In the United States, gun violence is not a mere veneer on the surface of an otherwise peaceful society, but something deep and dark, with roots in the colonization of the continent and the founding of the nation, in ethnic cleansing, enslavement and the seizure of land from Mexico. White settlers, armed to the teeth, faced the constant prospect of insurrection by Native peoples and enslaved populations, as well as violence on contested borders.
The industrial revolution fed the gun culture, too. Gun makers became influential in the early days of the nation, feeding on westward expansion and war. The Civil War put weapons into the hands of the nation, including the 500,000 soldiers who survived that war and who brought their weapons home. They also brought home the trauma and violence of war. Native peoples, freedmen, their own families, and communities suffered. Racial and regional legacies of those days still endure. The heavily armed West and South suffer a disproportionate share of today’s gun violence.
Gun ownership became intrinsic to America’s self-image. In this environment, weapons manufacturers increased sales through unconstrained advertising and innovation. Though sales had stalled in the U.S. after the Civil War, due to the post-war glut of weapons, the market was reinvigorated when cartridge revolvers and repeating rifles replaced the old cap-and-ball firearms. Later, the invention of semiautomatic pistols and rifles pushed profits up again. More recently, stagnant sales were reinvigorated by the introduction of assault rifles, in the 1990s, chiefly modeled on weapons of the Vietnam War. Around two million M-16 clones have since been sold. This boom was augmented by a fad for light, polymer-framed pistols with high capacity, quick-change magazines. These swept the police and civilian markets, profits from their sales provided the gun lobby with increased clout in Washington, and these guns became the most common weapons of murder and mass shootings today. They are not Grandpa’s guns.
American violence is rooted in fears that we often share across political lines. None of us want to be shot. We don’t want our families to be shot. Americans fear guns, or fear for their guns, or both. We fear for our property. We fear crime and the police. We fear terror from abroad and our own country’s army. We fear immigrants and each other. Rich, poor, urban, rural, Black, Brown, White – we regard each other with suspicion. Perhaps nothing less than a complete cultural and spiritual transformation can change these patterns.
If Quakers intend to counter these trends, we must first admit that we have much to examine about ourselves. Do our lives benefit from a war economy? Are our possessions rooted in violence and privilege? Do we whitewash the history of Quaker displacement of Native peoples in Pennsylvania and elsewhere? Do we know enough about non-Quaker communities to understand how changes we seek might affect them?
Quakers know some things by experience. To attend to Divine will, we must give our own will over. We reach out to those with whom we disagree. Listening deeply to every voice is essential. Truth can appear from where we least expect it. John Woolman and others point the way. . .
Paralyzed by mistrust, we are all unable to listen. Only by stepping out of the bubble can we hear fear, pain, and personal stories that we never imagined were there. We must reach out to people we don’t agree with or know about, especially the ones we really don’t agree with. Our job is to build trust out of division – trust that goes both ways. We can learn to respect the complex cultural histories that other people carry. To ask other people to grow, we must be willing to do the same. Self-righteousness is a serious obstacle. How can we find ways to build relationships outside our usual circles? Take a shop class, attend a Bible study, or pray at a different church. Go to a shooting range. Learn to play banjo. Switch from wine to beer. Become friends with someone who voted for Trump. Break out of the bubble. Love those who do not think like you.
“We just have to get rid of all the guns!” This pronounce-ment makes many Americans cringe and withdraw from the dialog. Imposed solutions and preconceived cures might be worse than the disease. Prohibition, which failed to rid the country of alcohol and drugs, built the Mafia and the drug cartels, the FBI, BATF, DEA, and DHS – all institutions which continue to threaten us. Any agency with enough surveillance capability to find 300+ million firearms in American homes and enough firepower to seize them would be its own nightmare. And expanding the underground gun market by imposing prohibition would be a gift to organized crime.
[pullqutoe]Instead of outlawing guns, we can address the three original sins of America, which lie at the root of today’s violence – the ethnic cleansing of a continent, the enslavement of a race, and the oppression of a gender. Public policies to address these and reduce economic disparity can help reduce suicides, economically driven crimes, and crimes of passion born of frustration and rage. Universal healthcare would reduce bankruptcy, homelessness, and untreated mental illness. Strong unions, fair wages, and good retirement and unemployment benefits support the creation of strong families and communities where guns are not needed. Reformed drug policies – decriminalization, access to rehabilitation programs, and sentencing and prison reforms – could be funded by taxes on pharmaceutical companies that have profited from the opioid epidemic, and can offer hope and sanity to people whose lives have been ravaged by addiction.
We must be mindful with solutions, however, because as experience shows us, some of them may actually perpetuate male and White privilege. Universal background checks, for example, might disproportionately disarm Black and Native men, while leaving guns in White hands. Inflexible mandatory sentencing laws might unfairly lock away women who kill their abusers.
Of course, such efforts to bring about racial, gender, and economic justice will require deep reforms in our political and electoral systems. People working on campaign finance reforms, fair political representation, and transparency in government are working for peace. Unless and until we rebuild our system of government into a working democracy, we will continue to see powerful lobbies – banking, defense, petroleum, the NRA – hijack our government.
Even though the only workable solutions to gun violence in America are solutions that involve systemic and structural changes, the problem is so urgent that stop-gap measures are also needed – right now – to help save lives. What can we do?
Nobody knows the true number, but there appears to be roughly one gun for every American alive today, distributed over about a third of American households. Only 5% of the world’s population holds 35-45% of the world’s civilian-owned firearms.
Tens of thousands of people are shot each year. In 2016, there were 22,938 reported suicides, 14,415 murders, 71 deaths from mass shootings, and 2,204 firearms accidents in the United States. Two thirds of all gun deaths are suicides. Handguns are the deadliest weapons by far, not shotguns or rifles. Death counts from mass shootings are minor compared to “ordinary” homicides. Death rates vary dramatically by region.
Racism and misogyny kill. Patterns of American gun violence reflect this. White men stockpile guns (and kill themselves most often). Shooters are mainly young men. Black men are more likely victims of homicide. They are twice as likely as White men to be killed in state sanctioned violence, and Native men killed nearly four times as often. Women are often murdered by domestic partners. Death is common on the Mexican border, and the massive toll from trafficking guns across that border is mostly ignored. (See the article by John Lindsay-Poland in this issue of Western Friend.)
The financial toll is huge. Estimates of costs related to gun violence in the United States – medical care, legal fees, prisons, long term disability, mental health care, emergency services, police investigations, security measures, etc. – run about $229 billion per year. Complete financial costs, tangible and intangible, are impossible to tally.
While there can be no real solution to gun violence without essential infrastructure changes, incremental measures can be enacted, state by state, to reduce the death toll, where consensus exists. Even opponents of gun control will sometimes support measures to reduce the butcher’s bill.
First, the low hanging fruit – guns that people don’t want. These are in attics, closets, and drawers all over America, often unsecured, easily found by children or stolen. Gun buybacks – grocery cards traded for old guns – have been swamped with people bringing in their unwanted guns. When sponsored by churches or community coalitions, these even work where it would be unthinkable to walk into a police station to surrender a gun. Buybacks at fair market value could bring in even greater numbers and infuse cash into communities in need.
Even though California policy-makers have decided that gun-confiscation and licensing programs would be political non-starters in the state, California has managed to implement restraints that have reduced gun deaths by 56%. Any person who buys a gun in California today must go through a background check and a ten-day waiting period before taking possession of the gun. Persons listed as ineligible – known addicts, felons, domestic violence perpetrators, underage customers, etc. – are screened out. Obvious bad actors are prevented from purchasing firearms at all, and anyone who rushes out to buy a gun in despair or rage has a ten-day cooling-off period before getting their hands on their new gun.
Handguns with high-capacity magazines (over ten rounds) and assault rifles are prohibited in California. Add-ons that make legal guns especially dangerous – bump stocks, trigger actuators, flash hiders, and high capacity quick-change removable magazines – are banned. “Open carry” of firearms is illegal in California, and “concealed carry” requires a permit, which is difficult to obtain. Safe-storage laws are strict. While there is no requirement to register firearms in California, the use of an unregistered gun in a crime garners a severe extra penalty. Weapons manufacturers feel the diminishment of the California market acutely, but the general public largely accepts these restrictions. Furthermore, although the NRA and some gun owners complain, Californians are still able to hunt, target shoot, collect historical weapons, and admire Grandpa’s old deer rifle without worrying about the law.
A popular bumper sticker says, “You can take my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.” Perhaps, as we heal ourselves and our country, as the death toll shrinks, as fear fades and trust grows, that same hand will relax while it still lives, will lay down the gun, and will join hands with its neighbor in peace. Let us try what love can do. ~~~
James Summers is a retired elementary school teacher, veteran of the US Navy Hospital Corps (1973-77), and helped found the San Diego chapter of Veterans for Peace. He is a member of La Jolla Friends Meeting (PYM).