As an American abroad, I am often asked questions about American politics and culture. I’ve had to say “in my own, very personal opinion” or “as a private citizen” in conversation more often than I ever imagined. Some of the questions are benign and don’t even require the caveat, such as questions about cinema or popular culture (thank you, Kim Kardashian – G-d, did I actually say that?). But then there are the ones that are uncomfortable, that make that pit in my stomach even hollower than I’d dreamed possible. The questions about prominent politicians, abortion, and health care access, or other hot-button issues.
But the granddaddy of all Uncomfortable Topics is Guns.
I had to say it three times, because that is how many times I had to say to gear me up for writing this post. Once to gear myself up to go down this road, once to bring the thoughts to the forefront of my mind, and once to come to terms with the fact that no matter what I write about this topic, I will screw it up. I will piss people off. I will be accused of being un-American; a liberal freak (there’s your warning on how this is gonna go down), and even possibly name-called. But, with my final caveat – I’m NOT the diplomat and these are MY opinions, not anyone else’s, — I’m ready.
There were two mass shootings in the United States in between this post and the last post I wrote. I think. I’m pretty sure. It’s hard, exactly, to remember, because there are so damn many shootings I feel like I’m living in Groundhog Day, and I keep wishing that Bill Murray would come out and tell us that we’ve finally gotten it right and it was all a bad dream and things would go back to how they should be. But that’s not going to happen.
What I can guarantee will happen, is that when I go out this next week – to a diplomatic function connected to my husband’s work, to a party where there are other expats and local citizens, or to the DB’s school, football practice, or even down to the grassy khana of our apartment complex, someone will ask me about Guns. I will give a weak smile. I will stumble over the usual “my personal opinions”, because no matter what, people know that I walk into that large, U.S. Government building across town regularly. I will defend the Second Amendment while lamenting the societal ills of mental illness, decay of community, and other factors that I truly (and rightly, I believe) contribute to the gun violence prevalent in American society.
What I won’t say in public, but what I really want to say is this: We’re fucked up.
Because we continue to listen to politicians who are funded by the gun lobby and who refuse to take the most basic steps to curb the proliferation of, and to regulate, guns in private society – many of which, such as background checks, are supported by the majority of lawful gun owners. Because we continue to elect them, even though the information about their allegiance to the gun lobby is right in our face. Because the law-abiding gun owners who are avid hunters and sportsmen and women have their voices drowned out by the unreasonable and inaccurate insanity broadcast in sound bites by those whose agenda is to create a market for firearms and profit off of human misery. Because we think that the 1,327 people killed in America by gun violence since Sandy Hook is a reasonable trade-off for the idea that we might have our individual liberties threatened, and will slide down some fantastical slippery slope into a world where there are terrorists running amok in the streets, looters taking whatever they want from the innocent, women raped at gunpoint just because, and a government who has officially disarmed the public so that they are at a loss to defend themselves even if the government is unable to. Oh wait – that exists – it’s called Yemen. According to a multitude of sources, they are right behind us in guns per capita, and yet our figure is literally one-third higher. Unlike the U.S., however, Yemen is in the midst of a civil war, and rebel forces have controlled its capital since early 2015. That’s not very comforting to me that we have higher stats than a country with those types of issues.
Gun violence is personal to me. A disgruntled student gunned down my uncle’s sister in her office at the University of Iowa. http://ow.ly/VwbhC There was a school shooting in my school my senior year of high school. Scroll down on the link – it’s Pine Forest Senior High School – http://ow.ly/Vwbnj And wow, looking for a link for that unearthed a closing in 2013 at that same high school because some kid made threats. http://ow.ly/Vwbr5 Just, wow.
What is more personal, however, is the fact that as a ten-year-old fifth grader in San Antonio, TX, I was in a mass shooting, and I am very cognizant of the fact that my life could have turned out very differently. My father, an army officer, was out “in the field”, one of the few times he ever went since he spent a year in Viet Nam (hey, he’s a dentist). It was spring break, Fiesta Week, and my mother and a friend decided to take their kids to the Battle of Flowers parade downtown. Read about it here and watch the video, if you are interested: http://ow.ly/VwbHB http://ow.ly/VwbJK
The ROTC drill teams were performing, I think (anyway it was all the boring stuff – no floats or girls in sparkly outfits – all things that fascinated a 10-year-old me), when I was reaching down to tie my shoe. I heard popping sounds, leaned back up and looked up to the sky – hey, fireworks! Two seconds later, my mother slammed me to the ground and jumped on top of me. The word, “sniper” rippled through the crowd. “What is that? I have no idea what that word means.” I looked up and saw a woman in purple pants. She had blood on her. At some point, we all crawled to a group of cars nearby and squeezed under them. I still have no idea how my mother did it – she was just as zaftig in her 40s as I am in mine – but there she was, cheek pressed against the undercarriage, her hands on her three children, while her oldest cried and recited the Lord’s Prayer. Eventually, someone opened a local business – a garage, I think, and we formed a human chain, held together by each others’ arms and legs as we were pulled low on the ground to safety. We went home. My mother took a call from my father that night, but I don’t remember who initiated it. That was the first time I saw her cry all day.
I kept all of the clippings from that day. They are still in the file cabinet that I deemed so important to keep during middle school with all my other papers of importance such as my 6th grade poetry and a certificate for an acting workshop during summer camp. And my marksman medals from shooting at the same camp.
Then, I put them away. Ironically, the first time I pulled them out was in 1985 during creative writing class at Pine Forest Senior High School, when we had to write about an event that shaped our lives. My English teacher, whose name escapes me at the moment, asked me to read it in front of the class. I was a new kid – I’d been in the school for probably 2-3 months at that point, and while I was comfortable enough to write about it when I knew he would read it, doing in front of people who probably already thought I was weird was hard. Approximately six months later, that very teacher would be the one in the hallway to whom Major Ray Simmons would surrender his gun.
The next time was right after Newtown. When I had to explain to my children. When I searched for a way to discuss this and to sort through my memory with the perspective of an adult looking back over 30 years to see her 10-year-old self.
I don’t have to worry about gun violence the way people in the U.S. do, even if I do worry about terrorism in a way they might not. I don’t have to ask if there are guns in the home when I send the DBs for a playdate. My kids are at a German school, and I cannot tell you how horrified the German parents would be if I even mentioned that when I am in the U.S., I ask about that. None of the countries that I’ve lived in permit private ownership of firearms the way we do in the U.S. In some of the countries, India among them, the usual policemen aren’t even equipped to carry – that’s reserved for specially trained units.
The argument that people will use other weapons to kill people doesn’t resonate with me. When people have an argument at home in Hong Kong, they might resort to knives (and indeed “choppings” are reported in the newspapers from time to time), but they don’t go into a school or community center and kill 15 people after that. They might poison their lover or push them off a building, but they don’t affect innocent bystanders.
It’s the easy access to guns that’s the difference. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out, and believe me, I’m far from a genius, and so I know this is true. I really am tired of people pretending it’s for any other reason, and I’m tired of having to stick up for them as a proxy American abroad.
I have family and friends who hunt and shoot. I don’t want them to have to give that up, and I certainly don’t want to cut off my venison supply. But I want limitations on the kinds of guns that are sold, the numbers of guns sold, and how we license and screen. The shooter that took aim during that parade in San Antonio had fifteen guns, but only one was semiautomatic. Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters, used an Intratec TEC-DC9 semiautomatic pistol. The Newtown shooter, Adam Lanza, used a Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle. The carnage was much worse. Had Ira Attebury access to the same kind of firepower, the death toll in San Antonio that day over 30 years ago would have been higher than 3. There’s no doubt in my mind.
But we won’t do anything. It’s like the label on the shampoo bottle – lather, rinse, repeat. Which means that after the next shooting, I’ll be squirming again, trying to find an intelligent way to answer curious questions about why this happens, why the American people tolerate it, and how I feel about it again.
And again. And again. And again.
*Olivia Engel, was one of the victims of Newtown. She was 6 years old. Her last name means “Angel” in German. Whenever I read of another shooting, her name runs through my mind. You can read about her here – http://ow.ly/VwbMH