Prisoners of Liberty

This month’s American high school massacre is no longer the lead news story.  There are hours of funerals and uncomprehending sorrow yet to be broadcast, but the media has moved on.

Santa Fe, Texas isn’t Parkland, Florida.  There the students mobilized for months of protests and media work to hold lawmakers accountable for the deadly conditions in American schools.

That was then.  This is now.  America is over it.

After Parkland, squeamish journalists and politicians softly volleyed questions about whether or not that particular massacre was any more significant than previous ones.  The question wasn’t “will we do something about this tragedy?”  It was, “will this tragedy do something about us?”  In answer, leaders continued to hang back waiting to see if the nation’s sorrow was deep enough to compel action.

The inertia of legislators outlasted the hope of young survivors and the stricken victims’ families.  They demanded action but got only hopes and prayers.  “Amen to that,” whispered NRA folk, gun merchants, and lawmakers.

Gun culture’s triumph was so complete that the first words to follow public condolences were about the need to fortify schools and arm teachers.  In the interval between massacres, there is always time to deliberate about what would have prevented the last one, and, before conclusions can be reached, another massacre occurs.  Out of respect for the dead, all serious discussion is then muted until the cycle repeats.

Previously contrite gun advocates are now emboldened.  In interviews they almost scold journalists for asking the wrong questions.  The problem isn’t guns, they insist, despite 35,000 US gun deaths in the past year.

So far in 2018, more kids have been shot in American schools than US military personnel killed in active combat, and still gun folk remain certain of what the problem is not.  These deaths are not caused by guns.

My response to this dereliction has been fiercely reasoned here and in unreadably long and mercifully unpublished posts.  I have cute little charts showing how American tolerance of gun murders, suicides, and accidents is statistically indisputable proof of deep cultural sickness.  Whatever.

breakdown of murders in usa and canada

There’s no point in rational argument with the ideological deaf.  Even when the ground is slick with other people’s blood, their stance is unshakeable.  Instead of thoughtful consideration, you get only condescension.

This condescension comes from gun lovers as a tautology: if you shared their experience and knowledge of guns, you would share their belief that guns are harmless.  It’s tautological because the conclusion is contained in the premise, and because it is tautological, it lends itself to absurdities such as, “if you’d ever eaten the exquisite red peppers I’ve eaten, you’d stop talking nonsense about preferring green peppers.”

That’s the kind of thing you hear from a drunk friend when arguing about pizza toppings.  Until you’ve eaten enough red peppers that you like them, your preference of green peppers is invalid.  It’s not the kind of reasoning you should rely on in matters of life and death.

Nevertheless, the gun folk are in the ascendant, having exhausted all the grief and outrage of a nation.  Writing from my side of the Canada/US border, without a gun holstered on my belt, I really have nothing serious to say.

This leaves me wondering how to think and speak about this more effectively.  To write credibly about guns, must I use a gun?  Does gaining the attention of gun enthusiasts require that I etch my message in stone, like the backstop of a firing squad, a mob hit, or like a drunk pissing his name on a snowbank?

If we can’t be taken seriously, why try to be serious?  No one in authority is interested in any solution that implies complicity or demands compromise.  It’s time to lighten the tone of this discourse.

So, let’s try being silly about it, and see where that leads…

Gun shy people always fail by half measures, seeking legislation against specific weapons and features, such as rapidity of fire, clip capacity, or mysterious inventions that sound like what they’re not.  Like “bump stocks.”  That’s an appropriate name for a short-term investment, not an AR-15 accessory that still hasn’t been banned.

In so doing, we fail to make the most basic and important distinction:  Guns don’t kill people.  Bullets do.

If some neck-bearded militiaman seeks to make friends and influence people by swaggering around in camo pants and reflective shades, waving an assault rifle and a tiki light, let them.  As long as there are no bullets in the gun, society can cope with them like any other crazies on the street.  Like Barney Fife in “Andy of Mayberry,” the deputy was only authorized to carry an unloaded gun.

The Lieutenant Governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, was defending state law in this regard after the Santa Fe high school massacre last week.  Asked whether the parents of shooters, whose guns have been used by their children, should be held liable for the consequences, he pivoted to the proud claim that it is already illegal in Texas to put a loaded gun in the hands of a child.

Note the distinction.  Under such a law, guns are not the problem.  Loaded guns are not for children, but unloaded guns are a different matter.  Picture kids stringing a bobber and hook onto a gun barrel to go fishing or using the butt to shovel cat poo out the backyard sandbox.  It’d be weird, even for Texas, but harmless.

So far Texas and I are on common ground.  We can agree that guns aren’t the problem and that children shouldn’t have loaded guns.

However, this leaves the child liable if they happen to find some ammunition along with the weapons in the home.  If they load bullets into the gun they find in the basement or unload the gun into some classmates they find at school, no adult will have broken a law.

When pressed to support a law requiring guns to be locked safely away from kids at home, the Lieutenant Governor again changed the subject.  Gun safety starts at home, he agreed, but he urged the interviewer to imagine how much safer it would have been if four or five armed teachers had ganged up on the kid doing the shooting in Santa Fe.  Perhaps the death toll would have been less than 10, he enthused.

It reminded me of a funny scene in Thomas Pynchon’s, Mason & Dixon, in which two educated Brits find themselves in a remote inn, deep in backwoods America around 1765.  An argument breaks out across the boisterous barroom.  Voices are raised, and threats are uttered.  Guns are drawn, first by the disputants, and soon by absolutely everyone else.  In the tense silence that follows, it was clear that one shot would lead to many, and one death to a massacre, but in the imagination of Pynchon and the current Lieutenant Governor of Texas, everyone was deterred by the threat of retaliation.

If mutual assured destruction (MAD) has been borrowed from nuclear strategists by gun advocates, the idea of arming teachers doesn’t go far enough.  In fact, the NRA takes the general position that guns are not the problem, they are the solution.  More guns will result in less gun violence because bad guys will be afraid to act.

Of course, none of this makes any sense.  If MAD was a failsafe strategy, the US would be insisting that Iraq and Korea develop nuclear arsenals.  Once you adopt the Orwellian truthspeak, repeating the mantra that more weapons equals less violence, there’s no turning back.

So why not go all the way, repeal the law against kids carrying loaded guns, and arm them all?  If that is the way to prevent the next mass shooting, and if that is the society envisaged by the NRA and Congress, then they should git ‘er done!

Imagine it, like the smoky tavern full of woodsmen and hunters, a crowded suburban class room, with every kid armed and ready for one of them to start shooting.  Under every little desk, there would be a pistol in a lunch bag (perhaps with special funding to buy guns for kids who can’t afford lunch).

But Pynchon’s satire recognized the danger of frontier justice.  The NRA does not.

Perhaps the first to fire is by definition the bad guy, and the second to pull a trigger can be the hero.  Still, everyone who fires after that is almost as bad as the bad guy because of the collateral damage they’re risking.  In the novel, everyone could have been caught in the crossfire.

It was different in the imaginary Wild West, from whence comes so much of the gun advocate’s sense of righteousness.  There, the professional gunslinger was called out, turning slowly to face his challenger.  This gave everyone time to escape the line of fire, and when the duel ended, everyone went back to their drinks.  Sadly, school shootings are never so well organized.

Back then, by which I mean back when cowboy movies were a Hollywood staple, it made sense to have gangs shoot it out in the street.  Mothers pulled their kids into doorways and the town drunk always found time to throw himself into a rain barrel or horse trough.  That’s what was OK about the OK Corral – no non-combatants in harm’s way.

Real pistols are heavy.  At Sandy Hook, the tiny murder victims would have needed help cocking them, and their aim would have been atrocious.  Still, odds are that they would have nailed their assailant sooner or later.  If they all started shooting at once, there would have been hundreds of bullets in the air.  The laws of probability would have dictated that at least one of them would strike the killer before all the children were slain by each other.

Obviously, it’s obscene to allow beautiful, innocent toddlers to have their flesh and bones torn and splintered by bullets.  Apparently, it’s also heretical to think seriously about protecting them, or at least for government leaders to do so.  This contradiction compels gun advocates to get creative sometimes.

For example, the Lieutenant Governor is urging schools to reduce points of access and egress to the minimum required by fire code.  “Reduce the number of doors,” he said, reminding Jake Tapper that most of Texan schools were 40 years old, and so weren’t designed for modern realities.

duck and cover

elementary school children prepare for an atomic blast

It made me nostalgic for my kindergarten days in which we practiced for atomic blasts.  Our building wasn’t designed for modern realities either, so our instruction was to run from our desks to an interior wall, to sit cross legged, facing away from the windows, covering the back of our head and neck with our arms to protect against flying glass.  Overbrook Public School was not, in the knowing parlance of gun advocates, a hard target.

It would have been better to have built atomic age schools underground.  Maybe Texas should build its schools in underground bunkers too.  Kids don’t need fresh air or sunlight.  They need protection from mass murderers.

As children, we also had fire drills.  The drills were concerned with assuring an immediate and orderly escape.  Gun drills in American schools are the opposite.  They start with lock down, then isolation and elimination of the threat.  Evacuation comes last.

When the Lieutenant Governor calls for fewer doors, he’s clearly thinking about how to make it less convenient for bad guys to enter a school, and harder for them to escape.  For all those armed teachers and security guards, it will be like shooting a fish in a barrel.  Sadly, as in Pynchon and in reality, there are many fish in that barrel.

Sooner or later, as in war, no one will escape the effects of a decision to allow carnage in the name of freedom.  In a land where everyone has vowed to protect life and liberty, Americans have sacrificed the former for the latter.

This is an unforgiveable error.  There is no freedom without life.  No child freely chooses to be murdered.  No child freely chooses to live in terror.  That freedom has been taken away by callow politicians playing to parents’ worst impulses.

Together, they wring their hands over the tender corpses, professing mystification and helplessness.  The ensuing debate is meaningless.  Only the deaths are real.  The issue is too grave for levity.  I’ve tried.

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