Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Gun Week

It seems that wherever I look this week, I see guns, news about guns, discussions about guns, documentaries about guns.  I should check my calendar to see if this is National Gun Week.  On top of the on-going Trayvon Martin controversy (1 dead), Friday will be the 13th anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School (13 dead), and Monday was the 5-year anniversary of the shootings at Virginia Tech (32 dead).  Over lunch today, I read an excellent article by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker about the history of gun regulation in America, and immediately after I finished, I watched Barbara Koppel's documentary Gun Fight, covering much the same subject matter.  Then I see the news on line today that the president of a county chamber of commerce just got arrested with a handgun in his luggage at a security checkpoint in the Atlanta Airport, the 27th firearm incident at the airport so far this year.  According to the TSA, he had one clip with six rounds in the handgun (none chambered) and another clip with six rounds in the bag, 

Approximately 32 Americans die from guns each day.  In an average year, roughly 100,000 Americans are killed or wounded with guns.  

What I keep hearing over and over from gun advocates is that, despite these statistics, they have a right to defend themselves, their families, and their home, "to be their own policemen" as Ms. Lepore puts it.  The somewhat confusing language in the US Constitution cited as the basis for that right was considered to be ambiguous at best until 2008, when the Supreme Court weighted in on the matter for the very first time, ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment "protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia."  So now it's the law of the land, and there is absolutely no legislation or litigation on the horizon likely to change it any time soon.

Further, the right to defend one's home has been broadened by "Stand Your Ground" laws to assert that a citizen also has the right to defend themselves beyond the home (some would say anywhere) and to carry a concealed weapon for that purpose, if necessary. This is how armed civilians have come to be patrolling the streets of Florida. "This is not how civilians live," Ms. Lepore writes in The New Yorker.  "When carrying a concealed weapon for self-defense is understood not as a failure of civil society, to be mourned, but as an act of citizenship, to be vaunted, there is little civilian life left."

The Buddha would have seen all this as the inevitable consequence of American materialism. The Buddha saw all things as arising from conditions, and noted that if any link in a chain of conditions could be broken, the end result would not come into existence.  For example, the Buddha  recognized that when some people possessed wealth, other people wished to steal it.  The desire to steal was a condition that arose from the cause of possession of wealth.  Further, out of concern that others might want to steal their wealth, people will try to protect it.  Anger arises from trying to protect wealth, and eventually the anger escalates into conflict and fighting.  Insert a handgun into this chain of events, and somebody dies.

The Buddha would have considered it unnecessary to regulate guns, but would have instead advised giving up material wealth.  Break the first link in the chain, possession of wealth, and the whole chain collapses on itself without requiring messy gun-control legislation.

To give up material wealth, there's no need for a Marxist "redistribution of assets" - "giving up material wealth" means abandonment of the longing for or clinging to riches, a Gandhi-like personal renunciation of the desire to be wealthy.  When the Japanese poet Ryokan found a thief robbing his home, he approached him warmly, shook his hand, and said, "You must have come a long way to visit me, and you shouldn't leave empty-handed. Please, take my clothes as a gift."  The thief was too astonished to say anything, so he silently snuck out into the night. Alone, Ryokan gazed at the full moon through the window, and said, "Poor fellow, I wish I could have given him the moon."

Of course, I would never expect Americans to rise to that level of non-attachment, and in fact, I don't realistically anticipate that the first link in this chain of causation will be broken by very many any time soon.  But there's another link in the chain that leads from possessing wealth to armed civilians patrolling the streets that should also be considered.

In order to take the life of another human, once has to look at the victim as an outsider, as someone different, as an "other."  In Gun Fight, Ms. Koppel documents how the NRA constantly imagines new threats and creates new enemies to rally its followers to its side (and to donate money).  During their annual convention, the speakers keep calling the attendees "the real Americans," implying that those who aren't there at the convention with them, or aren't at least there in spirit, are somehow less patriotic and less of an American than the NRA membership.  They're "those people," "the others."  I'm not saying that the NRA does this to encourage violence and murder, but to scare its followers into renewing their annual memberships and into donating.  But there are consequences to this divisiveness, and those consequences include killing.

This country is now divided between natives and non-natives, the latter of whom can be further divided into  legitimate, green card-carrying immigrants and the illegals.  We're divided along party and race lines and by language barriers.  We're divided between the haves and the have-nots, the 1% and the 99.   We're divided by gender.  We're divided by region.  We're divided by religion.  The President of the NRA even told Ms. Lepore that "We live in a society now that's Balkanized."  With little or no empathy for those different  entities, it's a small step to considering them outsiders and even enemies, and increasingly, armed outsiders and enemies, each with their own incompatible self-interests.  From there, it's no surprise that violence occurs.

Tragically, those stuck in this mind-set cannot stop drawing imaginary lines separating them from others.  I'm convinced that if any one such group were able to somehow completely eliminate all of the others, they would immediately start noticing differences among themselves and subdivide into separate camps, and the members of each of those separate camps would eventually start noticing subtle differences between each other, and so on until eventually only one solitary self would remain.  At that point, it would be interesting to observe whether that one last remaining solitary self would then start subdividing into separate, schizophrenic selves at war with one other, or at least recognize differences between, say, "happy me" and "sad me," between "contented me" and "restless me" ("restless me" hates "contented me").

If there were a way to erase the lines dividing all of these groups, to harmonize these petty differences, we might see a different society.  I take little comfort in the knowledge that it will probably take some other, external enemy to make us forget about our internal differences and reunite as Americans, as had happened after the attack on Pearl Harbor, or briefly following 9/11.

As you can obviously tell, I disagree with the direction the nation's heading with respect to a lack of even the most reasonable of restrictions on guns.  But at the same time, I respect the will of the people and accept the law of the land, even though I may disagree with it.  Meanwhile, the democratic process allows me to vote for Congressmen who may change the laws or for a President who might get a chance to appoint Supreme Court judges who could eventually reverse D.C. v Heller, but in the meantime, I have to respect and abide by the law and the will of the majority of the people.

What's probably most upsetting to me, though, is that the will of the majority of the people cannot always overcome the will of moneyed interest groups and of lobbyists.  While a great majority of Congressmen across both political parties verbally agreed with a Statement of Principles recently proposed by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, not one Congressman was willing to put their signature on the document, out of fear of being targeted by the NRA and losing campaign contributors.  To put it another way, a majority of the people freely elected persons with certain principles, but the politics of campaign financing and powerful lobbying groups prevents those persons from acting on those principles.

Further, there is a lunatic fringe that talks openly of overthrowing that democratically elected government altogether, of killing politicians and elected officials simply because they can't tolerate any government intrusion into their lives or abide even the most minuscule of challenges to unfettered gun rights.  President Obama, who to date has done absolutely  nothing to reinstate the ban on assault weapons or to close the so-called gun-show loophole in buying weapons without background checks, still leads a “vile, evil, America-hating administration” according to a certain celebrity rifle spokeman, and will somehow turn the country into "a suburb of Indonesia" by next year if re-elected.  When he hinted that if a majority of the American people saw things differently and do re-elect Obama, he might have to take matters into his own hands and do something illegal and possibly even suicidal, the Secret Service finally got paid up with their Columbian chicas and stepped in, allegedly scheduling "a conversation" with the right-wing analberry for tomorrow.

But, see?, I've already drawn a line and fallen into the partisan divisiveness myself.  At least I'm unarmed,  though, except for my rapier-like tongue, so you can sleep easily tonight, America.

1 comment:

Steve Reed said...

Excellent post. I'm with you all the way. And I think you're right about drawing lines -- it's interesting how people in almost every society separate themselves into groups and factions. I suppose at some point it helped organize society and ensure survival, but it sure seems counterproductive now.

I moved to England from the U.S. last year, and guns are far less common here. As a result, the murder rate is much lower -- but it's interesting that there's still a fair amount of street crime, using knives instead of guns. I'm all for gun control, but even when you remove guns from the equation, people are people and their hostilities often prevail. Knives, fortunately, just aren't as fatal.