Lessons on Gun Violence from Happy Valley

Catherine Cawood is as tough a cop as you'll meet on any American crime drama--and she does it without packing iron.

The world keeps forcing us to think about the unthinkable.

Yesterday in Orlando, Florida, a young man carrying an AR-15, the same assault rifle used in the Sandy Hook massacre, single-handedly killed at least 49 people at a gay night club. As always, this incident of gun violence raised a flurry of "thoughts and prayers" from legislators in the pockets of the NRA, and of resigned frustration from less gun-lobbied politicians appealing for minor restrictions on gun sales, knowing that such measures will get nowhere in Congress, no matter how desperately the American people want them. It's as if the minority of Americans who insist on absolute libertarianism with respect to gun ownership have a louder voice than the blood of the victims.

I'm not going to spend any time here arguing about whether this was an incident of international or domestic terrorism, or whether or not it was a hate crime, because quite simply, however the perpetrator felt about the rights of gay people or ISIS or whatever the hell else motivated him to open fire, had he not been able to get his hands on a semi-automatic weapon, the death toll would have been a fraction what it was.

This has all been cast in stark relief for me by a bit of pop culture I binge-watched last week as I was convalescing with strep throat. It had been in my Netflix queue for almost two years, ever since I read a favorable review of it, and I decided now was the time to watch it. It's called Happy Valley, and it's set in a small Yorkshire town ably policed by Sgt. Catherine Cawood, a veteran cop who blends toughness with compassion. Her home life s a mess, but once she puts on her uniform, she's all business. Over the course of the two six-episode seasons released so far, Sgt. Cawood finds herself in many precarious situations, as do the cops she supervises. She and her local police force have to contend with some tough customers, addicts acting unpredictably, an inept kidnapping plot reminiscent of Fargo, a serial killer who preys on aging prostitutes. There's plenty of violence, sometimes cruel, frequently bloody, always brutal. There's much to remind you that this is a British cop show: the gorgeous Yorkshire scenery, the accents,the neon colors of the police vests and vehicles--but the one thing that really sets it apart from a high quality American crime drama is that, in the entire twelve episodes I watched last week, there were only two gun deaths, one committed by a farmer using the rifle she keeps to put down sick animals, the other an anonymous contract killing. 

The police don't aren't shooting anyone. When these cops break down a door or wade into a brawl, they do it armed with night sticks, stun guns, and pepper spray. Mostly they use their fists. This adds to the tension, and plenty of them end up injured, sometimes severely. One dies when one of the kidnappers rams her with his car. And (as in Fargo), when the kidnappers turn on each other, there's plenty of mayhem, but it's all committed with knives.

I felt plenty of stress watching Happy Valley. I've gotten so used to watching American TV cops draw their guns before they check a door, and to seeing so many police calls devolve into gunfights, that I was startled every time I saw a neon-yellow-jacketed cop snap open a night stick, and found myself wondering "Will that be enough?" Sometimes it was; often it wasn't, and one of the police wound up hospitalized. The telling thing, though, was that even in the most brutal fight, they one that landed Catherine in intensive care, nobody got shot.

With that fresh in my mind, waking up Sunday to news of the Orlando shooting, I couldn't help thinking that there is something terribly wrong with the United States of America. We've got a virulent, deadly disease, and it's called gun ownership. Every year it kills thousands of us. If it were a virus, we'd be spending boatloads of money looking for a cure, and we wouldn't rest until we found it.

But we don't, and we won't, even though we don't have to spend a dime to know why guns take so many more lives in America than they do in any other Western industrial nation: we've got more guns. Take away the guns, and while there will still be violence, it won't be nearly as lethal. It's a lot harder to kill a cop, a drug dealer, a prostitute, an enemy, a partner, a child, a parent, a teacher, a classmate, oneself, if one does not have access to a firearm.

And yes, all you gun lovers out there, I am, in fact, calling for repeal of the second amendment, forced forfeiture of your lethal toys, and with it, a significant increase in the safety and wellbeing of every American.

Because "thoughts and prayers" are doing us no good at all.


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