It´s a dark and stormy day here on the perimeter. The dogs and cats are sacked-out in front of the fire, our stomachs are full of lunch, and Bud Powell is playing "Time Waits" on the stereo with Bob Canary as front man. There´s no good reason to go anywhere, what with the fields all fallow mud and the days so very short, and the wind blowing the rain sideways.
We went to church. Flor and Family set up the vast manger scene in the entryway, in keeping with local tradition -- it´s got real moss and aluminum-foil ponds, plastic palm trees and heavenly hosts in several scales and sizes. It is janky and homely, and I love it. It is our dime-store Bethlehem, a Peace on Earth that fits in a big cardboard box in the choir loft.
In the Prayers of the People today Don Santiago first spoke of Newtown, CT., whose children and teachers were killed by a madman with a big gun. He held up the community, the state, and the United States of America before the Lord. I felt some eyes looking at me. I felt that dart of pain in my heart. It is a dart that is getting way too familiar these days -- another mass shooting, another moment of my neighbors wondering what the hell kind of place I come from, that would let this kind of thing keep happening.
I prayed, too. I put down that pain and self-consciousness and national guilt at the foot of the cross up front, seeing as I was at church, and that is what an altar is for.
Back at The Peaceable I look at the internet, and it is full of horror and pain. It is also full of anti-gun and pro-gun self-righteous bloviating, the ugly kind I had kinda hoped was finished after the presidential election. America is clearly just as divided as it ever was. The country is in major trouble, and everyone is either wild-eyed and blazing, blaming "those people" for all the madness, or insisting that we all be quiet and stifle our outrage "out of respect for the lost."
I am American. I grew up on a string of military bases. My father was a military man, but he was not a soldier -- he served his 23 years in the Air Force. He did not carry a gun. "Guns are for hunters and soldiers, for policemen," he told us. "In the Air Force we aren´t soldiers, so we don´t have to carry guns. We have technology. We listen. We use intelligence," he said. So maybe from him I learned, in the way of a child, that guns are used only after discourse runs short.
When we moved off the military base we kept a (unloaded) shotgun behind the front door, "to keep the honest man honest." In summertime my mother, a crack shot, kept a .22 rifle handy for picking-off the groundhogs out in the vegetable garden. Dad used a thirty-aught-six rifle to hunt white-tail deer in November. We children learned to shoot at targets, but we did not handle guns. We did not touch them without our parents´oversight. Over time, we kinda forgot they were there.
It was an uncle who first made me fear guns. He lived very near, drank way too much, and was terribly unhappy. He wore a nickel-plated .44 in a shoulder holster, strapped to his bony chest. His "sidearm" was his "goddamn god-given right." One sunny morning he used it to kill himself. His daughter, my best-beloved cousin, found what was left of him. I love her. I saw how she suffered. That is why I hate handguns, and hate what her dad did with his. (I am not supposed to write about this.)
I was a news reporter for many years, some of those on the police beat. I worked with men who carried guns as part of their duties. I knew two policemen who were shot dead, one at work and another at home. I saw shooters, and I saw shooting victims, all but one were dead. (I saw stabbing victims. They were bloodier, but they were almost all alive. They had a chance, at least.) I covered the trials, I saw the evidence, the weeping moms, the disfigured, the incarcerated, people still alive but their lives blown away. I saw the guns, tagged as evidence, the ragged bullets, pieces of skulls.
Guns make violence easy, and very final. Guns are part of America´s history. They are written into the U.S. Constitution, as a way for "well-regulated militias" to keep tyrants at bay. What was a reasonable check-and-balance back in Colonial days has, with 200+ years of technology and capitalism, morphed into a monster. Any American with ready money can buy an assault rifle, or a semi-automatic handgun -- weapons of mass destruction -- at the local K-Mart store. Not just jolly hobbyists. Fearful people buy handguns, or people in despair, or people with family or emotional or work problems. Not just madmen, either. People just like me and you. They have a gun nearby. Sometimes emotions get out of hand. Like one domestic killer told me through the glass at the Michigan State Pen, "It was there in the closet. She wouldn´t shut up. It was just so easy."
The outcomes are written in the scripture of Statistics:
And that is just counting the people under age 20. In a first-world, developed nation.
We live in a country where someone´s "right to bear arms" translates to denying a kindergarten classroom its first-amendment "right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness." No one seems to have courage or common sense enough to look it in the eye. Maybe because we respect the older parts of our Constitution too much to change it.
Maybe because we love our families, and this issue walks right up to our doorstep and rings the bell.
My family lives in the United States, and my family keeps guns. They use the rifles to shoot deer, rabbits, pheasants, and wild turkeys. They use handguns to shoot targets and the occasional rattlesnake. (My in-laws include a police chief and a sheriff´s deputy; I do not know if they carry sidearms at work, but law enforcement is a legitimate armed service.) None of my family has shot one another, at least not in recent memory. They are steady, decent, working-class people, not given to violence. If any of them carries a concealed weapon, I don´t know. I don´t want to know.
But do they need assault rifles? Do they need guns that shoot entire ammo clips in seconds? No. They are not well-regulated militias. They don´t need arsenals. Weapons of mass destruction are not needed or desired by rational, decent human beings. Automatic weapons are are good only for SWAT teams and cold-blooded killers. Rational gun owners of America, the hunters and hobbyists, even the "mine is bigger than yours" macho men, will agree with that. I think.
But if I were to go home now, and meet with my family, and these shootings should come up in conversation... We are a family of gun owners, and a family of opinionated people! What would happen?
Nothing would happen.
I would remember how much I love them.
I would remind myself that being loving sometimes is more important than being right. That love overcomes fear. That my family members are just as convinced of their right-ness as I am of mine. That I could not change their minds any more than they could change mine.
I would breathe deep and keep my peace, secure in their love for me.
I know they might have a gun in their handbag or pocket, but they would never point it at me, no matter what I said to them. I would not say anything to them that might make them upset, because I love them.
I would very much lay my prayer again at the altar, to remember
what Jesus said how truth often is a sword -- or an AK-47 -- in family
situations. It is dangerous. It can cleave a family into parts. Discretion is the greater part of valor.
All of us is well aware of the canyon that divides us. And unless somebody drinks too much and starts, well, shooting off his mouth, we would not go there.
America has a genius for keeping millions of wildly various people, spread out over an enormous space, together in some fertile, dynamic tension. Americans, by and large, are amazingly tolerant people.
My sisters and cousins and uncles and in-laws are Americans. They might abhor my politics, but I know they love me. They know I love them, even if they believe... well. I will shut up now.
I wonder if keeping my silence is noble and patriotic, or if it is the same cowardice that keeps Americans from facing the truth about the bloodbaths that keep happening in our home towns. Maybe we need to shout this out in our families before we can work it out on a policy level.
But half of us have only words for weapons. We all know how passionate many gun-owners are on this issue. We know 99% of gun owners can have a rational family discussion without getting crazy and shooting people. Gun owners love family peace even more than their guns. Am I right?
I am part
of a Peaceable Kingdom. A wacko lefty, a "libtard," an expatriate by choice. A black sheep in the Home of the Brave. A janky, dime-store plastic lamb. I know when to shut the hell up.
Christmas is about innocence arriving to overcome darkness. It is about silence and peace and humility, and powerful potential for peace, most probably at a terrible price.
So once again we set out the manger scene, and say the words we all count as holy. Christ our sacrifice is born in Bethlehem!
Let us keep the feast.