Under the Gun

Three police officers were shot and killed last weekend. two in New York City, one in Florida. In the New York incident, the shooter then killed himself. The shooting may have been a reaction to the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. In the Florida shooting, the perpetrator is in custody; no word yet as to what motivated him.

Spokespersons for police unions blamed politicians and protesters for the New York killings, insisting the cause was that too little has been done to defuse anger over the Brown and Garner killings, and suggesting that more stringent measures should have been taken to put down protests. If the context of these words wasn't so tragic, the sentiment expressed would be laughable. In fact, though, police daily put themselves on the front line between order and chaos, and from time to time, they die for their efforts.

I propose a different interpretation, one that anyone who has read my blog in the past will find completely unsurprising: what ties these deaths together is guns.

I'm aware that Eric Garner died in a choke hold, and not from a gunshot wound; and that Michael Brown was unarmed when he was shot repeatedly by Darren Wilson. These facts are beside the point, which is that American criminals and police are in a cycle of violence that has escalated to radically lethal proportions thanks to America's love of guns.

Guns are such a part of our culture that, going into any situation, police have to assume their opponents will be armed. When any traffic stop, any conversation with a young person on the street, any interruption of a burglary could turn instantly lethal, police have little option save to go in shooting, or if not, to still take extreme measures to restrain a potential assailant. The logical assumption has to be that any suspected perpetrator is carrying a gun and is not shy to use it.

Add to this racist assumptions that a person of color is more likely to be a drug dealer, bandit, home invader, gang member, and the net result is young men of color dying at a hugely disproportional rate to that of young whites. It was inevitable that, with guns so easily obtainable, some deranged individual would exact revenge on police.

What we have is a war between police officers and the lower classes. It's the stuff of dystopian fantasy, ala Escape from New York and Fort Apache: The Bronx. Police view themselves as the last hope for restoring order on a chaotic civilization. To some extent, it's a race war, but much more than that, it's a cold war turned hot: Mutually Assured Destruction by guns. As with the nuclear-weapon-fueled cold war of the twentieth century, this is a conflict that simply would not exist but for the ubiquity of these weapons of precise destruction.

If you doubt my logic, consider this: if the Darren Wilson had not been carrying a gun, Michael Brown would still be alive. If the officers who brought Eric Garner down and suffocated him hadn't had to worry that he might have a gun, he might, also, be alive. And if the cop-killers in New York and Florida had not possessed guns, again, those police officers would still be alive.

But this is America, you say. Our guns are part of our identity. We're the frontier, the wild west, the civilization who tamed a primitive continent with gunpowder and lead. We can't give up our guns anymore than we can give up our freedom. Beyond that, civilians are in the same boat as the police: we don't think we can afford to be unarmed when whoever invades our home is very likely armed. "I'll be happy to give up my gun when I feel safe in the knowledge that criminals don't have them either." Of course, that means never.

What is to be done, then? How can we begin to turn our armed-to-the-teeth nation into a land where everyone, police officers and civilians both, can walk down the street without fear of being shot?

By living that way. I don't own a gun. I never have, and I never will. I've only fired one once, on the rifle range at Scout  camp. To my way of thinking, guns are like cigarettes, lethally addictive devices that seem indispensable to their users, and I understand that giving up that addiction is a tall order. I don't have to give up anything: I'm a tall white man with broad shoulders, and I've never felt threatened by people on the street, though I've had a couple of police officers give me a tongue-lashing over a driving mistake. But I've never had to feel at risk of being shot in any of the places where I function. And before you suggest that's an easy thing to say when I live in the suburbs, let me remind you that I teach in Portland's poorest school district. There are some dicey neighborhoods in the areas I frequent, and the high school in my district saw a school shooting last June.

I choose not to be afraid. I choose not to own a gun. If a gun is ever pointed at me, I'll give its owner whatever he or she wants. But I will not own one.

That's what I suggest to you, too: if you're considering buying a gun, don't. If you already own one, get rid of it. Go out into the world as those who intend to live, not as those fearful of dying. If guns come out, you're probably doomed, anyway. Perhaps in time we can draw back from this urban warfare, convince our young people not to carry, convince the police that they don't need to go for their weapons at the least provocation. It's a thin hope, but it's better than none. The rewards of eschewing gun violence are manifold: young people living to adulthood, police serving rather than terrorizing the communities they patrol, and everywhere a sense that the world is safer, less to be feared than embraced.

This post was written in bed. Amy and I are in Tucson, hoping to soak up some sun and see some cactus. Unfortunately, I got off the plane feeling like something was coming on, and it was. After a feverish night, I feel (fingers crossed) that I'm on the mend, and I'm hoping to have some desert landscapes on the blog soon.


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