by Marian McCollister
Jan. 19, 2011
Almost 50 years ago, on November 21, 1963 I was one of thousands of people lining the streets of San Antonio, Texas to wave at President and Mrs. Kennedy before they left the next morning for their infamous trip to Dallas. When I heard, on January 8th, at the organizational meeting of Coconino County Democrats, that Congresswoman Giffords had been shot, I thought, “God, it never ends.” Not only does it not end, it just gets worse. The more I hear the details about the shooting in Tucson, the more it parallels the shooting in Texas: A crazy person with access to weapons living in an atmosphere of rage, resentment and prejudice. The rational reaction to this is to spend more resources helping the mentally ill (Arizona is listed as 48th in the resources it spends on services for the mentally ill, according to NPR), and limit access to guns. Instead, gun laws are more lax then ever, gun sales are way up and spending on any type of health care is being reduced. Our infrastructure is in shambles, our environment is being destroyed, there are no jobs, health care is still unaffordable, the economy is a disaster, its almost impossible to buy or sell property, we spend less and less on education, but we all have guns. This sounds more like a description of Somalia rather than the supposed leader of the free world.
Living under these conditions, I need to either try to make sense of events, or try to escape from them, such as moving to Finland, or mentally escaping through the help of the shopping network and other mind-altering experiences. Over the years, I have been relatively unsuccessful at either of these. This op-ed piece is just one more attempt to make sense of the irrationality that seems to surround us.
I grew up in Texas in the 50’s, first moving to Bandera, Texas-the Cowboy Capitol of the World-and later moving to San Antonio and Houston. (Before you stop reading at this point, my Texas was the one of Ann Richards, Jim Hightower, Ralph Yarborough, Barbara Jordan, Molly Ivins, Lloyd Bentsen, Charlie Wilson, Bill Moyers, Larry McMurtry, Henry Cisneros, Henry B. Gonzalez, The Texas Observer, Jerry Jeff Walker and even LBJ.) When I was growing up, there were lots of cowboys, but amazingly, not many guns, at least not on display. Guns were simply a non-issue; they were a tool to use for hunting and shooting rattlesnakes. I am sure many gun owners loved their guns, but they just weren’t a big deal. Back then, most grown-ups didn’t have to prove how tough they were by brandishing weapons. Perhaps one reason is that many adult men had in fact experienced real war first hand. Ann Richards is my political hero, but I really thought it was ridiculous when she felt it necessary, in the 1990’s, to go out and shoot some unfortunate ducks.
Now I work with, mainly, small businesses as a bookkeeper/accountant. Over the years several of the small business owners I have worked with increasingly identify with Fox News and right-wing talk radio. The following scenario has actually played out in many different ways in the last five years or so. My client/employer will come charging into the office, all riled up because Rush was talking about how liberals want to take away everyone’s guns. I believe if there was a six shooter ready at hand, my employer would strap it on and shoot the first liberal he saw. Then it sort of dawns on him that, in fact, the first liberal he sees is actually his elderly, patient bookkeeper who just wishes he would spend more time trying to make payroll and less time arming the world. He usually has just enough common sense to realize how inconvenient it would be it he really pissed me off, but not nearly enough common sense to comprehend the absurdity of the situation. And that’s what this fixation on guns is: absurd and irrational.
So how did we get to where we are now? My understanding is that the NRA became really politicized after the assassinations in 1968 of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. The NRA, in trying to counter the move for stricter gun control laws, started emphasizing the need of guns for self-protection, through fear of crime, paranoia, and so on. Guns became even more symbolic of masculine identity and patriotism. However, during the last several years violent crime has been declining. In all my various jobs and travels, I have never had the need to defend myself with a gun, and I have never known anyone personally who had to defend themselves with a gun. According to Dan Baum writing in Harper’s (August 2010) one is more likely to be killed by bee stings than house invaders. Gun enthusiasts, however, still present the world as an armed camp, where everyone is either predator or prey; one is never sure whether they are genuinely afraid of violence or secretly hoping for it.
More and more, politicians have backed down from confronting the issue of gun control, principally because there appears to be so little public support. By this avoidance, however, we have gone from the legalization of assault weapons and guns in bars to the possibility that loaded guns will be allowed in classrooms. The ultimate goal seems to be that the threat of violence inherent in possessing a gun will mediate every relationship: the relationship between student and teacher, between customers and vendors, between fellow patrons in bars and restaurants, and on and on. And how does this make a society free? This constant threat of violence requires one to be always on the alert, as in the state of red that Homeland Security used to promote. However, this elevated state of alertness is not only ultimately very stressful, but minimizes the experience of other states of consciousness, such as the creative, the focused, or the humorous. I drive a white Mercury Grand Prix, which looks like a police car. I have a bumper sticker on the back that says “unmarked police car.” Various right-wing acquaintances, independently, refer to this as “my liberal bumper sticker,” when, in fact, it has nothing at all to do with politics. It’s just a joke. Obviously, humor for humor’s sake is a suspicious activity.
From a political point of view, this fixation on guns distracts us from undertaking other relevant issues, and serves to shut down critical thought and discussion. It also undermines our ability to form relationships of trust and to create a sense of community around shared values and goals. Fearful and threatened people are much more likely to be manipulated, disempowered and used; so while the gun lobby presents the image of the strong, self-reliant, ever-vigilant gun owner, the reality is just the opposite.