The Autumning Empire

Culture, Politics, Etc.

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,

David Berkson

December 16, 2012

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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.



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6 thoughts on “An Open Letter to America’s Gun Rights Advocates

  1. Hi David,
    Just wanted to let you know I shared this blog with a Facebook group ‘Government by the People’. It is a mixed group with many many daily arguments about guns before any of this even happened. I am proud to know you and glad to pass your words on in the hopes that some who defend their rights to guns over the lives of children might read it.

    • Thank you so much, Skeeter! I hope that people read it, and while I refuse to get sucked into any more “debates” about how many more people die from car accidents than gunshots, I will listen to what anyone has to say, and continue to respond with the moral argument that I hope is contained in my letter. Keep fighting the good fight. I really appreciate what you do in the world.

  2. DaRinda on said:

    I have come across your blog via the mentioned FB group. I am pretty diverse in my thinking and political philosophies…and I DO support the 2nd amendment in it’s fullest interpretations. I don’t believe it was written in there for “hunting”…but for people to protect themselves and their families–and to rise against government “should” there be some “need” to do so . Now, most I know and associate with are very peaceful people…and feel non-violence opportunities should always be employed before anything aggressive. None of us “go looking” for opportunities of violent altercations. Bob Costas , imo, has a very narrow idea of what we are and what we stand for.

    That being said…you asked what our first thoughts were when we (I) heard of the tragedy in Connecticut. I has saddened and sickened like any other. I watched on Nightline a teacher retell her story of being in a closet, protecting the children after having pulled a book case in front of the locked door. The fear that all of them faced, and rightly so! I also heard her tell of how she did not trust the FBI/police when they came to her rescue…asked they push their badges beneath the door…then STILL yet was so afraid, requested they get the keys from authorities outside to open the door ‘IF” they were who they said they were. THIS is sad to me. To be THAT afraid, and the inherent felling of helplessness. MY thought was “IF she had been armed”…she would have felt more secure. More capable of defending and protecting those children. NOT that she would hunt down this crazy person and “go after them” but to stay there with her children KNOWING that IF that door was pushed open…she COULD then protect herself and those precious children, or die trying. NOT be a sitting duck–so overcome by fear as to not even be thinking properly after the event was over to trust those who did come to take her to safety. Would it not be logical to think that being in her shoes the security and confidence she could have conveyed to the children is one of “IF that door opens HE will die” versus “IF that door opens WE will all die?”

    I enjoyed reading your blog. It is very well thought out and written. It is one in which I would graciously agree to disagree when it comes to the nuts and bolts of it all. But for sake of “compromise” I will say that personally I feel that the need for machine guns of this magnitude is purely a person decision. I don’t think that they should be outlawed per se…….but feel that people should only be able to obtain them after having the proper training…and that training should be via law enforcement/military professionals. Local law officials should know that one is in their jurisdiction…and the person with it responsible. You never know…they may be of assistance to them (the police) if and when things get crazy in the future. I feel a “well regulated militia” would/should cover these things appropriately. Now, it goes without saying….these guns are always going to find their way into the hands of criminals…and the mentally ill. It is naive to think otherwise. You’ll never get rid of them all…someone somewhere will be making them–even if it’s illegal.

    Evil exists…it always has and always will. It cannot be legislated out of a society. It just IS. It bothers me that people seem to think that just because they wish it to be a utopian society…that they can create it. It not physically possible…under ANY circumstance…because as you stated , we are but flesh and blood humans. We are inherently weak, frail, mortal, ultimately selfish. It is the “sin’ nature that permeates ALL of mankind. In reality…though many of us probably live rather sheltered lives surrounded by good people who selflessly give of their time and talents to better their neighbor……there is always the “other half” …somewhere. Ying and Yang…good and evil…a perfect BALANCE of both is and has always been present. To ignore the evil…or the existence of it is “childish” …the reality is that the responsible thing is to acknowledge that there ARE bad people who DO do awful things. YOU cannot prevent it, the possibility will never go away. You CAN reasonably prepare for the day you may cross paths with them though–and pray that it doesn’t happen.

    I am sickened by those who would politicize this event. Those families need prayers and support…NOT constant news updates enumerating the number of bullets that killed each child. Not reports from coroners confirming the “cause of death as homicide” (what a waste of taxpayer dollars there). How insensitive can these people be that are doing this?

    My compromise in this sinking boat? Education……Since I feel that gun ownership is a personal and private matter…ALL children should be educated in gun safety…since you don’t know IF they are in the home. ALL parents should be taught gun responsibility and safety. It really isn’t a bad idea…for the “sport” of it to have “marksmanship” in college or highschool AFTER the appropriate responsibility and safety classes have been done and documented. Again…we all have to be aware of the fact…that criminals will still exist—but what better place to terrorize than one where they KNOW no one will be shooting back UNTIL the police arrive? Machine guns…again a personal matter–but would prefer to see them only be utilized by registered militia’s, and only be called into action in a case of emergency. There are not enough police to protect everyone in ANY community. Always have a back up plan.

    Things will not get better…there is more and more uncertainty, and instability—and people are ill prepared to cope with stresses appropriately. I feel there are tooo many pharmaceutical substances messing with peoples minds and bodies. Foods messed up and messing with who knows what in our minds and bodies. People everywhere need clean whole foods and a lot more exercise to help with “mental health and well being”……emotions are NOT mental illnesses…just a lot of “bunk” going on around the world and the USA…yeah—it’s going to get worse. How can you suggest preventing that? I just feel that maybe we’ve tipped too far….and pray we can find some normalcy again sometime n my lifetime.

    • I appreciate your response, especially for the civility of which you put it forward. This issue clearly means a lot to you; your compassion for the victims is clear from your words. I’d like to appeal to your compassion even as I respectfully challenge some of the assumptions in your response:

      1. I am all for education. (I guess I’d have to be, given that I’m a teacher). But to call for that as a first response to Sandy Hook is akin to sending a bookmobile to a crime scene. Our president has given national addresses on no less than four mass shootings in just as many years. Once school children are gunned down en masse in public, it is fair to say that this is a national crisis that calls for drastic measures. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, FDR did not seek to educate the public about our relationship with that country. He and the rest of America did everything in its power to prevent it from ever happening again.

      2. The Second Amendment gives you and me the right to bear arms. It does not say what kinds of arms. Even free speech has some restrictions. I may not threaten the life of a public official. I may not cry “fire” in a crowded theatre if there is no fire. If you are not willing to work for a ban on semi-automatic or assault weapons, to what weapon restrictions will you agree? Remember, if some of us lefties had it our way, we’d take down the Second Amendment all together. I’m totally willing to give that one up and keep many of our weapons legal because I feel that people like you and I need to work together. Just because I want things to be a certain way doesn’t mean that it just gets to happen. In this time of national crisis, what are you prepared to do?

      Thanks again for responding.


  3. joanne godfrey on said:

    I am a teacher and there is no way I want to have a gun in my possession if this were to occur. My priority is the children in my charge. IF is a huge word with more options than dialing the cable company…Sir, in no way could YOU or anyone else predict what would happen IF a teacher had a gun. Honestly, I think the teacher was WISE in asking for a badge/ID – she had no idea whatsoever of the actions outside her door. I have been a ‘victim’ of a school shooting (years ago) at my elementary school (no one was hurt or killed, but the shot was fired into an empty classroom). While it wasn’t me, when someone is pointing a loaded firearm at your face you have no time to reach for your gun. NO ONE PERSON can say IF with a logical and practical answer. There isn’t 1 answer to solve these horrific situations, but many things need to happen. I am all for rights, but too many times have someone else’s rights have hurt others, this time more brutal than anyone could possibly imagine. Mental health beginning at birth needs to be addressed as does laws and guidelines making it harder to own a semi-automatic/automatic gun. They really are NOT needed for any practical purpose. If gun enthusiasts are clean and clear, then what difference does it make if there are more safeguards in purchasing? This tragic and life altering event could not have been stopped nor could it have been predicted. This situation is like no other because of the CHILDREN killed. Education can help, but a mindset that ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’ when it comes to the 2nd amendment. Arming someone guarantees nothing. Much needs to happen to open people’s minds that there are options and to stop polarizing…Everyone has to give up something and everyone has to share the responsibility of what happened at Sandy Hook school. Everyone needs to change their attitudes to make it better. Have a wonderful holiday David – hugs to you and the family. See you in 2013 and thanks!

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