Newtown, CT, and the Gun Conversation
Fighting off an early winter cold hasn’t given me much energy or desire to write. I had intended my first new post to focus on the wedding of our friends Tony and Joe, but that will have to wait, given the heartbreaking and haunting ordeal that took place yesterday in Connecticut. I’ve only had a couple experiences with gun violence in my life, certainly not enough to qualify me as an expert on either mass shootings or gun laws. Looking back on the vivid accounts of yesterday’s tragedy, I think that I could take any number of directions in writing this piece today. It seems only proper though to start with my own lived experiences, which although limited, at least speak to what I know, and what I imagine might be the perspectives of those living through yet another apparently senseless and surreal set of circumstances.
When I was maybe four or five years old, my parents took us (my two older sisters and I) on a walk through a stretch of woods owned by my grandfather. It was the site of the family’s old hunting camp, a rotting old structure tucked away on 40 or so acres of woods in rural northern Michigan. I think it was mid-fall, although I don’t remember much more than sunny conditions, mild temperatures, and stomping through leaves on the ground. I do remember that there was good visibility through the trees though, because some people in a gold Jeep started shooting at us from the road, through the trees. I remember going to the ground and being held there, probably by my sisters. After the gunfire persisted for a few minutes, my father jumped up and started yelling that he had his family with him. As he ran toward the road, the jeep sped off. Keeping close to each other, we hiked quickly up to my uncle’s nearby farm to safety. Although we crossed open pastures to get there, I remember how my sisters and I kept looking around, backwards and sideways to make sure that the shooters hadn’t circled back to ambush us. I don’t think my parents ever figured out who these people were or their motives. It may have been poachers, mistaking any movement for deer. Or, it may have been people playing a cruel prank to scare us.
Despite the fact that multiple people in my family—my father, uncles, aunts, and cousins—all routinely took time for deer hunting, I never had an interest in owning a real gun. Almost twenty years later when I was a college hippie queer radical, I would take weekends to visit and weld sculptures with my mentor, a clinical social worker and minister living in a rural mid-Michigan township, right in the heart of deeply conservative citizen militia country. To some degree, the presence of guns in homes, church, and the local café was just more or less accepted. On a trip to the diner one evening, we ran into an older man I would later learn was the second highest-ranking official in one of these militias. Upon meeting me, seeing my long hair, and learning where I lived (the state capital), he commented, “There’s gonna be hunting season down your way soon.” We didn’t have much to really say to each other—my particular radicalism and critiques of American government weren’t really compatible with his. In fact, I saw enough of his worldview to know that if “hunting season” really did come to my city, I’d probably be wearing a big, pink target in this man’s eyes. After eating, we went home where my mentor cleaned his pistol and I welded a new sculpture– a compact, sturdy column of stainless steel strips I ended up calling, “The Shaft.”
The limited news from Connecticut indicates that this new shooter was a “nerd” type who had a mental illness diagnosis of some kind. Having lived the life of a too-clever social outcast at various points in my youth, I can relate to how lonely and difficult that experience can be. And, although mental health hasn’t been my focus in social work, in my personal life I have witnessed psychotic breaks before. It’s a surreal experience to see a person you know and love, responding to some kind of stimuli that isn’t apparent to anyone else in the room. People wonder how this twenty-year old kid could shoot a roomful of elementary school students. I wonder what he was seeing and hearing that led him to feel like the only thing he could do was arm himself, pull the trigger, and keep firing. I wonder because when I was a child and people shot at my family, my dad’s instinct was to run toward the shooters, arms flailing and screaming for his family. When I was a young man and a grizzled militiaman measured me up and pronounced me “bait,” my impulse was to withdraw and make something cold, steel, and comforting but not lethal in my hands. I cannot imagine what it feels like to pull a trigger, knowing that it would in fact annihilate. But, I can relate to feeling powerless, frightened, and isolated, a set of primal emotions that I suspect were shared in various ways and stages by the victims, the heroic teachers and responders, and the shooter.
There’s a difficult conversation brewing around guns, violence, and the proper approach for regulating society’s interactions with these weapons. At any point this is a challenge for our severely polarized communities, but with the enormous grief so many are carrying right now, I can’t imagine it will take long for rage and mutual recriminations to surface. In a way, I see guns as tools of proxy in that generally, they enable human beings to exert our power toward others (human or otherwise) from a somewhat removed position. A gun is a less intimate tool for resolving conflict than say a knife or one’s own hands. It’s been argued by some that the solution to preventing gun violence is having more guns, and more weapons-trained gun users in the community. I’ve heard mentors and other close family members say that regardless of whether they have to use it, just possessing a gun reassures them that they can defend themselves from intrusions or incursions. The question I still have, the question I struggle to get, is this: When someone is convinced that the absolutely correct decision is to pull the trigger, what do they perceive around them? What do they see, hear, and feel that convinces them that shooting is the most “right” thing to do? And, to what degree did they feel like they had the power to choose any other alternative?
Whereas for me the impulse and resolve to fire a weapon at someone is relatively alien and unsettling, ultimately I do think the gun law debates that are about to erupt will serve as proxies for a larger and more unwieldy conversation that needs to happen around power, self-determination, and shared wellbeing. If we cannot agree on the propriety of regulating firearms, can we at least reach a consensus on certain events being preventable tragedies? Where said events are in fact preventable and certain safeguards can be established and reinforced (either by authorities or a committed citizenry), to what extent can we at least agree to these contingencies?