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The Newton, Connecticut Massacre: An Open Letter to America

Dear USA,

Here we are, mourning the loss of another 28 innocent lives. Today, a gunman entered a primary school in Newton, Connecticut and murdered 20 children and 8 adults. Whether you pray, or think compassionate thoughts, or run home to hug your own children, I hope that you will spend time reflecting on the tragedy this situation presents. For me, I find that this sad occurrence must be talked about. To try to make sense of these hours of terror, I must explore what I know, what I think, and what matters to me.

Many people would characterize this as ‘politicizing’ the tragedy, and have expressed their dismay that anyone would want to illuminate the issues running deep within the bedrock of these events. I’m sorry to anyone who might feel this way, but how can you dictate the ways in which we each process grief? Surely when your family experiences sudden disaster, you all sit around patting yourselves and each other to make sure all the pieces are there. You reflect on your circumstances, you discuss your feelings, you make a plan for recovery. Discussing the ‘politics’ of this case is not, in my mind, a matter of self-promotion; it is a reaction to despair, an attempt to find a way to go forward.

Having said that, perhaps I should start by telling you that I am FOR stricter gun control regulations. I’m telling you this now because I will not apologize for my stance on this issue and I will not be persuaded that there is some inherent flaw in my logic that you can correct with your mansplaining explaining. I also expect that you will feel the same about what I have to say. I expect that I will be ‘Unfriended’ or ‘Hidden’, and I expect that you will get only a few lines further into this piece before swearing out loud to yourself and finally, closing the window. I’m telling you all of this because if, ‘keep guns in the hands of the public at large, at any cost’ is your philosophy, then you are free to go… we have nothing more to say to each other.

I would hope, however, that you see this case as I do: it is tragic, complex, and worth discussing seriously and civilly. Maybe it would help if I tell you that despite my belief in the need for stricter regulations, I do not believe that ‘getting rid of guns’ entirely is the answer. Can we actually speak to each other if I make that concession? I just cannot understand what is so polarizing about guns. Why must we fall on one side of the all-or-nothing fence? Why do we have to have this discussion in those terms?

I personally will never, ever own a gun. I see absolutely no reason for them. But members of my family do own them. And I am sure that were someone to ever attempt to make it illegal for US civilians to get guns, the problems that would arise as a result would far outstrip the ones we currently suffer. I’m not interested in talking about ‘taking guns away’ primarily because I don’t think that’s realistic, I don’t believe that the US will ever relinquish its unwavering hold on the second amendment. So please, open your ears instead of your mouth, understand that this doesn’t have to be about the negation of your rights… only the valuing of others’ rights as well as your own.

USA, I’m writing to you because this is a problem that we need to solve. There are mass shootings in other places, but we are undeniably the leader in these massacres and horrifically, our ‘school shootings’ outnumber similar instances in other countries, many times over. It is not enough to shrug our shoulders and say, ‘There are bad guys everywhere… we can’t prevent unexpected tragedy… there will always be evil’. Do you really believe that we are more subject to evil or tragedy than everywhere else in the world? Do we really have more ‘bad guys’? That would be a curious contradiction to the ways in which we normally characterize the Middle East, Russia, or North Korea.

These shootings do not happen in a vacuum, they happen in our country. They happen under our laws, within our culture, in our systems and amongst our communities. It’s not a coincidence. These shooters are not ‘foreigners’, they’re born–and more importantly–raised in the USA. How can we keep turning a blind eye to our part in these tragedies? Of course we cannot blot out evil. Of course we cannot stop disaster in its tracks. But we can find ways to learn from our bloody history with guns and we can make a difference in the lives of our children who are undeniably the most vulnerable victims of our bull-headed debates about our own rights.

I can’t convince you that you need to relinquish your second-amendment rights. And no matter what any of us do, we cannot stop random acts of violence. But we can make an impact on our shameful record of gun violence. Why wouldn’t we fight for greater security for ourselves and our children? ‘World peace’ does not have to be a slogan reserved for the Miss America Pageant. I am not being unrealistic, nor am I asking for a polar-opposite reality to the one in which we live. I am asking you, USA, to open your eyes. See what we have done, see what we can do. Please, see.

Tighter Licensing and Regulations:

The gun laws in the USA are terrifying when you consider the ways in which they make owning guns almost effortless, and tracking guns almost impossible. I mentioned that family members of mine own guns, and indeed they do. However both of these men (and the only owners in the family are men) have taken courses, one of them has had military training. They are experts with handling, safety and maintenance. That does not guarantee that either of them will avoid tragic accidents that cause harm to themselves or others and they are far more prepared than most of the 61 gunmen responsible for mass shootings in the US in the last 30 years. Of these shooters, 80 percent obtained their weapons legally and without difficulty.

We require people to learn to drive well before they are legally allowed. We insist on courses, on practice and on tireless tests which at least cursorily measure an individual’s capacity behind the wheel. There are medical conditions that prevent certain people from driving because of the damage they could inflict on themselves and others. What would it mean if we took this kind of caution with gun ownership? Are our driving laws so strict that people’s rights are infringed upon? Or do we feel entirely justified insofar as the well-being of our communities is strengthened in our upholding these types of regulations? If you are a capable, safe, humane gun-owner, how does it in any way effect you to have to comply with regulations which ensure all these things?

We Enjoy Very Little Company:

Most of Europe does not allow civilian gun-ownership, nor are their police officers armed with guns. The rates and types of crime they experience are largely similar to our own (comparatively speaking), with the exception, of course, of gun violence. I was in a bar one evening in Berlin with my partner and a German friend of ours. There are many questions that typically get asked of Texans abroad, and one of the crowd favorites is, ‘do you own a gun?’. I answer truthfully, and tell anyone who asks precisely what I’ve told you… my family members do. This night in Berlin, our friend just shook his head and said, ‘I just don’t understand how more guns helps anybody’.

I don’t expect you to suddenly feel shocked and ashamed because Europe doesn’t like our guns. Many people in the US wheel out ridiculous words like ‘socialists’ or ‘commies’ when they feel threatened by Europe’s example. Nevertheless, I think we have to realize that there are many, many strong, civilized, ‘western’ countries that do not enjoy gun-ownership and they are in no greater danger, nor are they any less democratic, than we consider ourselves to be.

Mental Health:

The rates of mental illness (whatever that means) in the US are no more outstanding than anywhere else, but we do seem to have a very special talent for ignoring such issues. Our medical budget for developing research, cures, therapies and management options for mental health is woeful. Again, I’m not suggesting that we can prevent or predict mental illness across the board, but some effort on our part to provide greater support networks for people who suffer from various mental illnesses may go a long way.

According to Mother Jones: ‘A major New York Timesinvestigation in 2000 examined 100 shooting rampages and found that at least half of the killers showed signs of serious mental health problems. Our own data reveals that the majority of mass shootings are murder-suicides: In the 61 cases we analyzed, 35 of the shooters killed themselves. Others may have committed “suicide by cop”—seven died in police shootouts. Still others simply waited, as Holmes did in the movie theater parking lot, to be apprehended by authorities’. They go on to say, ‘Mental illness among the killers is no surprise, ranging from paranoid schizophrenia to suicidal depression. But while some states have improved their sharing of mental health records with federal authorities, millions of records reportedly are still missing from the FBI’s database for criminal background checks‘.

‘Boys Will Be Boys’

A very wise friend of mine emailed me after Jared Loughner shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (at point-blank range, in the head), asking if I had come across any literature exploring the seeming link between American masculinity and gun violence. I looked around a bit and found a few articles by masculinities scholars exploring the place of violence within constructions of masculinity, but it seemed that an extensive body of explicit studies of gun massacres by men had yet to be firmly established.

I haven’t looked for information on this topic since then, but good god, someone needs to. I am NOT suggesting that all men are murderers, or that ONLY men kill people using guns. But I am concerned about the ways in which some American men are exposed to ‘educations’ that limit them to only fulfilling certain types of constructed masculinity.

Of the 61 mass killings Mother Jones tracked, every single shooter, except for one, was male. Further, 43 of the killers were white males.

In an interview for an online publication called ‘Fast Capitalism’, Jackson Katz asks Douglas Kellner how he sees the link between masculinities and mass gun violence:

“JK: Your book’s title foregrounds the issue of gender in the discussion of violence. Yet the mainstream media discourse about school shootings is typically degendered, with reporters and commentators referring to “perpetrators,” “shooters,” “individuals,” “kids killing kids,” etc., when nearly all of the killings are done by men and boys. You employ the concept of a “crisis in masculinity” that I have also used in my work. What is your understanding of this crisis in masculinity, and how do you see this crisis playing a role in these killings?

DK: By a “crisis in masculinity,” I mean a dominant societal connection between masculinity and being a tough guy, assuming what you have described in your own work as a “tough guise,” a mask or façade of violent assertiveness, covering over vulnerabilities. The crisis erupts in outbreaks of violence and societal murder, as men act out rage, which takes extremely violent forms such as political assassinations, serial and mass murders, and school and workplace shootings -– all exhibiting guys and guns amok. The crisis in masculinity is grounded in deteriorating socio-economic possibilities for men and is aggravated by our current economic crisis. It is also produced in part by a media which shows violence as a way of solving problems and is also connected to the escalation of war and militarism in the United States from the long nightmare of Vietnam through the military interventions of the Bush-Cheney administration in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as escalating societal violence in the media and society at large.”

Is studying constructions of American masculinities an answer to mass gun violence? Of course not. But it seems a crucial step in understanding why we are particularly prone to raising gun-men.

Look, I’m not trying to find a single source of all this horror. I am not trying to suggest, state, or imply that I have answers. But I cannot, under any circumstances, continue to sit by and watch these shootings take place while we—as fully thinking, fully grown, endowed-with-rights-adults—simply shrug our shoulders and say asinine things like, ‘people will find guns if they want them’. I am begging you to take a harder and smarter look at who we are as a country, and what our relationship with guns is really like. We can’t fix it all, we can’t make everything 100% OK but god damn it, don’t you want to try?!

Very sincerely,

Sam

2 Comments

  • Keith Langsdale
    December 16, 2012 - 18:28 | Permalink

    Sam,

    In today’s NY Times op ed section (December 16, 2012), Nicholas Kristoff in his article, “Do We Have the Courage to Stop This,” makes the case for regulation. He talks about our regulation of cars and ladders. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has 5 pages of regulations about ladders. 300 people are killed on ladders each year; about 30,000 by guns. Some other points he makes: In Canada there is a 28 day waiting period AND you have to bring two other people with you to vouch for you. Not foolproof, of course, but nothing is…not a reason to do nothing. And, in Australia in 1996, after a mass killing of 35 people a ban on rapid fire long guns, the “national firearms agreement,” was instituted. It caused a buy back of about 650,00 guns. In the 18 years before the law, Austrailia suffered 13 mass shootings. In the 14 years since the law there have been none. Let me repeat that,…none. Dianne Feinstein stated today on NBC that she and other senators as well as some House members will be submitting a bill to re-instate the assault weapons ban including a ban on clips of over 10 rounds.

    Regulation of guns is not the ONLY answer, of course. And we’re not talking here about hunting rifles and even guns kept in the home for protection. We’re talking the weapons of war on our streets. And regulation will give us owners who go through educational classes on firearm safety, (drivers ed. for guns!) close the gun shows loophole and other societally smart and necessary laws.

    You’re right, it is time, well beyond time for this country to act with the kind courage shown by our ancestors who stood up to the most powerful nation in the world at the time and said, “You’ve gone too far.” We’re the most powerful nation on earth now. What kind of a nation do we want to be? Can we, will we step beyond the emotional, fearful positions of “all or nothing” gun culture to a truly adult and humane culture? Do we live in such abject fear of our neighbors and ourselves that we cannot even regulate the greatest killer in our lives. The regulations on cars in this country have caused the death rate to plummet. Educationally motivated regulations on guns can do the same for murder rates as well.

    Five and six year olds need our help and protection. The fact is, we all do.

    • steve richardson
      December 18, 2012 - 18:03 | Permalink

      Bushmaster gunmaker stake to be sold by Cerberus: this is a headline from the BBC webpage. Being a BRit and not having the guns as part of our society it seems a sad inditement on a great nation that such horrors proliferate. What irks me is that Cerberus are attempting to take the moral high ground by extracting from their portfolio, Bushmaster because, “we don’t ant to be drawn into the gun control controversy.” Now call me an old colonial cynic BUT wouldn’t have been less churlish and disingenuous if they had just said, “As a corporation we believe owning gun factories is morally repugnant”. I agree with Keith when he says courage is needed but which legislators will have the moral strength to challenge an outdated constitutional feature to bear arms. I assume, of course, the wild west has been suitably subdued: or not.

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