In 1992, my mother really liked Denzel Washington.
Like, really really liked him. She liked him enough that when a movie studio was recruiting for extras for a scene in The Pelican Brief, she signed herself right up. To our great amusement, she was assigned to be in a crowd protesting gun control.
I can’t quite tell, but I’m pretty sure that the lady in the lower right corner with the blue and yellow shirt is my Mom. Denzel Washington ran through this crowd. My Mom was only a few feet away, which absolutely made her month.
The scene was funny, of course, because my Mom was absolutely for gun control, long before it was an acceptable thing to say out loud. She was an Army veteran, raised in a county so rural that one of her chores was riding her bike to the farm next door to pick up milk bottles for her family. She knew a little bit about guns and counted the time she had to throw a grenade in basic training as the absolutely most frightening moment of her life. She certainly didn’t see a reason why just anyone should have access to weapons.
No doubt, her experiences as a special education teacher in inner city D.C. contributed to her feelings. She specialized in teaching emotionally disturbed children. These are the kids who had been kicked out of all of the other schools, but still needed an education. Given their behavior problems, it likely won’t surprise you to hear that their home lives were not the greatest. Many of the children had been abused. All of them had parents trapped in poverty and plenty of her students had parents in jail. Some of her students, by the age of twelve, thought of jail as a place where you could go to get three solid meals a day. I can’t remember exactly how many funerals for her students that she went to during her years in the city, but it was far, far too many. Guns were a big part of all of that.
It was also the nineties, when D.C. was commonly referred to as the murder capitol. I remember joking about that with my friends, as though we were somehow tougher because we were living in such a dangerous environment. The summer of 1994 really sticks out in my memory, because it began with a Romeo-and-Juliet style suicide between two twelve-year-olds that were forbidden to see each other. After that, it seemed as though there was a drive-by shooting at least once a week. It was the first time we’d heard the phrase road rage, where people were so angry at being cut off in traffic that they were pulling out their guns and shooting people. To this day, I still cringe whenever my Beloved loses his temper and shouts out the window at other drivers, because I presume that they will have a gun. It was that frightening to live through.
Right before I left D.C. for New York, the tri-state area was brought to its knees by a 17 year old with a rifle. Just reading through the Wikipedia article now, fourteen years later, leaves my heart pounding in my chest. The list of shootings read like a geography of my childhood. The first shot, through the window of a Michael’s store, is the store I used to walk to as a kid. I spent hours there, looking at all the craft items that I wanted to try but could not afford. Two of the victims were murdered on the streets where I grew up. Another was shot only a block and a half from where I was attending college at the time in Virginia. The management of the apartment complex that I lived in sent out a memo to the residents, urging extreme caution as we went about the neighborhood and recommending limiting our time outdoors. I remember people volunteering to pump gas wearing bulletproof vests, because folks were that scared. One morning I was over two hours late for work, because the police had stopped the eight-lane Beltway and were investigating every single car in their desperation to find the killer. When we learned that it was a teenager pulling the trigger, it was simply impossible to process. That is how a single gun ended sixteen lives and brought an entire city to its knees.
When another murderer walked into Pulse in Orlando last week, I was on a plane home from Ireland, where I’d just spent a week trying to answer the question of why Americans are so in love with their guns, because Irish people simply don’t understand it. Irish law is very restrictive with guns, while still allowing some shotguns for hunting. Most knives will get you in trouble, if you don’t have a really good explanation for having it, so the idea that we can walk in to a store and buy a gun that’s advertised to be able to shoot 13 bullets a second is simply incomprehensible to them. (I have since learned that pragmatically your finger really couldn’t fire 13 times a second, so the real rate would be more like 3 bullets a second. I remain in awe that this is what we’re talking about.)
I have watched the public mourning of the Pulse attack with no small amount of sadness, but mostly I have watched it with a deep and intense anger. Is it any surprise that we’ve had another shooting on this scale? Is it any surprise that eventually it would target LGBT folks, given a political climate where anti-trans bathroom bills are not only voted on, but actually passed? The mourning is proper. It is good. This is a national tragedy. It should be mourned loudly and publicly. But what bothers me most is that in the last 72 hours, as I write this, 56 people have been killed by guns, per the Gun Violence Archive, which syndicates and counts reported incidents of gun violence in the media. Over 6,000 people have died so far this year. 1,200 teenagers have been injured or killed, as have 262 children under the age of 11. 148 police officers have also lost their lives.
And it’s only June.
Where is the outrage? Where is the mourning?
We are in the middle of a rise in gun violence across this country. According to a recent DOJ study, homicide rates have jumped 17% in the nation’s 56 biggest cities. In my home town, after a decade of falling crime rates that almost created a sense of normalcy, violent crime has increased every year since 2011. That’s the just the crime rate. It doesn’t count suicides or accidents. Reported accidents accounted for nearly 2,000 incidents nationally last year. In April, one of those accidents injured two people right on the same floor of the same building as the pediatric office where I take Baba. Because, apparently, responsible gun ownership means bringing your gun into the same building as a pediatrician’s office. In talking to gun owners, I’ve heard a lot more stories about accidental discharges that weren’t reported. Accidental, that is, if you get over the intentionality of having a gun in your hands in the first place.
Forgive me if that sounds bitter. I am bitter. I am bitter because I’ve been watching people shrug their shoulders at gun violence for my entire life, as if it is some kind of natural force that we can do nothing about. It is not a hurricane or cancer, which, as it happens, are problems that we spend millions of dollars each year to address. It is a problem entirely of our own making.
And the worst part, of course, is that our Congress has enacted legislation to prohibit gun violence from even being studied. I laugh when I hear people talk about Hilary Clinton’s terrible complicity and corruption in giving speeches to Goldman Sachs, because that seems so trivial compared to such an outrageous law. Why aren’t we marching in the street and screaming about the incredible pull the NRA has on our politicians? It is literally killing our kids.
I am not a gun owner, nor will I ever allow guns to come into my home. You can undoubtedly tell me a million ways in which my understanding about guns is wrong. I know this, because I’ve been talking to gun owners endlessly to try to come up with some sort of meaningful change that would actually work. But without the ability to even study the problem, we are all making wild guesses at to what would actually help. Ban assault rifles? Sure. It seems like a reasonable step. Limit the number of bullets you can put in it at a time to ten? Sure. That would give the victims of mass shootings a greater opportunity to overpower their attacker. It just doesn’t address the bigger problem, where over 31,000 Americans are shot in an average year. A national database for background checks would have saved the eight lives in Charleston. National gun laws, rather than the regional hodge-podge that makes the stricter laws completely useless would also be a great step. D.C. has a handgun ban, after all, which means nothing when you can drive 10 miles in any direction and legally purchase one, then drive it right back over the border and into your home.
Even just instituting licensing and training, like we do with driving, would be a huge step in the right direction. And that’s something that most of the gun owners that I’ve spoken to can get completely behind. I know that I live in a democracy, and that compromise is the name of the game. That has to come from both sides. We seem to be stuck on the first step, which as any addict could tell you is recognizing that we even have a problem. When you start looking at how we compare to other countries, I don’t see how you can possibly deny it.
And maybe, when we’ve actually managed to get fewer guns on our streets, NYPD recruitment posters won’t have to look like this one any more:
There’s just got to be a better way than this. Doesn’t there?
It seems that we may never know, as the Senate voted down four proposed reforms just last night.