Guns: Relationship Status: “It’s complicated.”

I first held a gun when I was eight years old.  One of my uncles let me fire his new pistol.  I still remember the strain of trying to hold the heavy gun steady so he wouldn’t think I was too weak to try it.  All these years later, I vividly remember the incredible rush of power that washed over me as I fired that pistol.

I was eight years old and I held in my hand a tool that could spit fire and knock a beer can off a fence several yards away.  I was eight years old and I held in my hand a tool that could have ended the life of the uncle who handed it to me.  It is difficult to articulate how much power surged through my little being.  I swear I heard the Scots heritage in my mutt-blood swim screaming to the surface with a mighty roar…

Nine years later, the older brother of the uncle who first handed me a gun died after being shot by another family member.  Not long after that, the father of my classmate was killed while responding to a domestic violence call.  The man who killed him was devastated to realize, once he descended from his pain-killer induced high, that he had killed not only a police officer, but a friend.

Four years ago, my partner called me at the hospital where I was working as a chaplain to let me know that he was not one of the two white men shot to death a block away from my house (where a heroin deal apparently turned deadly).  Shortly before that, I had watched an ambulance come claim the body of a sixteen year old boy, victim of a drive by shooting at the other end of my street.

I have lived in the rural life and the urban life and what each had in common was:

  1.    a sense of powerlessness about how the world is run and
  2.    deaths by firearms.

Our country (and colonial powers around the world) has a history of taking away a population’s weapons and property (i.e. indigenous peoples, Japanese-American relocation camps, mass incarceration through a government-created drug war…) when people in power decide to do so.  How then, to trust that you really will be safer by giving up your guns?

Christian social justice activist and writer Jim Wallis proclaims:

Former assumptions and shared notions about fairness, agreements, reciprocity, mutual benefits, social values, and expected futures have all but disappeared. The collapse of financial systems and the resulting economic crisis not only have caused instability, insecurity, and human pain; they have also generated a growing disbelief and fundamental distrust in the way things operate and how decisions are made.

I confess that I am grateful to finally live in a gun-free home, I freak out just a bit when even toy guns are pointed at me or anyone I love, and I would love to trust that I could walk through my neighborhood at night without hearing gunfire.  But I was also here in New Orleans when the National Guard rolled through with their Humvees and their guns and I know what it feels like to be occupied by a military force – first denied access to my home and property, then patrolled and subject to interrogation once home again.

My faith and my lived experience teaches that life is rarely an either/or proposition.  In this interdependent web of all existence, we are all connected, tangled together in a tapestry of history and mystery.  It’s complicated.

It is hazardous to talk glibly about gun control unless we talk about creating a nation that is welcoming, safe, and empowering for all people.  This conversation is complex and deserves real discernment, not sound bites and bullet points.

Guns do not provide actual safety.  They provide a sense of power. [Bear witness: our government is not at all ready to give up its guns, its sense of power.]

I suspect that if we are going to end gun violence, we will have to address the collective needs of all – urban and rural, white and people of color, individuals and institutions – who feel powerless without their guns.

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