Japan, the world’s third richest nation, was almost sent into a national crisis in 2006 when they peaked at 22 homicides via firearms. Their high-water annual figure is less than the number of people who perished at the hands of a disturbed lunatic on December 15 when he launched a horrific mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
It’s always tragic when someone loses their life, but this is especially so in regard to children who have their entire lives ahead of them.
But don’t let our grief ignore the fact that if we don’t have a fundamental paradigm shift in regard to gun control in this country, other children will certainly needlessly lose their lives in the future. And no amount of tears will wash away the blood we’ll have on our hands if we allow that to happen.
Every time there is a quiet riot that explodes on the scene seemingly from nowhere we have impassioned debates for a week or two on how to prevent more needless loss of life in the future. But then the Ritalin-deprived media dogs chase another shiny car down the street and everyone’s attention is diverted until the inevitable next time. In spite of our collective attention deficit disorder, we have got to be able to focus on more than one issue at a time. And gun violence is no longer an issue that we can afford to ignore if we are truly serious about keeping our children protected.
Some have said that even in mourning, Americans should appreciate that we live in a nation that is so secure to where such carnage is newsworthy in a way that it is often taken for granted in certain pockets of places like South Africa, Afghanistan and Brazil. But the reality is that mass killings like those witnessed in Aurora, Colorado, Blacksburg, Virginia and Newtown, Connecticut don’t happen all over the world. Violence occurs. Murder certainly occurs. But it often has some functional purpose, as horrible as these atrocities may be. Robberies. Civil war. Control of land.
Only in America do you have crazy people go and shoot up a building full of strangers for no particular reason at all.
There are no shortage of theories of why America is unique in this regard, and why our nation ranks so high in gun homicides in general.
Some contend that it’s our media images. They blame it on our violent video games, our gangster movies and our gangsta rap. As a sociologist, I certainly find these arguments credible as I have based my academic reputation on the notion that social institutions like the media strongly influence our individual behavior and choices. But British and Japanese kids are playing the same exact games and watching the same movies. The new Tarantino flick (which you need to go and see as soon as you stop reading this) is being released in London, Paris and Tokyo too. There are plenty of Dutch and Ghanaian kids who grew up bumping Fat Joe, Scarface, Biggie and Kool G Rap like me. And yet they somehow still overwhelmingly resisted any motivations to go shoot up a movie theatre or a school.
Others argue that it is American culture that makes us so prone to gun violence. This nation of ours has a violent history. No question. The renegades of the Wild West are among some of the nation’s largest cult figures. Urban crime bosses such as Capone, Luciano and Gotti are an enduring part of American lore. The violence associated with the slave trade and slave life domestically still has a stinging legacy that remains with us to this very moment. The American genocide of the Native Americans who dwelled here long before we all arrived has received less attention. But as violent as America’s history has been, we Americans have a lot more killing to do to catch up to Europeans who engaged in virtually non-stop territorial power grabs for several centuries before the relative calm that World War II forced upon them. These are the cats that brought the world the Inquisition, chattel slavery, the Jewish Holocaust and gladiator fighting. It was Europe that gave us the French Revolution and arguably the world’s greatest executioner tool in the guillotine. To be sure, American history is no more violent than what has been experienced in other parts of the world, and yet these nations have managed to shed much of their violent legacies.
A very real factor is the increasing rate of mental illness in this country. One out of 17 of our fellow Americans are living with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, depression or bipolar disorder. Less than 33 percent of all of those who are living with mental illness receive mental health service in a given year, a truly alarming figure. Historically, mental health has been greatly under-prioritized both by public officials and the public at-large. With more social pressures than ever and more of our citizens being exposed to traumatic warzones both abroad and domestically, we cannot remain stagnant on this issue even if common ground is struck on gun reform.
In my novel, Quiet Riots, I myself have linked mass killings as being symptomatic of a sick society where many of us are a lot, lot more vulnerable to snap than we’d like to believe. The novel works from a premise that as society has put more and more pressure on us as individuals, the breakdown of our collective bonds has left us less able to cope with these stresses, which sometimes results in some very destructive –yet preventable- outcomes.
What I have tried to do with my writing more generally is avoid simplistic explanations. So to explain our high level of violence by isolating any single variable is intellectually lazy and factually inaccurate. The reality is that all of these factors play a role on some level. We do live in a sick society that puts a lot of pressure on people. It stands to reason that a sick society is going to produce some people who have mental sickness that our battered infrastructure often leaves unaddressed because these psychological scars so many of us walk around with aren’t visible. Or at least the scars aren’t visible until it’s well too late. And there can be no doubt that our society is violent, due in no small part to the violent manner in which it came to be.
But there is one variable that has greater power than others in explaining the difference between countries like America, Norway and Spain in regards to our level of gun violence. The main difference between our nation and others are our gun laws.
A nation’s laws are a reflection of its values. So on days like December 15, we have to ask ourselves, “what do we value?”
It is far easier to get a gun in America than it is in any other industrialized nation. Like our freedom of speech and freedom of religion, our right to bear arms is vitally important to the American identity.
But many misunderstand what this right is rooted in. This wasn’t something that was stressed by the founding fathers because they feared vigilantes and crack heads, they wrote the right to bear arms into the Constitution because they feared the biggest gangsters in any society: the federal government.
The British crown’s monopoly on weapons allowed them to have undo control and intimidation over their subjects. It allowed them to pass and enforce unjust laws. They could come and plant evidence in people’s homes and seize goods at will. The right to bear arms was included in the Constitution to give citizens extra protection against an overzealous government.
Today, this right is used to justify protection against the ubiquitous threat that the media has convinced us is all around us. The knee jerk response to this threat has been to give people more guns. After all, it is only the bad people who do bad things with guns. Normal people like us aren’t going to do anyone any harm whatsoever. Their rationale is that the thugs are going to get their guns anyway. Making it more difficult for “normal people” to get guns only puts law-abiding citizens at a heightened and unnecessary risk. Even after the Newtown tragedy, the response by some was to give teachers guns. Or have more armed security. After all, licensed professionals never abuse their privileges to use a gun. And if people know that they are going into a school where someone will be armed, they’ll think twice about attacking others.
I honestly don’t have a problem with armed security at schools and other public buildings. But unless we change the type of guns that the general public has access to, this won’t prevent future tragedies any more than armed security has eliminated bank robberies.
Look, no one is arguing for a full ban on guns. I endorse people’s right to bear arms under the spirit in which the law was written. Even in 2013 when the Red Coats have long since sailed away, I personally am far more concerned with my safety being threatened by the government than I am somebody breaking into my apartment or coming to shoot up my classroom. But you’ll have to pardon my paranoia as I come from a town whose history includes a police assassination of Fred Hampton and police chief, turned-convicted felon, John Burge forcing life sentences onto dozens of people after his flatfoots beat them into confessions.
So calm the fuck down, gun-rights’ nuts and hunters. No one is talking about taking your precious guns away, you overcompensating pussies. I don’t want this tragedy to make us a less free society.
In a country that allows free speech, sometimes you’re going to be subjected to rhetoric that you find personally offensive. In a country that allows freedom of religion, you may sometimes be inconvenienced by coming face to face with beliefs & values that differ from your own. In a nation that allows their citizens the freedom to bear arms, there are going to be some crazy motherfuckers that use them lethally from time to time. The only way to prevent this is to become an overbearing police state and that’s not what America is about. And even that wouldn’t stop the violence completely. Most reasonable people are not interested in taking the Glocks and 45s that the average person is toting on the South Side, West Philly or rural West Virginia. But we need to re-evaluate the need for common citizens to have semi-automatic weapons that are intended for the battlefield.
Cloaking support to continue the distribution of these weapons in the Constitution is both disingenuous and just plain dumb. When the right to bear arms was granted over two centuries ago, people were packing muskets and pistols. Secondly, people aren’t using an M-16 or a Bushmaster to hunt elk or pheasant. No sir, they’re buying those guns with the intention of doing harm to human beings. How many more of the nation’s children need to be literally caught in the crossfire of this debate before we force our politicians into action? How many more adults?
When America was attacked on 9/11 there was a lot of talk about keeping the American public safe. All else was willing to be bargained away in the name of our safety. We gotta go into massive debt? It’s worth it to keep us safe. We gotta forego some of our civil liberties? It’s worth it to keep us safe. We gotta torture people in a manner that violates, not only international treaties, but our very principles? It’s worth it to keep us safe. We sacrificed many of the things that made America different through the paralyzed fear of 9/11. In this context, is it really too much to ask people to sacrifice by bearing guns that have 10 bullets in a magazine instead of 100?
Or is protecting the American public only urgent when the threat involves mysterious, brown people with funny-sounding names? There haven’t been any terrorist attacks that have resulted in loss of life since 9/11. However, in that time there have been 26 mass killings, resulting in several hundred lives being lost. It was widely acknowledged after 9/11 that you can’t totally prevent terrorism, but we can do a better job in removing some of the tools that leave us open to threats. Shouldn’t the same be applicable to the domestic terrorism that the community of Newtown experienced on December 15 and that people in inner city Chicago, Baltimore, Houston, Detroit and Philly have lived with for decades? Public officials have made their careers off of hyped-up fears of terrorism, but these same politicians grow noticeably mute when it comes to reforming the nation’s outdated federal gun laws.
Newtown was horrible, but it wasn’t isolated. There had been mass killings before. As recently as last July. And yet not once did gun control come up during the presidential election. I wrote several blogs last summer that brought attention to a myriad of issues, but not once did I use my forum to call for greater gun control. We all have to do better unless all the tears that have been shed and all the symbolic tributes over the past few weeks have been insincere. We all just joined together to elect a brown person with a funny-sounding name president of these united states, so changing this small part of our nation’s structure should not be too daunting for us. And make no mistake, it is our social structure that best explains our level of gun fatalities compared to other industrialized nations. America’s gun laws is where we differ with a nation like Japan. Our precious right to bear arms makes it remarkably easy for someone to get a gun. Contrast this with Japan where in order to get a gun citizens are first required to register for a day-long class, after which they have to pass a written test. This is followed up by registering for a shooting-range class that is mandatory for all Japanese who want to own a gun. Even after this, they still aren’t a gun owner yet. Following the written test and displaying mastery at the shooting range, the Japanese must then submit to both a drug test and a psychological test. The results of each test is kept on file with the police. Then after a substantial background check to ensure that you’re not part of any kind of militia groups or an ex-con, you would have at long-last proven that you have the right to possess a firearm. Even at this step, however, you’re not done with bureaucratic red tape as you must document with the local police the precise location where your gun will be locked away in your home, as well as the wholly separate location of your ammunition. Finally, after this exhaustive process you can get yourself a gun. A gun that must be checked in annually with the police to make sure there aren’t any bumps on the pistol or any other kind of irregularities. But barring that, you’re all good….Until three years later when federal law requires you to re-take the exam and begin the process all over again.
Shit, I still haven’t gotten a North Carolina license yet because I don’t have the patience to be waiting around at the DMV (and because I feel like I’d be selling out the crib, but that’s neither here nor there). The point is that there probably would be a lot less gun owners in America if our process was this cumbersome.
We may not need to go to these extremes but we can’t very well stand pat either. That is, if we’re serious about preventing this type of thing from happening again. Our laws must reform to deal with modern realities by not only making illegal the sale of automatic weapons, but making it more difficult for people to get guns of any type.
Much like free speech, owning a gun is more than a right, it’s also a tremendous responsibility. It’s a responsibility that I’m still not absolutely certain that I’m emotionally mature enough to handle yet considering that no more than two weeks go by where I’m not seriously contemplating hitting someone with my car. It seems more and more, however, that I am far from alone in being deficient in this regard as too often our conflicts (both external and internal) are resolved with firearms.
Resolving the issues at the center of our conflicts is becoming exceedingly more difficult as our nation becomes more polarized. But finding ways to reduce the violence that erupts from these conflicts should not be this hard. There is a lot of room for political compromise to find some resolution on this issue that respects the rights of gun owners while keeping the public better protected from massacres like this most recent one. People have justified stockpiling more guns than T.I. because they valued their family. Making some small sacrifices in terms of our gun laws will show just how much gun-rights advocates value other people’s families as well.
Peace and God bless,