A Fantasy Thought…

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I had a crazy fantasy thought the other night, in the wake of the latest mass shooting incident in Highland Park. What if instead of trying to pass more gun safety legislation, we just banned men from purchasing or possessing guns?

I know there are all kinds of constitutional issues that make this utterly unworkable. But statistics suggest that if we could do this, mass shootings and gun violence would drop dramatically. Over 90 percent of mass shootings are committed by men, most with legally obtained weapons. Over 80 percent of all gun violence is committed by men. Men also make up 86 percent of all firearm deaths. Men own three times as many firearms as women. And 52 women a month die from gun violence at the hands of a male domestic partner. (Source: Men Against Gun Violence)

A question I wrestle with as another man against gun violence is why gender is such a major factor in gun violence. In all the back and forth about gun violence, I hear very little discussion about why men are so drawn to gun ownership and far more prone to resort to gun violence, including mass shootings. [It does need to be acknowledged that there are many responsible gun owners but I also think even responsible, law-abiding gun owners need to examine the psychology of their gun ownership and what kind of person they become as they make this choice. I cannot judge this choice for another, but suggest each needs to honestly judge his own choices in this regard.]

I don’t have answers to these questions. I have questions. I refuse to chalk it all up to testosterone. Why, particularly are so many men choosing to resolve a dispute, their road rage, or a nursed sense of anger with a gun? All of us get angry, but most of us learn to control and channel our angry impulses, precisely because we realize how destructive they may be. Yet it seems that an increasing number of men have discarded the restraints on anger that most of us practice. Why is that?

This seems an important matter wrestle with in our churches, our schools, and our community organizations. I also think the social isolation, and the distorted ways of thinking that arise, fed by “dark web” sites, are factors in mass shootings desperately needing to be recognized and understood and addressed.

At this point we are a society determined to maintain our “right” to own guns and the maintenance of this right means that nowhere is safe–our schools, our houses of worship, our groceries, our parks, our restaurants, our parades and public events, our shopping districts and malls, our neighborhoods and our homes. For those who argue that an armed presence, a police presence is what we need–all kinds of public safety forces were present at the parade in Highland Park. No doubt they saved lives in their rapid response but seven died and twenty or so were wounded by the 80 rounds fired in the brief period before the gunman needed to flee–some with devastating wounds that will take months or years to heal, if they ever fully do. This is the price of our freedom.

This is not the country I grew up in but it is the country we have become. Simone Weil contended that when we speak of rights, we need to speak first of obligations. It seems to me that our contemporary insistence on rights is devoid of the obligations that accompany any right. I wonder what our young men are learning about the obligations and responsibilities that come as they make the transition from boys to adult men. Are they learning only that no one should constrain their freedom, which the power of a gun makes more irresistible? Or are they learning that the exercise of our rights ought never impair the rights of others and especially the most vulnerable among us?

We cannot ban men from owning guns. But we can ask what kind of men we are raising our sons to become.

Could We Just Stop Using the Label “Pro-Life”?

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I did not have a book ready for review today and so jotted down some of my own thoughts about the Texas school shooting and the claims of our politicians to be pro-life. If this is more controversial than you like, here’s your chance to take a pass.

The shootings at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas have reinforced my conviction that as a nation we have decided to sacrifice our children on an altar of guns. And it is not just Uvalde. There has been more than one mass shooting a day in the United States this year. We have more guns than people in this country. You cannot turn on the news in my city without reports of a shooting, often resulting in one or more deaths. Most of those both killing and dying are young.

And no neighborhood is safe. I thought I lived in a “safe” neighborhood until a woman was murdered in her front yard by a stalker. This was little more than a block away. I heard the shots and thought they were fireworks. Until I saw the news the next day. No place is truly safe when there are more guns than people and people seem angrier than ever. I’ve learned not to respond to aggressive drivers. They could be carrying. Some live with this all the time. I predict more of us will.

What is most disturbing in my state and many others is that the very people who have aggressively promoted pro-life measures are the same ones removing all the safeguards on gun ownership. We now have a permitless carry of concealed weapons law in our state but there has been no action on “red flag” laws that would allow a court ordered restriction of the access of someone with mental health issues to a gun–a measure the overwhelming majority of the American public favors. Such orders may be sought by family or law enforcement, require a court ruling and due process, and have limits protecting civil liberties. Yet even such measures do not impair law abiding citizens from buying any gun they want.

That is why I want politicians to stop using the label “pro-life.” Almost none that I know are consistently pro-life. They are only pro-life in the areas their base wants them to be pro-life. Which, from what I can see is “pro-fetus.” I wonder how much most of them really care for mothers and the life they are bearing. I say all this as someone who is pro-life in this sense.

What would it mean to be consistently pro-life?

  • Protecting the life of the unborn, unless this endangers the life of the mother.
  • Pro-life means access to all mothers to good pre-natal and post-natal care and affordable, quality daycare.
  • Pro-life means access to quality health care for all of our citizens, no matter your zip code or economic status. Good preventive care may actually save money as well as lives, especially for urban hospitals where the emergency room is the doctor’s office.
  • Pro-life means addressing issues of mental health. Often, mental health is something discussed by those who oppose even sensible gun measures, but then nothing is done to provide good mental health care, especially for those whose conditions might lead them to harm themselves or others.
  • Pro-life cares about our addiction crisis. Over 100,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the US in the period ending in April 2021.
  • Pro-life cares about elder care. The warehousing of the elderly and the high numbers of COVID deaths early on in the pandemic in congregate care settings points up the lack in our care for our elder population.
  • Pro-life cares about the world we live in, the air, the water, and the climate. In some parts of the world, extended droughts threaten life as do prolonged high temperatures.
  • And pro-life is committed to substantive measures to reduce gun violence. As long as guns are ubiquitous, so will be gun violence. Pro-life asks, “why do we want guns?” Certainly there are legitimate reasons, but I believe that when many buy a gun, they make an implicit decision that they are willing to take a life. Sadly, most often, it will be the life of someone they know, or even their own life. Guns turn a momentary angry or self-destructive impulse into a fatal act.

I know few politicians who affirm a consistent pro-life ethic covering all of life for all people, no matter their status. So I wish they would stop saying they are pro-life because in my ears it is a hypocritical statement. At the same time, the politicians we elect reflect the people who elect them. For most of us, we cannot claim to be consistently pro-life either. We are selectively pro-life. We are not terribly disturbed that people in another zip code in our city have a much lower life expectancy, just because of where they live, or that some small island nations may have to find another place to live because their homes may be submerged.

Maybe as a country, we need to face that we have embraced a culture of death. We celebrate it in our videogames, television, and movies. We seem relatively indifferent to the 100,000 drug deaths or a million COVID deaths or the gun violence occurring every day in any major city. It makes me wonder how quickly we will forget the 19 beautiful children and two dedicated teachers who died in Uvalde. Already, those who died at the Topp’s grocery store in Buffalo are fading from view. Equally, we are indifferent to the nearly 42 million abortions in the U.S. between 1973 and 2019.

Little wonder we do not have consistently pro-life politicians. They are simply a mirror reflection of the people who have elected them. They are a reflection of us. Let’s stop pretending.

Review: The Violence Inside Us

The Violence Inside Us, Chris Murphy. New York: Random House, 2020.

Summary: A Connecticut Senator describes his own awakening to the scourge of gun violence after Newtown, and explores the causes and remedies for this uniquely American problem.

December 14, 2012 changed the course of newly minted Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy’s life. He was with his family about to catch the train to New York City when his aide called with the news of the terrible shooting at Sandy Hook. He made it to the scene waiting with the parents not reunited with their children. Their tragedy, and all the funerals, changed Murphy’s life, and gave him the greater purpose he had lacked, despite all his political success.

Another tragedy, one of which he learned later, but which had occurred two months earlier, while he was running for office, in nearby north Hartford, revealed the other side of gun violence. Young Shane Oliver, son of Pastor Sam Saylor. Shane was a promising young man, making a living repairing and flipping cars until a sale went bad and ended with Shane bleeding out in the street in his mother Janet’s arms. Sam became bitter. He’d buried other young men, but this was different. Janet went to a dark place. The couple came to Chris’s attention when Janet fought with a family member of the shooter during his arraignment.

And so began a journey of learning why so many mostly young men were dying on our nation’s streets, and what was behind mass shootings. It was a journey that took him into the roots of violence within us, into the biology of human violence, from brain structures to opposable thumbs, and why some particularly have a propensity for violence.

While violence is a human condition, the incidence of gun violence in the U.S. sets us apart from the world. Murphy looked both at mass shootings that continued to capture the headlines and empty nostrums of “thoughts and prayers” and the violence we ignore–the violence in our cities. He brings to light the more hidden violence of suicide, in which attempts end with death at far greater frequencies than by any other means. Sadly, the life that many guns are most likely to take are the lives of their owners, especially men in rural areas and others who are isolated.

He uncovers the fatal alignment of the arms industry and the National Rifle Association. He describes the resistance to common sense measures like universal background checks, extended to gun shows, that would make guns available to legitimate gun enthusiasts and others who have a legitimate need for them, while keeping it out of the hands of many who would do harm to self or others. He also tells the story of growing groups of mothers, of youth, and even some gun shops whose sales were used to terrible ends. He shows the interesting connection between reducing gun violence and criminal justice reform and other systemic interventions including President Bush’s PEPFAR program in Africa that not only reduced AIDS mortality rates, but also gun violence,

He ends with an account of his filibuster effort, a rarely used and seldom effective measure, to bring a background check bill to a vote. His effort failed, but he left his hearers and the readers a story of someone at Sandy Hook who found something different than violence within–something he believes we all need to find to reduce this terrible scourge.

Murphy offers a moving narrative. Although he upholds the right to own guns, I don’t think he will convince the hard core that he isn’t after their guns. I don’t think all the stories, statistics, reasons and proposals will do that. The question is whether it will encourage hope and action with many who have stayed out of the fray. Will it persuade those in the middle, who are tired of the polarities that a both/and solution is possible–one that keeps guns out of the hands of many who would use them for lethal purposes while allowing law abiding citizens to own them. I also wonder if Murphy and his like will have the staying power of a Wilberforce to pursue this effort even if it takes a life time. I think that is what it will take.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Having it Both Ways

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Photo by kathryn “Eating cake” (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Perhaps it doesn’t puzzle me that we don’t like to talk about this. Remember when you were a kid and someone said, “you can’t eat your cake and have it too.” That almost seemed to be a dare to try to do both. Usually, this ended with you full of cake and wanting more and frustrated that your share is gone. Sometimes you end up filching someone else’s cake. And making yourself sick. And so the spiral goes.

So perhaps I don’t wonder why there isn’t more of a conversation about our highly sexualized and violent culture when we rail against sexual assault, threatening atmospheres, and gun violence. We really like our sex and our violence. Except when we don’t. Except when it hurts us or someone we love.

This is not an argument that those who are victims of these acts ever in the least deserve it. And I applaud those who have had the courage to say #MeToo, to testify against sexual offenders, to press for better work environments, and reasonable measures to keep guns out of the hands of those who would do harm.

But I wonder if we will make real progress as long as we celebrate a culture of “friends with benefits,” casual hookups, marketing that makes both women and men consciously obsessed with the appearance of their bodies? Will we make any progress until we understand how the use of pornography re-wires the brain, and undermines real relationships?

Will we make any progress as long as television and movies give us the vicarious thrill of the kill multiple times in an evening, even if most of us never go beyond that point? And how do violent video games rewire the brain? Nearly all the best selling video games, sold in large measure to young men, major in violence. I won’t make the argument that these videos cause violence, but I can’t help but believe that they are an ingredient in the toxic stew of our violent culture.

I suspect that steamy and casual sex is easier to write than a restrained relationship where love grows and deepens to real intimacy. I imagine that violence rivets the attention much more easily than non-violent means of seeking justice and resolving conflict. It’s faster, easier.

And I can’t help but wonder if it fosters the notion that it may be faster and easier in real life.

It also wouldn’t surprise me that some would label me hopelessly naive or prudish or an anachronism. Fair enough. But I would ask in reply, how do you explain why more young people have died of gun violence than in our overseas conflicts in recent years? How do you explain the pervasiveness of the revelations of sexual misconduct of all forms (yes, some may that more people feel empowered to speak out about it)? Why do universities wring their hands about campus sexual assault, much of it by acquaintances, and struggle to find ways to overcome “the walk of shame”?

There is an old saying that if you sow the wind, you will reap the whirlwind. I’d propose that when it comes to both sexuality and violence, two very potent forces, we cannot sow to the wind and reap a peaceful summer day at the beach. We want to, and often our media in its various forms prospers on our belief that we can have it both ways.

But I find myself wondering if we can…

 

It Could Have Been Any of Us

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It could have been any of us. A son. A daughter. Ourselves. The killings took place in a night club frequented by LGBTQ persons. But it could equally be a military base, an elementary school, a coffee shop, a shopping mall, or a church. I know one young man who went to the Pulse when living in Orlando. I actually checked his Facebook page to see that he was safe, in case he was back visiting friends.

I’ve had several reactions as I’ve heard the news stories. Mostly there is incredible sadness for these young adults whose lives were brutally and efficiently cut short. I work with collegians around this age, people in the midst of sorting out life, purpose, vocation, sexuality and so much more. I grieve that 49 of them will never get the chance and pray that those wounded, some seriously, will. I grieve for families who lost those they love so suddenly and irrevocably.

I’m also angry. No matter our views on sexuality, I would hope we can stand together and say this kind of violence, or any form violence against LGBTQ people can never be justified, any more than can the violence against the Charleston Nine or the children at Sandy Hook. It disturbs me that there are those in our country who can’t seem to see this, just as it disturbs me that there is a sub-culture that tolerates or even glorifies male sexual violence against women.

While I don’t want to ban all guns (and I really mean that!), I’m deeply troubled that we protect the sales of assault weapons whose only purpose is to efficiently kill many people. The killer legally obtained his weapon. I cannot see any justification for a private citizen to own such a weapon and I wonder if those who buy them stop and think about the moral bridge they have crossed. It would be a start to make such weapons illegal and compensate those who obtained their weapons legally. I wonder about a country where we cannot have a rational discussion of this idea. Some cite apocalyptic scenarios. All I can say is that Big Brother always has bigger and better weapons.

I do think we need to take the measure of ISIS. That doesn’t mean to fear them but to understand them, and how they differ from other Muslims in their assertion that they are a caliphate, the true and only successors to Muhammad, and justified in the use of violence against all infidels, including other Muslims. We need to understand the use of digital media to spread ideas that radicalize young people around the world. And the world community must go beyond understanding to concerted resistance, naming this for the evil that it is. This group won’t go away by trying to “make nice” with them. I also realize that while some will be called to resist them with the gun, for others, theirs will be the resistance of the cross, possibly ending in martyrdom. In the end, I wonder which of these will triumph.

Should we also grieve for the young man who perpetrated this act? It seems so many of these incidents involve young men, whether it is mass violence, or the mayhem on the streets of our cities. I wonder about a society where so many young men resort to violence, whether video, sexual, or armed. Why do so many feel the need to assert their manhood in these terms?

Those are my rambling thoughts, expressions of the lament of my heart that cries yet again, “how long?”