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American Weather

When the Gun Violence Epidemic Hits Home

ISSUE:  Fall 2016

Amy Bennett, Sleeping Separately, 2006. (Courtesy of Galleri Magnus Karlsson) On Halloween 2015, a man in our downtown Colorado Springs neighborhood woke up, set his apartment on fire, and walked outside carrying a pistol and a long gun as though he was taking out the trash. He took aim at a neighbor who fled, then turned his weapons on a passing bicyclist, a thirty-five-year old father of two from Ohio, recently discharged after three tours in Iraq. The father’s name was Andrew Myers, and he pleaded for his life. “Don’t shoot me, don’t shoot me!” he said. And then he was shot, repeatedly. The murderer (thirty-three, white) wasn’t done. He went west down the busiest nearby street, an east-west thoroughfare lined with late nineteenth-century Victorians and early twentieth-century bungalows, and walked three blocks farther, crossing a bike path and, later, the creek that it’s named after. He turned to his left and shot two women, Jennifer Vasquez and Christina Galella-Baccus. Vasquez had been sitting on the front porch of their home, smoking a cigarette; Galella-Baccus opened the door. The shooter made it half a mile from where he’d started when the police finally caught up with him. He shot them, they shot back. He died in the parking lot of a Wendy’s at 9 a.m.

This news is not news. By the Gun Violence Archive’s definition (four or more people shot, fatally or otherwise, in a single event), there were 330 “mass shootings” in the United States in 2015. By Congress’s definition of “mass killing” (three or more in a single incident—a definition arrived at following the Sandy Hook shootings in 2012), there were forty-five. The go-to noun is “spree,” and then, upon reflection, “rampage.” Shooting spree, shopping spree, rolls of paint-colored candies, see also: a drunken revel.

A few hours before this “shooting spree,” I was asleep in the Phoenix airport. When I arrived, the gate to Denver was mostly empty, so I lie down on three chairs, put a scarf over my face, and fell asleep. I awoke when a man pushed me off of those chairs, then pretended like he hadn’t. I asked the man (fifties, white), if he couldn’t have spoken to me first, or touched my shoulder to wake me. He was angry, he said. I was taking up more than my fair share of room. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I would have been happy to share, but I don’t think men should push sleeping women onto the ground.” This has nothing to do with that, he said. He radiated free-floating, low-grade rage, and he refused to look at me, but he did not have a gun. In Arizona, you may carry one with or without a permit, in the open or under your clothes, but at the airport you still have to check them with your bags. 

Lately, I worry about that: who has a gun. When I told a student that he was flunking and he turned sour, I thought, Is he armed? He’s allowed to be. On the day after Thanksgiving, I thought about this again. We’d taken our two daughters ice skating at a city rink. I was watching them charge after their upturned buckets when the scene came to me, unbidden: This is the sort of place—so public, so packed, its people happy and various—where a man (for it would be a man) might walk in and begin the lazy work of obliterating us. Then I thought, No. No, no. That’s ridiculous. Don’t be so dark. But we came home to hot cocoa and news of an “active shooter” five miles north, less than a month after the last such spree. The people in the Planned Parenthood and the King Scoopers, the nail salon and the sushi joint were asked to “shelter in place,” which is one name we might give to our age.

A week after Jennifer Vasquez and Christy Galella-Baccus were shot, there was a raffle and bake sale in a parking lot. Their friends set up an awning in front of the barbershop where Vasquez’s daughter worked. Someone rolled out a barbecue pit. It was the kind of fundraiser you organize when you don’t know rich people: slices of cake in baggies on plates, gift certificates to JC Penney, and raffles for donated tattoos and haircuts. We put our names in for the drawings, then walked to the panadería on the strip mall’s skinny sidewalk. 

This gathering was much different from the one after the shooting at Planned Parenthood, held in a historic downtown church, beneath its gorgeous beams. There were tasteful baskets of paper for writing notes. Dignitaries spoke. The sorrow was the same, but the class lines seemed stark.

A sidewalk is a public space. A bike path is a public space. Some of the newest parks in the Mountain West are “members-only” parks, which is an oxymoron, because parks are public spaces. I craved a word about public spaces at the first candlelight vigil that fall, about the exquisite trust implicit in them, in biking on them, in letting your children play in them. Sometimes the boys from next door just appear in our kitchen, and always our children are back and forth on the sidewalks without us, and we love that this is so. There was no such word to be had. But the Congregationalist pastor whose family lives by the home for sober living said, “Can I see your light?” And our neighbors held up their candles.

Months later, over coffee, that same man said: Those women were killed because “they were practicing community.” Which is true. The only person to escape the gunman did so by running inside. Vasquez was sitting on the front porch, and that’s why she got killed. She was outside, with her eyes on the street just as Jane Jacobs would have it, and so she had been keeping the street for all of us. “This is front-porch versus back-deck culture,” the pastor said. 

The National Rifle Association has followed this same trajectory, from outside to in; from the communally held to the privately held; and from the notion of the common good to private ones. 

Founded in 1871, for most of its first century, the organization’s focus was on sportsmanship. The NRA trained hunters, police officers, target shooters, the Olympic riflery team, and the Boy Scouts. My father remembers working toward NRA badges as a Scout. They shot targets with a .22, while sitting, prone, and kneeling. There was, he says, no fetishization of guns, and no talk of the Second Amendment.

In the 1920s, the NRA and its early counterpart, the United States Revolver Association, proposed state legislation it characterizes as tyranny now: a forty-eight-hour waiting period prior to a handgun purchase, an additional five-year prison sentence if a gun was used to commit a crime, a permit for all concealed weapons, and a registry of all gun sales. The NRA helped draft 1934’s National Firearms Act and 1938’s Federal Firearms Act. During this time, the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution was widely understood to protect a collective right to gun ownership, not an individual one.

In his 1934 testimony to Congress regarding the National Firearms Act, then-NRA President Karl T. Frederick noted that he seldom carried a weapon and did not believe in the “general promiscuous toting of guns,” which he thought should be “sharply restricted.” Though Frederick testified that he had given the “subject of firearms regulations study and consideration over a period of fifteen years,” he seemed surprised when asked if the bill was unconstitutional. “I have not given it any study from that point of view,” he said. 

Frederick’s logic—that the Second Amendment is not necessarily linked to individual gun ownership, that it is “promiscuous” to carry a gun around, and that the privilege of gun ownership should be curbed by the interests of public safety, is left (or more “conservative,” in an older sense of the word) of the current platform of the Democratic party and of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, both of which have acceded to a reading of the Constitution that now seems sacrosanct.

Frederick was a three-time Olympic gold medalist who came to shooting as a target sport. His leadership was in line with the NRA’s motto for most of its first century: “Firearms Safety Education, Marksmanship Training, Shooting for Recreation.” As late as 1968 it described its members as “sportsmen.” 

The old guard wanted to move the NRA’s headquarters to Colorado Springs, then a pre-culture-wars city of 300,000 people best known for its proximity to the mountains. The move was meant to mark a separation from politics and a focus on sport, wildlife conservation, and the outdoors. 

Rebels rejected that at the so-called “Cincinnati Revolt,” the 1977 annual meeting where activists donned orange caps, stayed up till dawn, and took over. Their new president was a former border-patrol agent who had shot and killed a boy when he was seventeen. The National Outdoor Center that had been planned for northern New Mexico, near Colorado Springs, became the NRA Headquarters and Range, in suburban DC. Out went “safety,” “marksmanship,” and “recreation.” In came the proof-texting motto that remains: “The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms Shall Not Be Infringed.”

The revolt at Cincinnati would seem to prove Hegel’s theory of history, among other things, as it was a victory brought about by the defeat of the Black Panthers, who had occupied the California State Capitol on May 2, 1967, armed with rifles and shotguns. Bobby Seale read from “Executive Mandate Number One,” arguing that the time had come for “black people to arm themselves” against the “terror” of America’s “racist power structure.”

In their “Ten-Point Program,” the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense quoted at length from the Declaration of Independence, and proposed “decent housing,” “full employment,” and “preventative medical programs.” At the height of their power, two Panthers were killed in their sleep by Chicago police. That same year, the head of the FBI called the Black Panther Party “the greatest threat to the internal security of our country.”

Arguments that protect the “right of revolution” in theory do not protect all such revolutions in practice. “If every Black male 18-35 applied for a conceal & carry permit, and then joined the NRA in one day,” actor Wendell Pierce once tweeted, “there would be gun control laws in a second.”

“Members of political groups, such as the Tea Party who advocate broadening gun rights to guard against government tyranny—indeed the same claims made by Black Panther leaders in the 1960s—take seats in the US Congress, rather than being subjected to psychiatric surveillance,” write Jonathan M. Metzl and Kenneth T. MacLeish in the American Journal of Public Health. The Black Panthers no longer exist, but the NRA claims to have more than five million members. They have an annual operating budget of a quarter of a billion dollars, and a lobby that funded 51 percent of the members of Congress “at some point in their political careers,” according to a study by the Sunlight Foundation. In March of 2016, the Senate Majority Leader said that he couldn’t imagine that “a Republican majority, in the United States Senate, would want to confirm, in a lame-duck session, a [Supreme Court] nominee opposed by the National Rifle Association.” First on the NRA’s mission statement is “[To] protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” a Constitution they’ve reduced to a gun.

Inside the gun club where I learn to shoot,there’s a display of “Concealed Carrie” handbags, copies of Stop the Islamization of America, a framed poster of John Wayne, and a sign that reads, the second amendment makes all others possible. In the classroom, there’s another one that you can buy: we don’t call 911. 

Colorado is one of thirty-one states where you may open carry without a permit. For concealed carry, you need one.Hiding a firearm on one’s person first became legal in Georgia in 1976; by 2013, it was legal in all fifty states.Ours is an NRA-sponsored “First Steps” course. At the completion of it, the three other students and I receive a signed certificate with an NRA identification number that we may then take to the county, pay $112.50, and use to apply for a concealed-carry permit.

We are a railroad worker, a preschool teacher, an online professor/Southern Baptist minister, and me. Our teacher is a Chief Range Officer who has trained 8,000 students. But this course is new: It’s for educators. Schools, according to District of Columbia v. Heller, are “sensitive places.” Our teacher wants to change this, and she’s not alone. Donald Trump has promised that, if elected, he’d eliminate gun-free school zones on his first day in office. In April 2016, a school board near Fresno, California, voted to allow some district employees to carry firearms, and the schools in Douglas County, Colorado, issued semiautomatic rifles to their security staff. By its own accounting, the NRA spent $1 million on a report promoting its “School Shield” program, which would, in turn, create a new billion-dollar industry for gun manufacturers. This, our teacher says, gives her real peace of mind. She’s a young grandmother in rhinestone-studded jeans who likes hot-dish casseroles. She calls me “honey” and invites me to ladies’ night on the range and I kind of want to go. Thing is: She’s teaching us to kill. Thirty years ago her idea was to shoot a man in the kneecaps, she says. Just to stop him (from what, we can dream). The judge who first taught her to shoot explained that was imprudent: The law will be on the crippled man’s side, he argued, and she’d be stuck with a lifetime of his medical bills. 

She lines up bullets on her desk and writes the corresponding “stopping power,” on the whiteboard. Many humans would stop if shot in the thigh or shoulder; here “stop” means “kill.” She works her way up to telling us what kind of guns the secret service carry, by first dismissing .22s as good for bunnies, squirrels, and target practice in the backyard. Guns should be evaluated by which one is most natural to you—an extension of your hand—and which one has the greatest stopping power for the cheapest ammo. While .380s are “super cute,” she says to me and the one other woman, the ammo’s expensive. Apparently, we will be purchasing a great deal of that. For “home defense,” we’ll want the kind that shreds: “hollow points, wax-filled, and corkscrew.” She gets hers delivered from

We sit with the guns we brought or were loaned, either holstered or in a case, and learn about stance, grip, sight alignment, trigger control, breathing, and follow-through. Though the violent-crime rate is at a historic low, our packets are framed like the entire booming security industry, which is to say: afraid. “As we have progressed after the incidents of 9/11, I believe the average citizen has become more aware of the need to be able to defend themselves.” 

There are good guys and bad guys. She “hates” bull’s-eyes and really wants us to train on the figures that show a bad guy coming up behind a good guy, but we settle for human silhouettes. She mentions a cardiologist who ducks in between surgeries to fire a few rounds before he holds another human heart. His relaxation practice is more warlike than the training of American soldiers during World War II, who reportedly shot bull’s-eyes.

Two of the three safety recommendations are delivered with appropriate gravity: point the gun in a safe direction, and keep your finger off of the trigger. The third—keep your gun unloaded until you’re ready—is contentious. She keeps hers loaded, chambered, and with the safety off. She plays with her gun at night, while watching movies or the news. She walks in and out of stores with her hand on it; if need be, she’ll shoot right through her purse. As the preschool teacher points out, it would take too long to get it out of a holster anyway. 

The end of this logic is that everyone is armed, at all times, everywhere.

What follows is worse. We go to the simulation room. Before we shoot real guns, we need these stories in our head, a kind of moral formation. Scenarios are projected on a wall before us; with our laser guns, we take turns reacting to the screen in the dark. Our teacher is able to alter the scenario based on what we do. I almost feel relieved by the scene of a kid in a school courtyard shooting everyone, as it is the least objectionable. Most are abhorrent. For instance: The black man in our class of four students is congratulated for killing an unarmed black man who approached him in a parking lot, asked for change and to borrow his cell phone, then “got in his space.” “But he didn’t have a gun,” I said. Giving the man your change, or letting him borrow your phone, is not an option. Walking away is not an option. Asking him about his day: not an option. Once the man gets in your space, you’re justified to shoot him, I was told. Dead. These films are made by Laser Shot, Inc., out of Stafford, Texas, and distributed nationally. Cops train with them, our teacher says. 

There are thirty school scenarios on the laptop, more than any other offering (“concealed carry,” “jail,” “disturbance,” “assorted”). In many of these you are “giving cover” to police officers, which is unrealistic, but it plays into a puffed-up heroic narrative. 

The white man and I are in a school. We’re told that a girl has a “kill list.” She’s Asian and looks to be maybe sixteen. Though our own roles aren’t specified, we ask her about the list, then we follow her to her locker. I imagine that she’s getting her lip gloss, a binder, whatever, but my partner is shouting about her hands, which we can’t see. Perhaps because we have guns in our own hands, we assume everyone else does, too. Then, relief/plot twist, we can see half of one hand and the other in full: She’s talking to her mom on the phone. The conversation ends. She puts her hand back into the locker, pulls out a gun, that deus ex machina, and presses it to her head. Now I’m shouting—I don’t want her to kill herself. But my teammate shoots the girl, which was, he’s told, the right call. 

Oddly, the actual shooting is the most light-hearted part of the class. After being basted in paranoia, it strikes me what trust we’re placing in one another now, because though I’m only hearing the underwater sound of a dead sea with my “ears” on, and though I’m focusing on the “ten-point” regions of the silhouette’s head and chest with my “eyes” on, I’m aware there are people on either side of me who could kill any of us.

I use a .22 revolver and a .22 semi-automatic, which everyone seems to think is cute. The other people in the range are firing with larger-caliber bullets, so their silhouettes are ripped, while mine is merely punctured, seventy-seven times. “You’re doing great,” my teacher says. “Look at all those shots to the head. You’re ready to try a Glock.” So I do. The recoil cuts my thumb and we laugh. At the end of class, I fold up my dead man, my souvenir. The context of the course is end-civ, death-drive, war is a force that gives us meaning, a wished-for apocalypse. “I should hang that man on my front door,” she says. 

The first time Naomi Bettis called 911 on themorning of Halloween her report was rated  a “priority three” on a six-point scale. During her conversation with the emergency-response technician, Bettis’s report was upgraded to a “priority two,” as it seemed like the man across the street from her might be a burglar. “He shouldn’t be holding that gun around anybody,” she said. Her common sense was met with silence. Later she said it again.“He still shouldn’t be holding that gun.” 

“Well, it is an open-carry state,” the technician said. “But of course having those gas cans, it does seem pretty suspicious, so we’re gonna keep the call going for that.”

A man with a long gun, who returns into a building and comes out with a handgun, is suspicious because of the gasoline he’s carrying, not the guns. The man was not defending his pretty street from an invading army as part of “a well regulated Militia.” He was not hunting elk. But the law told Bettis that he was within the law. How did we arrive at a reading of the Constitution that protects this?

Writing for the 5-4 all-male majority in Heller, Justice Antonin Scalia gives one course. Nevermind that preparing a defense for a hypothetical enemy is really an offense, much like preemptive (and necessarily unjust) war. You must begin with the premise that a police officer might need to defend himself in his home, and that such a defense demands a gun; that’s Dick Heller. Read the amendment’s prefatory clause as not limiting its main clause, and accept the weird comma use: “Logic demands that there be a link between the stated purpose and the command.”Argue that the “right of the people” refers to “individual rights,” not “ ‘collective’ rights that may be exercised only through participation in some corporate body.”According to this exegesis, “the people” is a “term of art.” The people is a person.Allow an originalist reading of the Second Amendment to coexist with the world’s third-largest standing army, even though the former was meant to prevent the latter. Regarding the “arms” that were muskets, and are now AR-15s, agree that “the 18th-century meaning is no different from the meaning today.” 

In Heller, Scalia writes that the Constitution is a codification of broadly recognized rights, ones that have antecedents in earlier state and English law and are “natural”; they are also what people prefer. It all begins to smack of the given, of what is and must be, which is funny, because it wasn’t. 

From 1887 until 1960 every law-review article—a total of eleven—supported the “collective rights” model of interpreting the Second Amendment. The first article to argue otherwise was Stuart R. Hays’s “The Right to Bear Arms, A Study in Judicial Misinterpretation,” in volume two of the 1960 William & Mary Law Review. According to Carl Bogus in “The History and Politics of Second Amendment Scholarship: A Primer,” Hays’s student work would be followed by twenty-seven law-review articles from 1970 to 1989 that supported the “individual rights” model, at least sixteen of which were written by people “who had been directly employed by or represented the NRA or other gun rights organizations.”

Central to Hays’s argument is the idea that society is a fiction. There can be a “society for protection of the members of the family group,” that he calls “the kindred,” a group that’s determined by blood, but a bunch of different people living together won’t work. Hence: force. 

Like the old-timey Western typeface that’s used to advertise gun shows, Hays invokes “the frontier” and its romance, where “every man was an army unto himself, equipped with rifle and powder.” He fails to note that in towns like Tombstone, Arizona, visitors had to leave their guns with the sheriff.

The context in which he raised the question of a “judicial error” was unlike our own. “Bear arms” was understood as military idiom. The militia was understood to be the National Guard, and the majority of jurisdictions agreed that “the individual does not have the right to own or bear individual arms, such being a privilege not a right.” Hays quotes the Georgia courts who “drew a distinction between ‘bearing arms,’ ” a “constitutional right,” and “ ‘carrying weapons,’ ” a “state-granted privilege.”

Nearly fifty years later, Scalia equated the two, writing that “to have weapons” is the “most natural” meaning, and “ ‘arms’…has a meaning that refers to carrying for a particular purpose—confrontation.”So the amendment might be read like so: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to have weapons for confrontation, shall not be infringed.” 

There’s something liberating about that plain language, free of the high holy intonation of nationalism. But Scalia was a stylist, and Heller is full of fiery asides directed at Justice John Paul Stevens (whose “dead wrong” dissent was worthy of “the mad hatter”), and one love note to the handgun:

It is easier to store in a location that is readily accessible in an emergency; it cannot easily be redirected or wrestled away by an attacker; it is easier to use for those without the upper-body strength to lift and aim a long gun; it can be pointed at a burglar with one hand while the other hand dials the police.

This is “our Moloch,” Garry Wills wrote for the New York Review Daily. “The great god Gun,” before whom there can be no reason, and by whom politicians become “mute attendants at the shrine.”

In the eighteen days after the massacre of twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the NRA enrolled 100,000 new members, all of whom got swag. Then while parents did what no parent should ever have to do, and what no parent can ever return from, Americans went shopping for guns. Three years later, following the murder of fourteen people at a nonprofit for the developmentally impaired in San Bernardino, California, Americans bought more guns than in almost any other month in nearly two decades. 

Any talk of “gun control” leads to sales. So President Obama’s entreaties, however small (background checks for buyers, registration for sellers) make gold for the shrine. Since Obama took office in 2009, shares of Smith & Wesson have increased 977 percent and Sturm, Ruger & Co. is up 792 percent, outperforming Apple’s stock, and constituting, in the language of the chairman of one Nevada investment firm, “real sales and real earnings.” 

Which would beg the question of cost, wouldn’t it?

Bettis tried to end her first 911 call. “I won’t be around,” she said. “ ’Cause I’ve had a lot of losses this week.” And she didn’t feel up for another.

In four minutes she called back. “Oh my God oh my God oh my God,” she repeated through tears. “Oh, the poor guy—he got shot three times.”

“Is he awake?” The technician asked. “Is he breathing?”

“No.” Long pause. “No.”

As part of our ongoing “professional development,” my fellow teachers and I attend an “active shooter training.” It’s the day after the anniversary of Sandy Hook. It is also almost winter break, so the usual coffee-and-cream station has been upgraded to a holiday spread. This whiplash juxtaposition of the unspeakable and the upbeat seems to be in the nature of a global age, so we’re accustomed to the weirdness, and we sit down with full plates.

One of our trainers is a police officer whose friend and fellow officer died at Planned Parenthood nineteen days earlier. The other is the head of the campus emergency system.

“Given recent incidents,” the first begins. 

In 2008, the University of Colorado Board of Regents wrote that “Police chiefs at CU…believe that allowing weapons on campus is a bad idea.” That bad idea is now the law and we don’t talk about it. 

We begin much later, with what’s become an American archetype: the school shooter. We’re supposed to pay attention to red flags. Shitty hygiene? Stopped coming to class? “If your spidey sense goes off,” listen to it.

I think of Naomi Bettis, who tried to do just that. 

I think of the student who came up to me after the first day of class and said, “WHYARE-
YOUTALKINGONFASTFORWARD!” He’d been medically retired after repeated deployments. This student wrote me a threatening e-mail, which I forwarded to the dean. You were right, the dean said later. The student was both homicidal and suicidal. Spidey sense, check.

But we’re only being trained for a shooter coming from outside in. If it’s one of our students, “then game on,” the police officer says, with more gravity than his words would suggest.

Here’s what we can do, we’re told. We can: Run, Hide, Fight. 

Run out of the building; run to the hills. Hide. Is there a closet? Can you cram under that desk? Turn off the lights; draw the blinds. Tie your belt around the door arm. Got a wedge? You can perform heroics with that. Build a barricade of tables and play dead. Our students will likely be “hysterical,” but we must quiet them. And cell phones off—no cell-phone light. Have your “go bag” ready. Then if all that fails, fight! Remember that barricade you built? That’ll help. Throw hot coffee in the shooter’s face; knock the weapon from his arms. Two people behind the door, to charge at the back of his knees; others in front of it, like battering rams, to go straight for his gut. Then you tackle him. Kick the gun away. 

“Because I’ll want that as a tool,” the head of campus security says. Then call for help, or call again.

It’s invigorating to imagine yourself throwing scalding coffee in a murderer’s face. I would do that, and happily. But I drink my coffee. I’m hardly ever wearing a leather belt. Even if I was, the head of public safety says that his belt broke when he tried to tie it around the door arm. A bike tube worked better, he says. So is that the lesson? Should we all carry bike tubes and stepladders and wedges and go bags? And regarding those phones—if we need them off, how are we also supposed to have them on? And also: Why don’t the doors just lock? Why don’t the windows just open? In only a very few rooms would these protocols actually work. 

Even as he trained us to think of it as a weapon for murder, the head of public security calmly described a gun as a “tool.”

But is it a tool? And, if so, for what work?

In August 2016, on the fiftieth anniversary of the nation’s first school shooting, when an ex-Marine sharpshooter climbed the tower at the University of Texas and trained his “tools” on the people below, State Bill 11 went into effect, so licensed students, faculty, staff, and visitors at Texas’s public universities may carry guns to class. Now this tool is about to rearrange thought. At the University of Houston, faculty were advised to: 

Be careful discussing sensitive topics
Drop certain topics from your curriculum
Not “go there” if you sense anger
Limit student access off hours
Go to appointment-only office hours
Only meet “that student” in controlled circumstances

In a word: stop teaching.

We teach our students that the first move in an argument is often one of definition: gun as tool. Gun as “objective correlative” (T. S. Eliot) of “liberty” (Wayne LaPierre). Gun as “right” that, if left “unexercised,” will be lost ( While running for president, Jeb Bush argued that our country is a gun when he tweeted a photo of his engraved handgun with a one-word caption, “America.” 

A gun is a little cannon for killing that we’ve sentimentalized and normalized. We’re to understand that it’s not like the “ ‘dangerous and unusual’ ” weapons that Heller recognizes as a “limitation on the right to keep and carry arms.”

I’ve sometimes wondered what would happen if I taught with a crossbow on, concealed with, say, a cape. Or mace rolled up in a yoga mat. I think I’d get a trip to the Wellness Center, stat. But a Ruger painted robin’s-egg blue would be cool.

Students protesting the University of Texas’s decision to allow concealed carry organized a “strap-in” to dramatize and fight “absurdity with absurdity.” According to Title 9 of the Texas Penal Code, a dildo is “obscene.” A gun, which can rip your face off, is not. To fight what they argued were lethal phallic fetishes, the students ornamented themselves with non-lethal ones, risking a Class C misdemeanor and a fine of $500 to do so. Gun as fetish, they argued, and gun lovers as “ammosexuals.”

Then what is gun violence? The debate flares, fades. Is it “domestic terrorism”? Is it the consequence of untreated “mental illness”? Is it a public health crisis, an epidemic? Is it the price of freedom, which “isn’t free”?

Our trainers offer us phone numbers so that we can receive alerts by mobile device, web, phone, or social media in the event of an “active shooter.” They’re the same numbers that send out text messages for a “red flag warning” (the high winds and low humidity that can lead to fire), the same numbers that deliver the happy bulletin of a snow day.

Down the hill, at my husband’s school, the twelve-year-olds practice “locks, lights, out of sight,” the same way he practiced “duck and cover” as a kid in California. Duck and cover was for earthquakes. We used to do tornado drills. In practice, the question has been answered. Gun violence is weather. American weather.

After one record-breaking fire and then the next, May 2015 was the wettest month on record in Colorado Springs. Stumps sprouted. Basements flooded. Mushrooms appeared by the yucca. 

My sister Elisabeth remembers the first day of all that rain as “a beautiful day at home.” Her five-year-old son was sick and she’d called in to work to care for him. They spent the morning
together, content and idle. Then Leo lay down for a nap on the couch and Elisabeth lay down with a book in her bedroom. The sound that woke her was like an old TV on full blast. Or was that someone shouting? It was a few minutes
before one. She walked into the living room to check. Leo was sitting straight up on the couch. Standing over him was a man who was covered in mud and shouting about a war. What Leo under-
stood was that there was a war and his mother was dead, but what scared him most was seeing her living face when she found him there.

“There’s a war, ma’am! There’s a war!” The man shouted. He looked like he’d painted himself—the mud was thick on his face and matting his hair.

All that mattered was getting this man away from her child.

“I’ll help you with the war,” Elisabeth said. She began to drag him outside. My sister is five four and had been asleep. The man who broke into her home was five ten and high on meth. The distance from the couch to the front door is twenty-four feet, but she doesn’t remember covering it: her pulling, and him resisting. She knows she did, in part, because he held onto the bookcase by their front door and left a muddy handprint there. And she knows she did, in part, because when she told Leo to go into her bedroom and hide and not come out no matter what, he looked frightened, and he hesitated. Then he ran. 

Now Elisabeth and the mud-covered man were outside in the rain. Neither of them had on shoes. That’s where Elisabeth began to shout the names of her neighbors. And that’s where she began to call, just generally, for help. She was holding onto the man who was yelling about the war. She could tell she was “escalating
him” and he began to shake. Worse: He kept trying to break away, and get back into the house. Again, she feared for her son. “We’ll take care of it,” she promised, the war. She grabbed the man’s arm, and began to pull. Her plan, insomuch as she had one, was to get them out of the front yard and into her car.

Then something shifted. The man got far enough away from Elisabeth that she knew she could run, and she did. Back into the house, sprinting to lock every door, then into the closet where Leo had hid.

For nine years my sister worked on a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner team, helping survivors of child abuse, human trafficking, and rape, both in the hospital and in court. Now she works on community-based violence prevention. 

Her work is trauma and violence. Funny, then, to be the one calling 911. She and Leo waited in the closet twenty-eight minutes after the first of her calls went through. During that time “the mudman,” as they would later call him, jumped the neighbors’ fence, went upstairs, and put on yoga pants and a hoodie. He stole a chainsaw, and broke into the next home. An eighty-five-year old woman was sitting in her kitchen when she heard “a racket.” In walked the barefoot man. “Is this Kentucky?” he asked the woman. “No, this is Colorado,” she said.

“You sure this isn’t Kentucky?” He asked again. “I’m sure it’s not,” she said.

And that’s when she started to get frightened, she told the news.

On to his fourth house, where a neighbor tackled him, and he was done. When the police got him into custody in a hospital holding cell, he seemed agreeable enough, until he took the chair he’d been sitting on and bashed an officer twice in the head.

What’s missing from this story is a gun. A gun on the nightstand by Elisabeth’s bed. A whole safe of guns in the closet, where Leo hid. If Elisabeth or her husband had bought one firearm, they would have likely bought another; most US gun owners have multiple guns. But they have none.  

When the police arrived they gave Leo stickers and watched cartoons with him. An officer told Elisabeth that if this ever happened again she had “the right” to defend herself with a weapon. Elisabeth wrote in an e-mail the next day that she “politely informed [him] that we believe in living unarmed and [they] both moved on.” She heard other iterations of this advice. “It would have been two,” several people told her, if he’d come to their home. Two shots to the chest. 

That’s the scenario we like to imagine, and the sort that millions of Americans train for: a stranger who comes to do you ill. If the stranger is Muslim or black, they have their “otherness” covered. If they’re white, we append labels—for example, “the meth head” who broke into my sister’s home. Or, again and again, the “mentally ill.” From her work, my sister knows that most victims know their attackers, that the mentally ill are more likely to be the victims of crime than the perpetrators, and that having a gun in your home makes your whole family less safe. 

In 1996, a rider on an appropriations bill stripped all funding for research into gun violence from the Center for Disease Control’s budget. So the research is dated, but continuously verified. Here are the findings of “Injuries and Deaths Due to Firearms In the Home,” from The Journal of Trauma: Injury, Infection, and Critical Care. “For every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.” 

Imagine training for that. Scenario 1: Your husband’s out and you’re taking a bath. You hear a noise in the basement. You get the gun from under his pillow and tiptoe down to check. You don’t realize it’s your daughter’s boyfriend, sneaking in to say goodnight. You’re petrified, and it’s dark. Then you see a man moving. Do you shoot?

Scenario 2: You’re fifteen years old and depressed, in a new town and school. You have a face full of acne but not a single friend. Then your long-distance girlfriend breaks up with you by changing her status on Facebook, so it’s all over now. Beta male forever. You’re home alone, listening to the world’s saddest song on repeat, loading and unloading your mother’s magazine, because that click is comforting, and you kind of want to die. She gets home and starts yelling at you. You’re so sick of this shit. Do you shoot?

Scenario 3: You have the mind, perception, and fine-motor control of a five-year-old boy. You’re playing with your friends in the basement. You find two water guns, a play gun, and a real gun. Do you shoot?

We want the melodrama, not the truth. In the melodrama a gallant neighbor shoots the meth head dead.In truth, this meth head was a neighbor. His name is Gerald. Because he lived, we learn from his public defender that he had no prior history with the law, that he was “trying to find a place to hide,” that he’s not a vet, that he feels terrible about what he did that day, and that “he’s a really nice guy.” 

The man who shot the women at the home for sober living had become sober himself, and had stated his desire, on a very different day, to sponsor someone else in that hard good work, work he’ll never do.

Imagine that all the scenarios are relational: your wife, your sister, your son. Then move on from there: his wife, her sister, their son. This is how we have a society, if we want one.

Colorado Springs was founded by people who had tuberculosis, an illness that travels by air. The best treatment they found was the dry air, here.

I knew myself to be infected at the gun club. Some part of me—the Hollywood part, the all-American part—thought there was something cool about my classmate’s gun, because it was a .38 Special, and because she carried it “like she means business,” a phrase that was too readily available in my brain. The bullets were artful. The shooting was fun. 

There are illnesses that we all have but only some people manifest the symptoms. That’s gun violence in America, lodged in the “corporate body” that Scalia dismissed.

“Perhaps psychiatric expertise might be put to better use by enhancing US discourse about the complex anxieties, social and economic formations, and blind assumptions that make people fear each other in the first place,” write Metzl and MacLeish, by way of offering one treatment.

Six months after the shootings on our streets, I joined my neighbors in a silent walk. Across from the ground where Andrew Myers died, a woman was standing behind her low fence, chiming two finger cymbals at slow intervals. After each note she opened her hands wide, as though to say I’m letting this go.

The narrative we tell most often is just an either/or. Either “be a sitting sheep,” as my teacher
put it, or be armed. But there are other ways. 

On the morning of Halloween 2015, Matthew Abshire was in his apartment’s living room when he heard two gunshots. He saw a man holding an AR-15 in one hand and a revolver in the other. He saw another man, collapsed on his bike.

Abshire called the police, and was put on hold. He made the remarkable decision to leave his apartment unarmed and pursue the shooter. He followed the man down the street, staying close, hiding behind trees, with canniness
and courage as his weapons. He found the pulse of one woman and administered first aid. He took his shirt off and applied pressure to her wound. Then he saw the next woman, who had been shot in the face. When he recounted this story on the news, he did something beautiful: He touched his own face, as though he could feel her sorrow there. 

He stayed on the line with the cops. When they arrived, he turned back, and started “caring
for the lady’s wounds” until an ambulance came. 

That same day, the fifth-grade boy who lived two doors down told his parents that he’d seen “the shooter getting ready to shoot.”

So it meant a great deal to their whole family when the remaining women moved back into their home three days later. One returned to the front porch and lit a cigarette, which smelled to the father “like incense,” reclaiming their street and space. And it meant even more when, against overwhelming and recent evidence, the women at the home for sober living chose to open their door that December after the bell rang several times. It was their neighbors. They’d made cookies. 

Something mended then. It was cold out, and dark. The boy hadn’t played basketball in their front yard since the shooting, but now he would.

“Mom,” he said. “Can you turn the light on?”


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boghall's picture
boghall · 7 years ago

Thank you for this insightful, compassionate piece. Where I live it's no problem to have a gun: few do. But gun proliferation is merely the fuel, not the spark, for such endemic violence. Numerous countries have similar levels of gun ownership, but almost no shootings: the problem is, as you describe, cultural (harder and slower to change, but ultimately the solution). Your out of control gun lobby has got people hooked on self-defeating aggression through cynical manipulation of their fears, directly trading death for profit. Perhaps there's some hope of common-sense controls at least after 'Handy' Trump loses.


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