There’s a Beatles Song entitled “Happiness is a Warm Gun” which brilliantly equates Guns with sex and the endorphin thrill it creates. I know everyone is sick and tired of this topic. My mother told me tonight that I was ranting about guns on Facebook and that’s why people were dropping me. Perhaps. She added that other family members were also doing it. So hopefully, you won’t mind if I continue to discuss it — and I hope this does not come across as a rant.
Midweek, I listened to a teacher friend of mine, who taught high school English in New York City, burst into tears as she related her feelings regarding the latest massacre. Keep in mind this was one of eighteen school shootings that had occurred in 2018 alone. Since Columbine, there have been approximately 50 school shootings with 141 dead. I don’t know if you remember Columbine? I do. I remember it because it happened in Colorado — not far from various college friends houses, and I’d gone to school in Colorado Springs. Also because the show I was addicted to at the time, pulled an episode that dealt with a student who got depressed and decided to kill the students at his school. The heroine had been plagued with telepathy for that episode and was hearing his depressive thoughts but could not figure out who it was. At the end of the episode, she finds him and she states the following: “My life happens on occasion to suck beyond the telling of it. Sometimes more than I can handle. And it’s not just mine. Every single person down there is ignoring your pain because they’re too busy with their own. The beautiful ones. The popular ones. The guys that pick on you. Everyone. If you could hear what they were feeling. The loneliness. The confusion. It looks quiet down there. It’s not. It’s deafening.”
I wish they hadn’t panicked and shown the episode, instead they waited six months later for fear of pushing folks buttons. Because the episode shows that the kid, the shooter isn’t the villain. He’s created by us. Isolated and alone, he goes a bit crazy with his social awkwardness, and due to our societal view, propelled by media, that guns solve problems, picks up his Dad’s gun. The episode was entitled “Earshot” and it’s from the 1990s-2003 series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the title is a bit of a joke lost on many viewers at the time. At various points, the heroine states, “Guns, never useful.” The writer, Joss Whedon, studied Westerns and violence in Westerns and action films, Buffy in many ways is his personal commentary on the films and culture that he studied.
Anyhow, going back to the beginning of this blog post, this teacher’s tears tore at my heart and I felt myself become angry and defensive at what she said at the very end. “It tears at my heart, this boy who killed these kids, and the kids that he killed – this lost soul, so similar to so many of the children I’ve taught. And it is our fault. All our faults. We’ve sat and watched this happen and done nothing. The fact that this boy was expelled, suspended, and in his rage turned to a gun — due to his ROTC and White Supremacy training, due to a culture that worships guns. We let this happen, every single one of us.”
Not me! I protested. I didn’t do this. I am not at fault. But, I started to wonder, am I? Are we?
As a child I used to watch Westerns, and played with guns. My mother’s toy cap-gun was given to my brother one year for Christmas. I think I played with it more than he did. She certainly played with it. It’s odd but my brother and I learned to despise guns from my father not my mother – whose own father and various relatives owned rifles to hunt. Her father and brother-in-law both had a handgun in their RV’s to protect themselves. My grandfather, for the record, was robbed a couple of times, and his gun never came in handy — since he was not home either time. And he only used his rifle to shoot pheasant. One of my uncles, or mother’s brother-in-laws, shoots squirrels and raccoons with great pride in his backyard, he has over eleven acres, so no fear of any innocent neighbors being shot. My mother came from rural Missouri, and her Dad owned a farm. They had guns to protect themselves and fight off predators. They were raised with this mindset, many people are. But my Dad, whose family hailed from a more urban environment and who had a gun in the service, an AR-15, hates guns. Despise them. He was a history major in school and wrote his thesis on the Philadelphia race riots in the 1800s. He discouraged our use of them, even the toy variety and it is through him that I learned not to like guns. My father does not see them as an engineering marvel or security or freedom. He saw them as a means to hurt others. But he also taught me to make up my own mind, so I can’t say that my father really convinced me one way or the other.
I learned through other sources, such as the Western. Which, I know is an odd source to learn from — but watching cinematic violence can teach you a lot as can books. I don’t know if anyone has seen or studied the great Sergio Leone Westerns or Sam Peckinpah, but both did slow motion violence, showing in graphic detail what guns do to the human body. Their movies are hard to watch because the violence is guttural not like most action flicks. You feel it. And the people don’t survive. You can learn a lot from studying the Western genre, and what it says about American culture. For years, the American Western romanticized the gun, but along came the 1960s, and with it the Vietnam War, where for the first time war fare was televised and people saw real children, real women and men being killed daily on the national news. In reaction, filmmakers like Peckinpah and Sergio Leone along with Francis Ford Coppola, began to comment on the violence in different ways. Prior to that, in the 50s, when my mother was growing up, there were television serials entitled “Have Gun, Will Travel” or movies featuring gunfighters as the ultimate hero. Few movies depicted a different vision. Even in the late 1970s, when Star Wars jumped onto the big screens, it featured gun battles between the characters, and the hero or the favorite was Han Solo, who carried a blaster and was always firing at something. He was a cool, rogue hero, with a shoulder holster, a gunslinger right out of the old west and we adored him. Movies and television in many ways romanticized gun violence much as they romanticized the criminals who used them, everyone from Billy the Kid, to Jesse James, to Al Capone to well Han Solo. America had a love affair with the gun and was proud of the guns it had created, such as the Winchester Rifle.
Skip ahead a few years, it’s the 1980s, I’m at Colorado College at the American Folklore House and I have a very interesting conversation with an army guy serving at a nearby fort who is dating a fellow housemate. The guy brings me his gun. He has me hold it. Shows it to me. It’s still warm. They’ve just gotten back from target shooting. They explain the adrenaline rush, the high from shooting things. And he explains to me that guns are harmless really — he used to shoot them in high school off the back of a truck in Western Kansas, at cows. Not much different than tipping cows, I suspect. They’d get drunk, no one was around and they’d shoot at things. It was, he told me harmless. I was fascinated and horrified at the same time. I remember thinking little of it, afterwards. This man was in the army, he’d gone through boot camp and he saw guns as cool as did all his army buddies. This was in 1987.
In the 1990s, I went to law school and worked in the Kansas Defender Project for a summer. Two-three months total. It entailed visiting clients in Leavenworth Penitentiary on weekly basis.. I will never forget that summer. One client was a professional hit man who worked for a drug cartel. He was in prison for killing twenty people for the cartel. There were heroine lines up and down his arms. His eyes were yellow. He got his gun legally. While he resided in New York, he’d gotten the gun in the Carolina’s and killed people down south. He had no remorse. He did not care that he killed these people. He just felt he had not been represented fairly and was claiming ineffective defense of counsel. I got his his transcripts and I read them and analyzed them. Everyone who had a gun in this group got it legally not through the black market. They were not being tried for illegal gun possession. I want to stress that. In the 1990s and roughly up to just a few years ago, all you had to do to get a firearm in New York or elsewhere, was go to a local gun shop or even your local Walmart, and buy it. Just show ID. It was no different than buying a bottle of wine. You didn’t require anything else. To get a license? Apply. But you did not require a license to buy a firearm. It has changed in New York City since then, but not elsewhere.
The second client I had was a bank robber on felony bank robbery, basically that means that he held up a bank with a gun and people were killed. It extended his sentence. He also obtained his gun legally. He was strung out on crack cocaine at the time and a drug addict. The gun was acquired in Ohio. At this time, my brother did a conceptual art piece in which he pretended to request “arms for the homeless” which is perfectly legal. He didn’t get into any troubles with the law or the press, until he revealed that it was a performance art piece in which he was depicting how easy it was to do this. Also people actually gave him money to obtain arms for the homeless. Interestingly enough, what people were most upset about was he pretended to do it — they weren’t upset about the fact that he was requesting guns for the homeless — well they were, but that’s not what caused him to get into trouble.
Prior to this, I sat in on a trial in Olathe, Kansas while working for the Kansas Public Defender Project as a legal clerk — the man was on trial for involuntary manslaughter. He had killed a man who trespassed on his property and was claiming self-defense under a Kansas Statute that permitted you to kill anyone who trespassed. It was a painful trial, no one left it unscathed. The jury was hung, and the case dismissed.
During this period, I also did work with the Kansas and Missouri Legal Aid Society for Domestic Violence. I ran into countless cases in which women were killed by their husbands with a gun. In addition, I was friends with and spoke with a gun dealer in law school, who dealt guns for a living. We were friends. I liked him. I knew people who owned guns.
Then I moved to New York City, and on the news each night were reports of gun violence in various regions of the city. Years later, a friend told me that she moved out of her apartment because she got tired of listening to people firing guns off the rooftops. Just two years ago, the Governor of New York finally, after a lot of campaigning, managed to pass a rigorous gun control law, one of the few passed in the United States. To date gun violence has greatly decreased per capita in New York State. People are riding the subways late at night without fear. New York City has become safer than Columbia, South Carolina or Orlando, Florida as a result. It is safer than Kansas City, Missouri. I read the law, it requires various steps for registration. And prior — they gave people the opportunity to deliver their guns, no questions asked to various areas around the city.
Happiness is a Warm Gun.
John Lennon, ironically, was killed by a gun. He was at the height of his career, happily married to Yoko Ono and had not long before created the iconic song Imagine. A man, a crazed fan came up to him one day outside of his residence and shot him. JFK was killed by a sniper. Ronald Regan was shot as was his aid, Brady, who unlike Regan suffered severe brain damage and as a result fought for the Brady Bill. And when I was doing research for a novel I wrote, I discovered to my own shock and dismay, what it was like to be shot by a gun. It’s not the quick death that television and movies portray, it’s painful and long. Below is a snippet from my novel Doing Time on Planet Earth that depicts some of my research on the matter:
Caddy looked down at the gun and back at him. She shifted her stance and turned the gun back on herself. “What if I shot myself?”
He was silent. Studying her. And she wondered how long he’d been there, watching, before he spoke up. A while, she guessed. She looked down at the gun in her hands, thinking there really wasn’t anything he could do to stop her. She had the gun. And it was pointed directly at her chest.
“Not sure I’d do that if I were you.”
“Why? Don’t tell me it won’t kill me.”
“Wasn’t going to. Will kill you. But you won’t like it.” He pulled out a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, knocked one out, lit it and puffed. “Lots of things will kill you though.” He studied the cigarette in his hand. “According to some nits, this will.” He glanced back at her. “The trick is finding the most pleasant method, unless of course you happen to like pain.”
“Yep, pain. Gunshot wound to the chest, or actually gut from how you’re holding it, wicked painful. Slow too. Not instant. All your organs fall into your stomach acid and it eats away at them bit by bit. Take’s a few hours, maybe more. Some poor slobs actually make it all the way to the emergency room first, before they kick it.”
“Fine.” She lifted the gun to her head. “How about I just blow my brains out, no pain there. Instant death.”
“Well,” he tapped the center of his forehead, “you got to aim straight to get the right place, aim wrong you just give yourself chronic brain damage. You’re alive, but you ain’t happy, and worse yet, you’ve lost the ability to end things.”
She moved the gun to her mouth.
“Shoving it in your mouth won’t work either, just make a bloody mess. Knew a bloke once who did that and he just blew out the side of his jaw. Wicked miserable. Also disfigured.”
“What would you suggest then?”
“Throw the piece in the river? No? Right, then.” He strode over to her. She took a step back. “Hey, not going hurt you.” He opened his hands in a gesture she took to be surrender. “You the one with the piece, not me, eh?” She nodded and let him come close. Close enough that she could smell the musky scent of his cologne, which mingled with the leather and smoke. His eyes were dark in his face, too dark to make out the color even at this distance. Nose to nose. She shivered backing up. “Hey, no worries. Not going to molest you. Just going show you something.”
She held herself still, one of his hands hovered over her left breast, while his other gripped the gun.
“Now there are a couple of ways you could do it . You could,” he said, tugging at the gun, but she held tight to it, so all he managed was to get her hand to follow his, “hold it over your heart. Shoot twice, and bam, dead. Not instant. Packs a wallop though, feels a bit like someone punching you hard in the breast, hard enough you’d feel as if you’d fallen into that wooden planking below us. But not instant. Gunshots to the heart aren’t instant death – and they are wicked painful. About two, three minutes, feeling your lungs fill up with blood. Suffocating on it. Still, effective.”
The more I learn about guns and what they can do, the more horrified I become. And the more guilty I feel about my own fascination with them. I admit, I like action films, and adore noir and westerns. Like a lot of people, I enjoy a good action film, complete with explosions and shootouts. And the violence, the shoot-outs are prevalent in film and television – few, very few, don’t have them. I remember a commentary to the old science fiction television series “Farscape“, which was co-produced by the United States and Australia, and mostly filmed in Australia. In the commentary, the lead actor, Ben Browder stated that Australians looked and dealt with guns very differently than they did here. In Australia, they looked at them as a dangerous weapon and an anomaly, while in the US, it was barely noted. People, here, were just used to them. I never forgot that statement.
I keep coming back to what that teacher, my friend, who shall remain nameless, stated this week, so overcome with tears…that I found myself guilty for having none myself. She was sobbing. A complete wreck. And so was the other teacher in the room, a male teacher, one of her colleagues. And I wondered what can I do about this? Am I helpless? I told them I write, I don’t march, because I know people who love guns and they laugh at protestors and marchers. So marching to me feels …ineffective somehow. I ‘m not sure this is any more effective. But I feel I can’t stay silent any longer. I can’t in good conscience state that I support guns, or support your right to own guns, or what I think of as instant pain — just as bad if not worse than cancer. You are owning an object that results in death or deep pain to another living thing. How can I possibly respect or allow that? How can anyone? Not with what I’ve leaerned. HERE is a link to emergency room and trauma specialists experiences with gun injuries. It’s not pretty. If you love guns so much, perhaps you should spend a few hours looking at what a gunshot wounds actually do to a human body?
I dare you. I also dare you to envision what it would be like for you or someone you deeply care for, a grandchild, a child, a favorite pet, your lover, your parents, your aunts, your friends, someone dear to you, maybe even yourself to be the person who has been shot. We live in a country right now, in which people appear to have no problems with that.
I do have a problem with it.
So should you.
What are we? Helpless to end this? No.
We are not helpless. We can say no to guns. We can stop this. But we can’t do it alone. I can’t do it alone. I need your help. We have to do it together.
I can’t stay silent any longer. I’ve stayed silent for over 20 years. I thought, oh someone will stop it. Someone will pass a law. Or maybe if we arm the teachers, if we have more security, if we do this, if we do that…but it has not worked. I watched The Wire, which depicted teachers armed with guns, and it did not work. It didn’t work in Baltimore and it has not worked in New York City.
The only solution is to heavily regulate guns. To have the courage to do what other nations and countries around the world have already done, to give up our guns. To abolish the amendment that provides us with the right to bear arms once and for all.
I have stayed silent. I can’t any more. I’m sorry Mom. But I have to write about this. If you think this is ranting, so be it. If I lose social media friends, over this? I don’t care. I have to stand against the guns. I do not respect any one’s right to own guns. I can”t. I stayed silent for twenty years, I listened to gun owners for twenty years. Twenty years. That’s long enough.