Mr. Obama, Guns and America

My wife and I watched President Obama on CNN the other night at the televised “town-hall meeting” on gun control.
Whatever my reservations about Mr. Obama, I’d say that purely on a personal level, he did pretty well—showing more direct, sincere emotion than I’m used to seeing from him.
But he’s always been more emotional—hurt and angry—about gun violence than any other topic he’s talked about. And why shouldn’t he be?
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My wife and I watched President Obama on CNN the other night at the televised “town-hall meeting” on gun control.
Whatever my reservations about Mr. Obama, I’d say that purely on a personal level, he did pretty well—showing more direct, sincere emotion than I’m used to seeing from him.
But he’s always been more emotional—hurt and angry—about gun violence than any other topic he’s talked about. And why shouldn’t he be?

Although I’m hearing that the level of violent crime is down over the last few years, the incidents of horrific mass murders—not to mention the shootings and killings that occur every day in various parts of the country—have made most people in America sick, scared and angry; and flailing around for some kind direction and control over the situation.
There was a picture in the New York Times the other day (in Texas—where else?) of a father and his young son shopping in a store (I think it was a bakery or a grocery store) and the father had a semi-automatic rifle slung over his shoulder. Texas has recently enacted laws that permit the most flagrant open carrying of guns (including semi-automatic pistols and rifles) in the country.

There are probably tens of thousands of legally purchased semi-automatic rifles in Americans’ possession. And it’s not rocket science to transform a semi-automatic weapon into an automatic. No doubt you could probably get a tutorial on-line—sandwiched in between a video on how to make the best chili and learning to yodel.

…This whole issue of gun sales, gun ownership and gun violence is very complex and I don’t want write a book about it here (at least not a long book). So I’ll try to limit this article to random comments and questions… (As a qualifier: to me, it seems impossible to talk about any public issue in this country without occasionally having to mention race).

Of course, (despite the NRA’s claims) it’s not just gang members, career criminals or mentally deranged individuals who are doing all the shooting and killing. There are various other types and categories of people pulling the triggers…

  • We have those who are “standing their ground”—citizens (usually with legal weapons) who perceive their lives to be in danger or feel that their property is being violated. This scenario generally involves someone white shooting someone black or brown.
  • There’s also a lot of gun violence that is “black on black”—shootings that occur in poorer neighborhoods that are flooded with illegal guns; guns that are carried by drug dealers as part of doing business but also by people who feel the need for self-protection or by some kids for whom carrying a gun is symbol of masculinity (of course this connection between “masculinity” and guns is obviously something that extends to all races).
  • Then there are the cops. Nothing really new about this (though it does seem to be almost out of control these days), but (mostly white) cops are shooting unarmed black people in towns and cities across the country.
  • Also known to fire off a weapon from time to time… Security guards, shop-owners defending themselves, people who have been the victims of violent crime, truck-drivers worried about hijacking, farmers and country people protecting their crops and vegetable gardens, ranchers protecting their cattle from predators, etc. etc.
  • And, of course, there are the millions of people who own guns (usually more than one) for home protection, hunting and target practice.

There are probably more guns (legal and illegal) than people in the United States—over three hundred million anyway…  Millions of these guns are semi-automatic—weapons that can fire many rounds (bullets) very quickly. Aside from using them on a range for target practice (practicing for what?), is there really any reason for an average citizen to own or carry a semi-automatic rifle? Do most hunters use a semi-automatic rifle to bring down a deer or a rabbit? And to have one in the house for self-protection? I don’t know—I think it would wind up doing more harm than good.

The main argument militant open-carry types use (both for regular and semi-automatic weapons) is that if “good” citizens are visibly armed and prepared for danger, it will serve as a preventive measure. It might deter someone from opening fire in the first place or at least stop them from killing too many people.
Maybe that’s true—though I wonder. If it is true, then why not have everybody carry a gun?—teachers, nurses, librarians, mailmen and women, delivery people, street-vendors, etc. etc. All adults and children should go armed to provide the maximum safety and security for the public.
Can we detect a problem in this scenario?

It’s obvious that the more guns being carried around by ordinary citizens (most of whom have no training in using them), the more the chances are that people will be shot and killed—simple math. There would be the inevitable accidents and, of course, people get irritated or have arguments in the course of a day—now they’d be armed. This really is a recipe for truly out-of-control violence. Best to leave the open carrying of weapons to the police and the military.
On the other hand—and bringing in the Second Amendment here—there is, in the last several decades and especially in the last twenty or thirty years, plenty of evidence that the Founders’ fears about centralized power were prophetic. Although times were different and their experience was with Imperial England, they understood it was only natural that power (and the authority inherent in that power) tends to accumulate and take on a life of its own—beyond the reach and control of its own citizens.

We are living in a time when the Federal government has vast police powers and the modern weapons to enforce them. Even if, in the end, it would be fruitless for “local militias” to oppose the power of the Federal government, it was/is a basic fear (deeply rooted in a knowledge of history and human nature) that the Founders were addressing when they included the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights.

I think it—the Second Amendment—is often used as an excuse by the NRA and many gun owners (and opportunistic right-wing politicians) to push their own money driven or bigoted agendas, but there is no denying that in many ways our centralized government has gotten way too powerful and uses its power to infringe on the rights of its own citizens.
I’m not advocating armed insurrection—just mentioning that the Second Amendment didn’t just land in the constitution like an strange object from outer space. It was based on real experience and a deep wisdom about the nature of human beings and governments.


Back to semi-automatic weapons and a story…

I don’t’ see any practical sense to owning a semi-automatic rifle for home protection, But—I can understand owning a semi-automatic pistol for that reason. And the main reason I can understand it is because having one probably saved my life one time.

When I was in my thirties, I lived in a pretty safe neighborhood in Brooklyn—there was very little crime there. And as for violent crime, I never heard so much as a rumor of it.
I lived in a studio apartment on the basement floor of a brownstone and, in the summer I was used to leaving the front door to my apartment open (I didn’t have an air-conditioner) so I’d get a cross breeze from the hallway. There was a locked, wrought-iron-grill door in the front part of the basement hallway so no one could get in that way—and the main door to the building, up a flight of stairs on first floor, was also locked.
We’d never had a break-in in that building or anywhere on my block. So I felt safe leaving the door to my apartment open because there had never been any trouble and because I also had a loaded gun next to my bed.

Very late one night, I heard noises in the hallway—something I’d never heard before. I got out of bed, grabbed the .25 caliber pistol I had (there was a round in the chamber) and walked into the hallway. There were two very wrong looking guys standing right there, no more than four feet away—the one closest to me carrying a tire iron. He gave me a stupid grin and said, “Hey we’re looking for Joe.” I pointed the pistol at his head and said, “Get out or I’ll kill you.” The two of them ran up the stairs and out of the building. When I went upstairs I saw they had broken open the front door to the building. I went back downstairs, put the gun away and called a twenty-four hour locksmith to fix the front door.

I bought that gun illegally from a local guy in the neighborhood.
Why did I have a gun? Well, for one thing, at that point in my life I was used to having them. Not too long before that I’d been a New York City probation officer and was able to own (and carry) a gun legally. When I left the Probation department I turned in my two legal pistols but since I felt safer with a gun, I bought this one from my neighborhood pal.
Also, I had always been fascinated by guns and the power that came with them—not to mention that they could be used to protect and save innocent people from men who wanted to harm them.

I grew up in the Fifties when all the local heroes were men who had fought in the war—used guns to shoot and kill and defeat the evil Nazis. I watched all those war movies over and over again. Also, this was the high point of Hollywood Westerns (both movies and TV shows), where tough sheriffs and marshals faced down rustlers and evil gunslingers, and—a sterling instance of bedrock American racism—brave cavalrymen and settlers fought off and defeated vicious Indian savages. It was impossible to ignore the fact that this courageous heroism and defending of the innocent was possible because of guns.

As a kid I had the usual toy cap guns, and after that a Daisy air-rifle (BB gun) and then a CO-2 pellet gun. Later I had the two pistols I bought when I was a sworn officer of the law—a .39mm Smith & Wesson automatic and short-barreled .38 revolver. Having a loaded gun—being able to potentially wield that kind of deadly power in the service of The Good and The Just made me feel strong, manly and potentially heroic.
I also, from time to time, owned a couple of different rifles. I’d go upstate into the woods and fire them at old bottles. I loved the BANG! – then the recoil—the buck and the vibration in my hand, arm and shoulder; seeing the bullet hit something at a distance almost at the same instant you pressed the trigger. It was a sensation of superhuman power.
…Later, when my kids got old enough to conceivably reach into the upper shelves of my clothes closet where I kept my guns, I sold them. And that was that. When I got older, I discovered there might actually be other ways to feel like a man in the world and over time I grew sick at heart realizing the damage that weapons caused. I lost my interest in guns.

When I was on Sirius radio and took calls from gun owners from all over the country, I came to feel that—except for people who really needed weapons; cops, soldiers, and others who used them out in the country or for legitimate home protection—all their passionate spouting about carrying guns in public and the sacredness of Second Amendment rights was just an excuse to have a gun and the deadly power it gave them.
No need to go into long, complex explanations but I’m pretty sure, having known a lot of men in my time who owned and carried guns (and used them, too) that having a weapon makes up for an innate feeling of powerlessness, a feeling that has many causes—psychological, cultural, racial and economic.
Back in the 19th century, when the Colt six-gun revolver was invented and became widely available, it was called “the old equalizer”. No matter how big and strong some other man was—no matter how much power he had—you could be his equal (even his better) if you carried your trusty Colt.


…As for hunting—my feeling is, unless you need the food and you’re going to eat what you shoot, then it’s just sadistic barbarity. Where is the “sport” in shooting another living thing, especially when the odds are so stacked against it? Maybe it’s a hard-wired instinct in men to hunt and kill animals, something that lingers from back a long time ago before there were restaurants and corner supermarkets…
On the other hand (always a lot of other hands)… god knows what’s in the food we buy; antibiotics and about twenty different kinds of noxious chemicals.
I’ve gone fishing many times in my life, caught/killed a few fish—but I always cleaned and cooked what I caught. Again, I can’t understand why anyone would fish for “sport”. What psychological need drives a person (almost always a man) to kill an animal or a fish for sport? Is there a need to show you’re more resourceful, crafty and powerful? Maybe that’s it—I don’t know.


Well, there’s always more to say about this subject and I’m sure I haven’t addressed some important issues, but let me get back to President Obama’s town hall meeting and his recent statements and actions about guns…

Obama’s main refrain at the meeting was: No one is attempting to take away the guns of legitimate gun owners. Well that’s fine—if that’s all he really what he intends by his proposals and actions.
I believe that he is absolutely sincere in wanting to protect people from guns. He sees Congress doing nothing. He sees localities who have tried to pass laws to protect their citizens have to battle with powerful lobbyists and bribed legislators, and he sees courts making terrible decisions. He also sees innocent people (a lot of them children) being murdered every day. Clearly, he feels—as leader of the country—a sense of personal responsibility.
It’s ironic that the President is using “executive powers” in his attempts to impose some legitimate control over the sale and use of illegal guns. (This is the same “executive power” that has, since 9/11, launched unsanctioned incursions and invasions all over the world and built multi-billion dollar NSA spying centers).
I say it’s “ironic” because, by taking such actions, he is reinforcing the fears many Americans have of the arbitrary power of the executive branch.
On the other hand, our elected “representatives” (at least that’s what they’re supposed to be) have done nothing to deal with this national plague of illegal gun sales, purchases and violence. For various reasons—most of them bad, they allow the mass murder to continue. Someone has to do something.

Mr. Obama insists that if you are not a felon or have not been deemed “mentally unfit” (though it seems as if ¾ of Congress and hundreds of cops—not to mention most of the Republican aspirants for the Presidential nomination fit into the last category) then you have nothing to worry about.
This is an argument that makes me nervous. Cops and other people in authority—in the very process of overstepping their authority or passing intrusive or censorious laws—always say, “if you’re not a criminal you have nothing to worry about”.
What I really worry about is abuses of constitutional freedoms being disguised as laws for my protection.
But yet again, with most people in authority doing nothing to stop this problem, then I say let Mr. Obama try to do what he can. Maybe his power and charisma can change people’s attitudes and save people’s lives. Maybe he should spend the rest of his life making this his main concern. There are plenty of individuals, organizations and money to back him up.

That’s enough for now except to say that it’s impossible to talk about guns without noting that it’s really a male problem.
If you picture a gun, then you picture a man making it, selling it, carrying it or firing it—and also standing in the way of correcting any trouble connected with it.
This unavoidable fact—the complete identification of men with guns—is an entire subject in itself and covers just about every facet of human history and interaction: psychological, sexual, economic, religious, etc.
I remember something a friend who had an abusive father once told me. He asked his mother: “Mom, why do we need men?” And she said, “To protect us from other men.”







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