The first time I fired a gun, I was on a date.
It was the fall of 2000, and we'd gone to a shooting range in Maryland. I had a relatively lady-friendly Sig Sauer; he had a Glock. Later, on a different date, he would shoot a Desert Eagle. When I tried my hand at it, the recoil was so rough that I jerked back and the protective headphones slipped from my ears.
This was the post-Brady bill world, but pre-9/11. Gun violence was a topic in the media, but the conversation was framed more around Columbine and school shootings, not the steady stream of individual gun deaths.
Fast forward to now: On June 17th, nine people were killed last week in Charleston, South Carolina. According to MSNBC, Dylan Storm Roof legally purchased a .45 caliber Glock after he turned 21. Six days later, on June 23rd, while on the House floor, Henry Reid asked, “Couldn’t we at least do this little thing to stop people who are mentally ill, people who are criminals from purchasing guns?” But the fact is that popular gun control measures would not have worked in this situation. Roof wasn’t a criminal with a record of convictions. And there does not seem to be a record of mental illness in his past.
Nine days after Roof went on a killing spree, most of the national conversation around the murders in Charleston has been focused on the Confederate flag, not handguns and access. President Obama has tried to change the narrative: At a press conference last week at the White House, he said "as a country, we have to reckon with the fact that this mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries." In a podcast interview with comedian Marc Maron that was posted June 22nd, Obama lamented "There is no other advanced nation on earth that tolerates multiple shootings on a regular basis and considers it normal." This past Monday, in a speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, he said:" You don't see murder on this kind of scale, with this kind of frequency, in any other advanced nation on earth […] not every country is awash in easily accessible guns." Two days later, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker ended the 48-hour waiting period for handgun purchases in his state.
Politicians like Walker and other Americans seem stubbornly opposed to discussing any kind of gun restrictions. But why? It isn’t as if we are lacking in opportunities. So far, 2015 has seen 158 mass shootings, defined as four or more people being shot. In 2013, there was a mass shooting nearly every day in America. And there are tiny, individual acts of violence all the time.
Many of the impacted parties in these shootings aren’t even old enough to be considered a threat. In February of this year, a three-year-old toddler in New Mexico shot his father in the buttock and his mother in the arm after finding a loaded gun in a purse. That same month, a Girl Scout in Indianapolis was shot on her way to pick up cookies for their annual sale:
Who could argue with keeping Girl Scouts safe? Yet, that’s exactly what happens when we have conversations about gun violence.Every time a mass shooting occurs, we ask why we allow people to purchase semi-automatic weapons designed to kill large numbers of others. We argue that an AK-47 is a different beast than the humble handgun. We debate whether or not guns should be banned entirely. We recite facts about other countries, like how, in Norway, police officers have to get special permission to use a firearm in the line of duty and how Japan virtually eliminated firearm deaths by banning most people from owning guns. But, inevitably, the conversation dies out as our memories of the events fade. American ideals of rugged individualism (cosigned by the Second Amendment of our Constitution) dictate the terms of engagement. Gun violence is as much a part of American life as politics or the weather or fast food.
• • • • •
It will be very difficult to change the narrative around guns in America if most people - myself included - think that guns might be the answers to our problems. I get it: I’ve wanted the option of using a gun many times over the course of my life. Like the times my sixteen-year-old-self was stalked and harassed by grown men who didn’t want to take no for an answer. Or the time a man I knew in passing raged and slammed his fists against the side of a public bus because I didn’t want to talk to him. I felt powerless: He knew my neighborhood, knew where I lived, knew enough about me to harm me in any number of ways.
I wanted a gun in 2003, when my ex and I had a horrific breakup, and he had a gun and I didn’t. His behavior was erratic - I didn’t know what his emotional state was. I ended up hiding the gun in my building’s trash room, telling my doorman what had happened and where it was, and spending the night at a friend’s house while the doorman handled the pickup details.
I wanted a gun in early 2014, when my husband was out of town and I heard a series of thuds at my backdoor, as if someone was trying to break in. With my then five-month old baby sleeping beside me, I tried to think through all the scenarios: What would happen if the intruder got past my dog, what would happen if he made it up the stairs, if he got past the standard issue lock on the door. (The closest thing near me was a golf club – which meant I would have to be in physical striking distance for it to be effective.)
Would a gun have changed the outcomes of those scenarios? Possibly.
But I also realize that the presence of guns can escalate situations - would Trayvon Martin or Jordan Dunn have died if guns weren’t so readily available? And even if you use a gun in self-defense, you still may face a courtroom and a trial, as Marissa Alexander, who fired a warning shot at an abusive husband in self-defense, found out in 2012. Guns are always framed as either the problem or the solution. But honestly, they are both.
• • • • •
Ending gun violence in America isn’t going to happen overnight. It is unlikely that a change of heart will occur or that most Americans will someday be in favor of banning any category of weapons entirely. In 2013, in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting, Senators Pat Toomey and Joe Manchin made a bipartisan push to pass stricter gun control laws; the bill failed.
For America to change its fatality rate, we have to accept some hard truths. One is that we need to understand where guns fit into our concept of safety. (When a survivor of the 1999 Columbine massacre runs for political office on a platform that embraces supporting the rights of gun owners, the issue of gun control is way more complicated than a yes or no poll question.) Two: guns are entirely too accessible. Chris Rock once joked that if bullets were $5,000, “there would be no more innocent bystanders” - it would force people to think before they shoot.
(The bullets part of the bit starts at 02:56.)
Maybe Rock has a point - after all, restricting ammunition seems to work for Switzerland. The Swiss also have a gun-friendly culture, but they also have a far lower street crime gun rate than Americans. One of the key points of the country’s policy is controlling both the firearms and the munitions.
Of course, presenting Switzerland’s universal background check and gun registration policies as an answer to our problems overlooks a key issue: How personal gun violence can be. In the same BBC piece, Professor Martin Killias, director of criminology at Zurich University, explains “there is a strong correlation between guns kept in private homes and incidences occurring at home - like private disputes involving the husband shooting the wife and maybe the children, and then committing suicide.” And one of the most horrifying things about reading the entries in the Shooting Tracker - a Reddit-powered, crowdsourced database that catalogs mass shootings involving four or more people - is realizing how many multi-person shootings are done by family members or intimate partners.
Perhaps we as a nation can’t have a real conversation about gun control, because we can’t face the most painful fact about gun violence: The largest threats aren't from random racists like Roof, but from people we love.