An Open Letter to America’s Gun Rights Advocates
My Dear Fellow Americans,
When it comes to being a gun control advocate, I am a living stereotype. Take every preconceived notion you have of what a blue state left-winger might look like, and you’ll pretty much wind up with me. I’m a vegetarian who lives in Portland, Oregon. Like most vegetarians who live in Portland, I voted for Barak Obama. And like most vegetarians who live in Portland and voted for Barak Obama, I have a predictable set of opinions on a number of well-worn issues. I’m concerned about climate change. I obsessively recycle. I drive a fuel-efficient car, but not on the days when I bicycle to work. My job should come as no surprise either: I teach English Humanities and Theatre at a private 6-12 school located in downtown Portland. I am pro-choice, pro-taxes, pro-government, pro-union, pro-Obamacare, pro-anything on that list that you’d expect from someone who shares my demographic profile. My political biography reads like a checklist; everything on it will fail to surprise. Even my former job as a Christian youth minister fits into the blue state liberal mold: I served and still attend a church where many of our clergy are openly gay. In September, our rector was married to her partner by Oregon’s bishop within the very halls of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church.
Knowing all of those things about me, it shouldn’t be too hard to imagine my response to Friday’s tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 children between the ages of five and ten were shot to death with a semi-automatic rifle. 6 adults were also murdered in the massacre. As a west coast liberal, I did everything that you’d expect. I got angry. I got outraged. I got sad. And I cried. I posted on Facebook. I read what other people posted on Facebook. I asked myself how could this happen? I’m not sure if it was the size of the massacre, the age of the children, or the fact that I’ve lost count of the number of American shootings this year (the last one was less than five miles from my own home in Oregon)…
…but, whatever it was, something made the public response to Friday’s events play out with nauseating predictability. At least that’s how it seemed to me: I no longer felt like my own person, but a background character in a sickening tragedy of which I was both participant and observer. Everything that I said and did, and everything that I heard and saw, played out as if written in a script. Then again, I shouldn’t complain: my nine-year old son is still alive. So are my students. In the shadow of all of our massacres, every child I know has somehow, miraculously been spared.
And so I am free to play my scripted part. Even writing about Friday’s tragedy feels like a cliché, including this blog, which is, at best, read by a modest number of people, most of whom (I’m guessing) share my outraged feelings. What are the odds that this message will reach its intended conservative audience? There is, of course, no way of telling, but my hunch is that those odds are incredibly, depressingly slim.
But when faith is all there is, what else can we do but grab? That is why I am writing this letter not to my fellow lefties, but gun owners, and especially gun rights activists like members of the National Rifle Association – anyone, really, who has a stake in keeping our nation’s gun laws exactly the way that they are.
I am not looking for debate. I am not asking you to give up your guns. I am not asking you to stop supporting or defending the Second Amendment. And I’m most definitely not asking you to embrace a left wing ideology that would rob Americans of the right to shoot, hunt, or defend themselves. I am asking for one thing, and one thing only.
I am asking for your help.
I am asking because I believe that it is wrong for children to be murdered. Especially in large numbers in a place of public learning. More than that: I believe that there is something deeply immoral with a country where this kind of atrocity is even remotely possible. My son could have one of those victims. Or one of my students. Or one of your kids. Or you, or me, or anyone who ventures out into the public space that all Americans share. For all that divides us, we are still human beings: fragile, mortal, and deeply connected to the people who surround and love us.
So believe me when I say that I have no interest whatsoever in changing your mind about gun rights. We’d be wasting each other’s time with a comment-section-shouting match that would just make both of us angry. I don’t know about you, but after this last election, I’m exhausted from the political sissy boy slap fighting. Not just exhausted, but depressed, almost to the point of despair, with this nagging and awful suspicion: that in the echo chamber of what passes for civil discourse in this country it is impossible to change anyone’s mind about anything, anything at all.
So let us agree to disagree. We don’t need to argue about gun rights. But maybe we can discuss safety. Let’s take a moment to pretend. What if you and I were on a boat in the middle of a very deep lake? Imagine that the boat had a leak, and began to fill up with water. What would we do? Call me crazy, but I’m willing to bet that we wouldn’t start to argue about your right to own some of the lake’s water. My guess is that you and I would start working together to get that water out of the boat as quickly as humanly possible so that the two of us didn’t drown. We’d get a bucket and start bailing, and try like hell to patch up that hole with anything we could find – sweatshirts, wine corks, chewing gum, anything – to keep that water out in the name of our own survival. And I’ll bet we’d work even harder if there were children on that boat. Because we’d both have a responsibility, not only to ourselves, but to the young, helpless, and vulnerable. Afterwards, there’d be plenty of time for the two of us to be enemies again. Once we’d plugged the hole, and got the little ones safely ashore, you and I could argue ‘til the sun went down about taxes, charter schools, state’s rights, you name it – and believe me, I’d get right in there with you. There is nothing wrong with a good argument, or even a bad one. I like to argue; I enjoy it, and as my wife and I so frequently point out to our son: there’s a time and a place for everything.
But not if we’re starting to sink. And after Friday’s shooting, I think we can agree that America is now a rapidly sinking ship. It’s time to put aside our differences and start to work together.
Now there is a lot that I’m willing to give up. For starters, I’ll give up my dream of a gun free society, which is what I really want. Seriously, if I had it my way, we’d live in a left wing utopia. I would abolish the Second Amendment. I would cut America’s defense budget by more than half. I would outlaw the death penalty, and help our president create a massive stimulus program that focused on mental health and education, because I believe that it’s by underfunding these areas that we create our mass murderers. Trust me, if I had it my way, I would embark upon a program of social engineering that would shock even Paul Ryan.
But guess what? I have to live in this country with other people. People who hold radically different opinions than my own. Some of those people are gun owners like you. Some serve in our military. Some hold deeply held convictions that granting more power to the government is a slap in the face to our constitutional liberties. And because I live with other people, I cannot have all of the things that I want. It’s part of being an adult; there are some things you just have to give up. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
What about you? As a gun owner, and defender of the Second Amendment, what are you willing to give up to help ensure that a tragedy like Friday’s never, ever happens again? And please don’t say it’s impossible, because you know in your heart that it’s not. So much has happened during the span of my life that was once the stuff of dreams. Computers were transformed from science fiction oddities to commonplace household appliances. An African American was elected president of the United States. A man walked on the moon. At the core of the American Dream is the belief that nothing is impossible. Nothing. We would still be British subjects were it not for the temerity of a few determined colonists with an unshakeable belief in the power of radical change.
So to quote from one of my favorite movies The Untouchables (which has more than its share of bloodshed and guns): what are you prepared to do? You want your Second Amendment? Fine. Do you need to own a shotgun? Please, go ahead, be my guest. Shoot all the animals you want. I don’t like it, but I’ve had to sit through enough Thanksgiving dinners to understand that I’m in the minority when it comes to the lives of non-humans. You feel like you need to own a handgun? Let me be honest, that’s a little harder. I agree with Bob Costas: “Handguns do not enhance our safety. They exacerbate our flaws, tempt us to escalate arguments, and bait us into embracing confrontation rather than avoiding it…”
But it appears that Mr. Costas is not made himself any friends with his reasoning. Fine. Why don’t we argue about that one later? After all, we’re in a sinking boat; now is the time for action. So let’s cut to the chase and talk about semi-automatic weapons. Like the ones that were used in Newtown and Aurora. Can we please agree to legally ban all firearms that were designed for the sole purpose of killing a whole lot of people very, very quickly? Make no mistake, I am talking about legislating an outright ban on semi-automatic weapons. Is it possible to agree upon that? Even if you don’t like it, would you at least give it up as a compromise? An area where we can work together? Think of it as a small stick of gum to stick in a hole so the boat doesn’t sink to the bottom.
I wonder what you felt when you read and heard about the Connecticut shooting. In particular: what was your first response? The one you had before you started talking, or posting, or blogging, or even forming an opinion. Weren’t you horrified? Didn’t you feel incredible anguish, pity, and agony? Did you for a moment (as I did) imagine your own child, or a child you knew, as one of the twenty murdered school children? Didn’t it feel as if the world had been turned upside down, that you were caught up in a never ending nightmare where any tragedy of any kind could happen to any person at any place or any time for no apparent reason? And in that wave of horror did you not, at least for a moment, feel in some sense of responsibility?
I did. I still do. Call it a guilt complex, but I blame myself for what happened in Connecticut. And Clackamas. And Aurora. I blame all of us. If the Nuremberg Trials of Germany and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa teach us nothing else, it is that we are responsible for what happens in the world – and especially the countries in which we live. Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
It is time for us to be grownups. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject, but it seems to me that the ultimate character of a civilized nation is measured in how it treats its children. This week, we allowed twenty of our own to be murdered at the point of a gun. Have we passed the test of civilization? Or have we failed? If you want to end a nightmare you must start by waking up.
Back in August, I got into an argument with a Facebook friend about the movie theatre shooting in Aurora. He felt that the answer was more guns, not less. He believed that had the employees of the theatre been armed they might have prevented the midnight bloodshed. Perhaps that’s your answer to massacre in Sandy Hook. Maybe you believe that every K-5 teacher needs to be armed and fully loaded. Maybe you’d like every principal in America to have an arsenal of weapons in his or her office. Perhaps you’re in favor of private security firms patrolling the classrooms where kindergarteners play with their toys and draw with their crayons.
If that is your answer, if your solution to this crisis of violence is more guns, not less, if you would like to see firearms in our places of learning, if you truly believe that what’s needed to save a sinking boat is just a little more water, then I just have to ask you:
Is that any way for a child to grow up? Is that the way you grew up? Or your parents? Or your grandparents? If you call yourself a “conservative,” what is it that you wish to conserve? What part of the past do you want to hang on to? What childhood traditions do you find worth preserving? What kind of an educational environment is best for a little boy or girl learning to read, write, solve math problems, and discover wonders of our planet? What can we really do to protect them, not just from becoming victims, but future perpetrators of these horrific, ugly, and inexplicable crimes?
As the father of a third grader, I am willing to do a lot. I have already started (and it’s only a start) by demanding that both my president and legislators take immediate legislative action. What are you prepared to do? After all, I’m just a blue state blogger from Portland, Oregon. I’m pretty much playing by the script. But I wonder what would happen if you wrote a letter or your own blog, or called a press conference, or posted a video on YouTube, and said these words to the world?
I am a gun owner and a conservative. I love, cherish, and support the Second Amendment. I believe that it is my God given right to own and carry firearms. As an American, I treasure this belief, and I will carry it with me to my grave.
And now, I’ve had enough. No belief of mine is more important than the life of an innocent child. I am ready to do everything in my power, exert every effort, and make every sacrifice necessary to be sure that nothing like the Connecticut massacre ever happens again. I will be introspective. I will lay down my arguments. I will work with my enemies. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But now, I’m no longer a child; now, I’’m an adult, and a protector of children. It is time to for me to discern the difference between my needs and “rights” from the time honored prerogatives of my selfish desires.
As a gun rights activist, imagine the power those words, or something like them, might carry coming from your own keyboard or mouth. Trust me: people would listen. And while I’m sure you’d piss off a lot of your friends and neighbors, in exchange you’d receive the freedom of spirit that only comes to those of us who have taken that blinding fall on the long hard Road to Damascus.
Or, for those whom I’ve offended with my liberal quoting of scripture, let me bring you the words of a modern day prophet named Dr. Phil. “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?” I don’t know about you, but the prospect of being right is becoming a whole lot interesting. And I’m certainly not happy, not after Friday. It’s simply unconscionable for us to be screaming at each other while children are being slaughtered. The time has come for America’s Truth and Reconciliation. Like I said, I am willing to be reasonable; I’ll give up a lot. But it is simply illogical, and ultimately barbaric, to pour water on a ship that’s already sinking.
There is nothing that can bring those twenty kids back to their families and loved ones. Our collective failure to fashion a responsible society has robbed those children of their lives and futures. It’s the kind of failure that cannot be ignored. It demands deep and painful introspection, followed by profound acts of contrition and atonement. What are we prepared to do, to sacrifice in wake of this bloodshed? Our acts in the next few days, weeks, months, and years will shape how future generations judge our civilization. More importantly, our actions can make damn well sure that we don’t murder the lot of them first.
Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,
December 16, 2012
Always feel free to post a comment and get a discussion going. Keep your remarks civil, but don’t feel bashful about starting a vigorous and healthy debate.