I was watching a conversation this past November between Bill Kristol (founder of The Weekly Standard) and Jonah Goldberg (of The National Review). They were discussing conservatism in the age of Trump. The interview came out on November 5. Goldberg was lamenting the present acrimonious climate of political discourse in our nation and he described how “one of the most repugnant things” is the way in which adherents to political sides wait with baited breath after mass shootings to find out whether it fits their particular partisan agenda in order to to utilize the tragedy as political fodder.
He prefaced his comment in an way that disheartened me, and you’ll see why in a second. He said,
One of the most repugnant things. . . Hopefully when this airs there won’t have been a recent mass-shooting, because it will seem like I’m talking about it—but there hasn’t. The most recent one was a few weeks ago in Las Vegas. . .
I was struck for one reason, shaken for another. I was struck by the fact that Goldberg took for granted that there would likely have been another mass-shooting in the days following his interview—this spoke volumes! But I was shaken because, as I mentioned, the interview was released on November 5, and, on that same day, a man clad all in black entered a rural church in Sunderland Spring, TX and gunned down 26 churchgoers with a modified AR-15. Parents were killed, children were killed, families were utterly and irreparably decimated.
“Hopefully when this airs there won’t have been a recent mass-shooting.” Because why? “Because it will seem like I’m talking about it.” Ok. Well you were inadvertently talking about it, because of its known inevitability. As fate would have it, Goldberg was subject to his own criticism. He didn’t hope against another mass-shooting because of the enormity of its senseless loss, but mostly because it would upend his own rhetorical task of moral valuation.
I have no interest in castigating Goldberg. He was right. It was just so disturbing that he couldn’t assume enough temporal relief from this epidemic in order to abstractly discuss it. As Goldberg was verbalizing his hopes for reprieve from the inevitable next mass-shooting, a disturbed young man in southern Texas was readying his too-easily-gotten arsenal—likely loading his ammunition. We mustn’t be abashed for “talking about it”, but “it” is not the next mass-shooting. This is a symptom. The “it” in question is the sad, outlandish place we allow for guns in our nation.
The ultimate tragedy is patently not that many co-opt these bloodbaths into morbid partisan point-scoring. The tragedy is the human toll itself—that lives are lost and that families and communities are disfigured by our national reluctance to deal with our very real problem with guns. Maybe this cheapening of life is the actual tragedy. I think it is.
Mass-shootings aren’t the half of it. Yes, they are horrific attention-getters, as is always the intention of their perpetrators. No, mass-shootings, however senseless and disturbing, are not the half of it. They are blaring fractionalities punctuating our ongoing national obliteration:
No matter who you are, if you—for any purpose—desire a gun, one is easily obtained.
And let us be very clear on this: the intended use of a gun is killing. Unlike many other things that kill, guns are made for it. This truth is irreducible from the discussion.
The statistics are alarming. There are 393,000,000 firearms adrift in our nation. That means more than 1 for every single person inhabiting the US. My family’s allotment is 0/5. How about yours? Even if it is one-or-more-for-whaterver, know that this “whatever” is just an unknown menace; multiple guns available for whomever and whatever. Incidentally, even our own allotments themselves constitute a menace more unknown in nature than we might admit. Yet these whomevers and whatevers do not themselves remain unknown. Not remotely.
I’m recalling, with newfound awareness, events from my junior year in high school.
In the fall of 1992, I was returning home from a student council service event. We rounded a turn onto my block and saw a firetruck, ambulance and police cruiser all parked outside a house on the corner; emergency lights oscillating; casting their zig-zagging blues and reds up-and-down the homes on the street. We wondered about the meaning. Later that night, we learned the sad news. The popular kid down the block—the athlete with the cute girlfriend who rode my school bus—had shot himself. He was gone. A gun had blasted a cavernous hole in a real family.
I recall crying on the way home from the funeral; grieved that we’d not become closer friends. We did, after all, live only 4 houses apart. But, beneath this, I was crying for another reason: the startling abruptness with which we were deprived of this possibility.
Several of us went by a couple days later to express our condolences. Almost nothing could be said. A life was lost; the life of a hurting 16 year-old boy. That he was hurting in unperceived ways was very sad. Most of us are. But that there was an object at his disposal offering his sorrow a deadly departure—this was the senseless part.
Each year roughly 20,000 such hurting people employ the lethal finality of a gun to end their own lives. More deadly by far than other methods like drowning, jumping or asphyxiation, guns do their work over 80% of the time. They are chillingly efficient. They were made to be. The collaterals of loss are unthinkable. We most certainly have an issue in our country of mental health and human pain, but, in 20,000 cases each year there is no meaningful intervention nor opportunity for healing—a gun makes certain of this.
Suicide is a term of clinical and statistical sterility, but, in every case, we are talking about real sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, friends and neighbors clawed-under by shame and anger and hopelessness and isolation, who place a piece of equipment into their mouth or up against their temple or to their chest and squeeze until a metal object erupts from a chamber and rips away their life. Can this ever be measured by statistics?
It was nearly lunch time at our high school that spring when the announcement came over the PA system. We would not be permitted to leave school grounds for lunch. What was the explanation? We would find out by day’s end.
A high school classmate had been in an altercation with a retiree during his commute to school. This man had brandished a handgun, then shot my classmate dead; right there on the side of the interstate. He was later acquitted, claiming the firearm had discharged inadvertently. Nevertheless, another 16 year-old’s life had been extinguished. This time because a volatile, erratic and paranoid man had taken to keeping a gun beneath the driver-side seat of his car. His sister was a sophomore at our school. This wrenched her life violently and visibly from that day on; it was plain to see.
Nearly 8,000 gun-homicides are committed in our nation each year. The back-stories are as numerous as one can imagine, yet the results are the same. Yes we have societal issues with abject poverty and drugs and gangs and crimes and domestic abuse. These need full-orbed addressing. But, in 8,000 cases every year, these issues culminate in a sudden termination of life or lives. Guns ensure this.
That same year of high school, our women’s soccer team made a run to the state championship, where they were victorious. It was a great game; the final score 2-1. As our fans swarmed the field I recalled watching the disappointed fans and family from the opposing school gather to their disheartened team and file out; their opportunity for notoriety had slipped away. That was 1993. Nearly 6 years later to the day, this school would gain horrendous notoriety, becoming definitive of an entire generation. The school was Columbine—Generation Columbine, growing up in a society where mass-shootings are a given.
Human plight manifests itself in sorrowful spectrum. Humans respond to their plight in an equal plurality of ways; some restorative but many destructive. It is usually a mixture. We might grieve and activate and confront these ills in many compassionate and creative ways, but could it ever really be responsible to permit the inevitability of these human ills to be so horribly compounded by refusing to confront the fact that killing devices are eddying around in this distressing human churn? Guns are this ingredient—this grim additive—that would divert maladies of every kind into their most woeful terminus. In this way, guns occupy an almost demonic presence in our national story, do they not?
The Scriptures describe a spiritual realm infested by malicious agents. Jesus categorized their activities under the headings of “steal, kill and destroy.” During his time on earth, he routinely encountered those possessed in various ways by these life-destroying beings. A father once said of his demon-afflicted son, “It has often thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him.”
A gun is an object of sinister, destructive potency, and not only because of its lethal capabilities. Guns hold a more profound and more destructive power: as with all powerful things, those who possess them often find themselves possessed by them. Their killing power exerts itself into the human psyche; opening dark portals into previously unconsidered realms; awakening our most catastrophic instincts; magnetizing people toward death.
In this way, guns must be understood as nefarious, invasive spirits—possessing their possessors. But this is not only true of individuals; it is true of our society. How else can we explain our national inertia toward eradicating this problem? We are under their power and authority, and we have lost our autonomous will. They have made of us semi-automatic beings.
Now lets just get this out of the way. Our nation ostensibly deems bearing arms a right. It is written in our Constitution—actually the Second Amendment:
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
Obviously the intent of this amendment has been contested in many ways over the last century; not least because firearms have become exponentially more deadly and exponentially more available than the framers could have ever imagined. Nevertheless, rights only ever derive their value when coupled with responsibility. The fatalism surrounding an appeal to “rights” seems little more than a case of national passivity; a troubling not-my-problem-ism that strikes me as cavernously beneath our supposed deterministic American spirit. Not to mention that we’re allowed to change these rules when we come to see them as foolish, unjust or anachronistic, right? We’ve done so 27 times: abolishing slavery, forbidding cruel and unusual punishment, granting suffrage to women. We even nationally outlawed alcohol for 14 years for the love!—deep breath—and in 1933 we repealed prohibition in a reverse of the 18th. Of course bearing arms was never original either. In 1791 the Constitution was amended to include it.
Mightn’t we amend our great document once again to reflect a more responsible, humane version of our future?
“In order to form a more perfect union”?
Do our narratives regarding the justifications or intents really make a shred of sense? Are militias keeping our own government in check? Do we see ourselves banding together to fight foreign powers overmatching our national military-industrial complex? Have we seen Red Dawn too many times? (For a blunt hammering-apart of the “militia” rationale of guns toward internal or external threats, read this unfortunately-titled piece.)
I’ve no doubt that many individuals maintain their firearms in responsible ways. I know many such gun-owners. But we’re not talking about individuals—not entirely. We’re talking about a society whose relationship to guns has become dysfunctionally deathly. Actually it’s been so for quite a long time; bobbing above 8,000/20,000 levels for an entire generation. If percentages hold true, while you’ve been reading this another life has been taken by another gun. A bullet has just made contact with something vital, a body has collapsed to the ground, a pool of blood is forming—it is a gruesome, otherworldly scene. In minutes or hours, grandmas and friends and parents and neighbors and siblings and spouses and children and churches and communities will learn the news. Even now—yes now—a gun is doing its purposed work; the work for which it was brought into existence.
Can the solution really be, as some suggest, more guns? So the argument goes: “If only there were more armed do-gooders milling about our communities—albeit, lethal, cold-blooded do-gooders—we might…” What? Win the happenstance lottery and decrease the number of people slaughtered in a handful of mass-shootings by half? From 26 to 13, from 50 to 25—here and there? On occasion, this does take place. However, it is typically after the damage has been done (as in Sunderland). More often than not, it is the mass-shooter’s own gun ending the carnage. In one of the most infamous mass shootings in US history, Austin, TX area residents opened fire on a mass shooter in the campus tower for the better part of an hour (nearly killing law-enforment officials). He killed 14 people and wounded several others during his 90-minute spree.
The myth of the vigilante citizen solution is just that, a myth; especially when you consider that keeping a gun in the home increases the likelihood of in-home suicide, acts of violence by or accidental death by untold multiples. For every death they purport to prevent, they cause many others. That’s what happens when you allow a demon to infest your home.
What responsibility do we have toward one another in a society like ours?
At the turn of the millennia, we were distressed to find people employing airplanes as weapons. Four planes took nearly 3,000 lives during one horrific day. Whole government agencies and job segments sprang up to forestall another such tragedy. Americans of all varieties willingly accepted the concomitant inconvenience and decreased quality of an aspect of our day-to-day lives.
In December of 2012, a 20 year-old Connecticut man killed his own mother, then drove to a local elementary school and killed 20 children (6 and 7 year-olds) along with 7 school staff, before turning the gun on himself. Our national non-response ought to make us hang our heads. What a lie to pretend as though nothing can be done. Every other developed nation in this world shames and rebukes us in this matter. Despite all the patriotic bravado surrounding lax gun laws, it signals an unparalleled spinelessness.
Was it radicalization on the one hand, and mental health on the other? Either way, on the one hand we determined to disarm the threat, but on the other we shrugged; “These things happen.” We’re talking about ten September 11ths every year. Could maybe 3 or 4 or more be averted? We’ve been loath to find out.
Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck wrote a fascinating volume on evil called People of the Lie. (He adapts his theme from Jesus’ description of the Devil as “the father of lies”). In it he tells the tale of a patient, whom he calls “Bobby,” brought to him suffering from depression. Peck meets this 15 year-old in an unresponsive, nearly catatonic emotional state. He learns that Bobby has been suffering terribly since the gun-suicide of his older brother. During his initial consultation, Peck discovers to his dismay that Bobby’s parents had, in turn, given him a gun for Christmas. Peck is stunned, but, in his efforts to clarify, an even more stupifying fact is revealed. Not only had they given him a gun, but they gave him the exact gun his brother had used to take his own life!
Peck confronts the parents on their unconscionable choice of gift,
“I should think,” I said slowly, “that since your only other child has killed himself with a gun that you wouldn’t feel too kindly toward guns.”
“You’re one of these antigun people, are you?” the father asked me, faintly belligerent again. “Well , that’s all right. You can be that way. I’m no gun nut myself, but it does seem to me that guns aren’t the problem; it’s the people who use them.”
The oddness of their sentiment cannot be overstated. They were people of the lie; a lie at the root of evil; a lie at the root of death. In this particular case, the lie was a shuddering refusal to accept the evil of such a gross negligence; a perverse denial toward the malignant message transmitted by such a “gift.” Peck begins orchestrating a temporary removal from the home. To him this episode was plainly indicative of something deeply troubling and wrong. I can’t help but see this home as micro-cosmic of our own society; a society where deadly weapons are our heirlooms.
Aren’t our lives marbled through with relationships with those who’ve emerged from the darkest of nights? Don’t we all know people who’ve been offered the chance to overcome their demons, and have become treasured members of our world? Aren’t these among the greatest of our national assets? People who can teach us the way out from the tombs of sorrow, anger and malice? Guns not only rob us of human lives, but they often deprive us of those very people who might be our best guides out from the swamps of violence and destruction.
Of course our lives are also marbled through with the human voids left by guns, and the reeling lives strewn in their excruciating wake.
Peck concludes his account of Bobby’s case with a perceptive note:
Whenever a child is brought for psychiatric treatment, it is customary to refer to her or him as the “identified patient.” . . . The reason we use the term is that we have learned to become skeptical of the validity of this identification process.
More often than not, as we proceed with the evaluation of the problem, we discover that the source of the problem lies not in the child but rather in his or her parents, family, school, or society.
One might ask whether it isn’t our societal sanity that ought to be held in question. Decade after decade we wring hands over the havoc guns wreak, still each generation is presented with them as a sick gift. What does this bespeak of our national mental state?
Therapists often remark that children are wonderful observers but terrible interpreters. This is, in part, the explanation of Bobby’s depression—a subconscious emotional symptom of his parent’s radioactive obliviousness. His depression was symptomatic of the sickness of his home. Still, at present, it is the youth of our country speaking with the most prophetic clarity; to use their colloquialism, “calling BS.” Interpretation: “this is insane.”
A mysterious component of the Scriptural narrative is the conflation of the demonic with mental and physical health. Jesus often ascribed disease and insanity to the activities of evil spirits. In the case above, the one where the father pleads on behalf of his son, Jesus’ followers simply couldn’t cast the demon out. The father was frantic, and Jesus proceeded to exercise it. His disciples were perplexed, and he explained, “This kind only comes out through prayer.”
This was an anomaly to them. In the majority of cases, the disciples had been shown to address the demon directly and with force of authority.
How might the American gun-demon be exercised? By thoughts and prayers? Or does this kind only come out by corporate soul-searching and corporate resolve? A willingness to reclaim our human agency back from their dark mastery?
The Apostle Paul once wrote,
Everything is permissible to me, but not everything is beneficial.
Everything is permissible to me, but I will be mastered by nothing.
Guns may be permissible, but how to understand their costs and benefits? They may be permissible, but how to justify our tolerance of their deadly mastery over us?
There are strange, evasive fallacies involved in this conversation, aren’t there? Binary language that obstructs meaningful, imaginative solution-finding, convolutions of language that mire us in inert homeostasis. Let’s be honest, it’s all a charade. Smart and brave people don’t content themselves with such cheap and easy excuse-making.
None of this stems from my naiveté about the brute and brutal political and economic complexities involved. Our nation finds itself in a devolving state in both spheres at present. There is money and power and political-favoring all shackling this issue in place. But where do you stand? Where should we stand? On the side of ambivalent fatalism? Dismissive finger-pointing? Calloused entrenchment?
We’re not talking about taking everybody’s guns away! But are we not imaginative enough to envision and realize an America where guns are consigned to a proper place—to confine their evil back into Pandora’s box? Can we not work toward a society where guns are hard to get? Where high-discharge guns and high-capacity magazines are gradually dredged away? Where no one even knows what a “bump stock” is? Is there an America where hunters can still hunt, gun enthusiasts can still own and shoot, but where the slaughter relents? Of all of what America isn’t, cynicism and pessimism must certainly be her at her worst.
Would we remain deluded—insane?
In her book on the soul of leadership, Ruth Haley Barton recounts an evocative story of an interaction that took place at a Monastery in Colorado between a monk and a would-be-monk:
I saw a monk working alone in the vegetable garden. I squatted down beside him and said, “Brother, what is your dream?” He just looked straight at me. What a beautiful face he had.
“I would like to become a monk,” he answered.
“But brother, you are a monk, aren’t you?”
“I’ve been here for 25 years, but I still carry a gun.” He drew a revolver from the holster under his robe. It looked so strange, a monk carrying a gun.
“And they won’t—are you saying they won’t let you become a monk until you give up your gun?”
“No, it’s not that. Most of them don’t even know I have it, but I know.”
“Well then, why don’t you give it up?”
“I guess I’ve had it so long. I’ve been hurt a lot, and I’ve hurt a lot of others. I don’t think I would be comfortable without this gun.”
“But you seem pretty uncomfortable with it.”
“Yes, pretty uncomfortable, but I have my dream.”
“Why don’t you give me the gun?” I whispered. I was beginning to tremble.
He did, he gave it to me. His tears ran down to the ground and then he embraced me.
Barton draws from this story an analogical lesson, but, in the case our nation, the object is literally a gun. The question is the same, “What is your dream?” Don’t we know guns to be at fierce odds with what our nation perceives itself to be; life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness? Haven’t cycles of fear and hurt, pain and self-preservation persisted too long already? Could we finally confront the destructiveness of our long captivity to them, and become a better, more admirable version of ourselves? It will mean an excruciating confrontation with the power they hold. It might mean tears, but of a more cathartic nature.
During one point of his life, Jesus had an fearsome encounter with a man infested by a host of demons. Mark wrote of this,
This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain.For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.
The man was in a terrible and terrifying state. Jesus inquired, “What is your name?” The reply to which was, “My name is legion, for we are many.” Jesus cast them into a herd of pigs, which promptly ran down to their watery death in a lake. (There was a financial cost.) The local townspeople heard the report, and rushed out. We’re told they found the man, “sitting there, dressed and in his right mind.”
What a compelling image. One previously crazed and isolated by innumerable evil spirits—harming self and terrorizing others—found “in his right mind”; human again. A hopeful parallel image to set against the gun-pandemonium of our own society.
Away with misgivings that our talking might appear political or morbidly opportunistic. This moment is bigger than politics, and we know it. So too away with shrinking pessimism. We must keep speaking about it and speaking to it; addressing it directly with the force of moral authority. More than that; our addressing of it must consist of insisting, persisting, persuading, voting and spending until the demon is cast out. For it is obvious that this kind will respond to nothing less.