National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  June 6, 2003

Fear-rooted gun culture kills before shot is fired


Gun culture kills before a shot is ever fired.

In my home hangs a print called “Jesus Breaking the Rifle,” by a German artist named Otto Pankok, which I bought a dozen years ago at Chicago’s Peace Museum. It depicts Jesus in black and white, snapping a rifle across his knee as if it were a stick. It reminds my children and visitors that Jesus used words, not weapons, to solve problems and bridge differences between people.

Here’s a Zen question for you: If a gun is locked in a cabinet, does anybody die? I suppose it’s literally true that guns don’t kill people; people kill people. But to be precise, people with guns kill people -- and kill themselves, and cause unintentional injury and death.

I have long been anti-gun. I’m not really talking about hunting rifles, though I do admit that the allure of hunting as a sport escapes me. No, I’m talking about gun culture creep: what strikes me as a mood of increasing resignation on the part of the American people that guns are a necessary evil, a last resort of self-protection in a world that threatens their personal safety. The gun industry and its public relations arm, the National Rifle Association, are masterful marketers who take advantage of our latent anxieties, whether they’re about specific things like a spate of crime in our neighborhoods, or uncertainties like the threat of foreign terrorists.

When I lived in Detroit I attended a weekly prayer vigil in the center of the downtown area organized by the Anti-Handgun Association. A co-worker in my building one day questioned my rationale for opposing guns. She told me of her parents’ mom-and-pop grocery on a corner of a street in our often-lawless city. Because the store had been robbed before, she feared for her dad’s life and was grateful that he owned a gun. I had to respect her experience, but it didn’t change my core belief that the proliferation of guns in our homes and public places reflects a deep-rooted fear that kills something in our souls before a shot is ever fired.

My children wanted to know whether a permit to carry a gun also gives the gun owner permission to shoot someone. I explained that no, just because someone may carry a gun does not mean they may use it at any time. Good, they said. But wait, they wondered, why would someone want to carry a gun if they can’t use it? Exactly, I thought. I don’t see the logic either.

The second article in our nation’s Bill of Rights preserves the individual’s right to keep and bear arms. That may be the letter of the law, but even a minor history buff knows that in spirit, it was written primarily to reinforce citizens’ right to organize a popular militia to protect homesteaders and communities from outside invasion. True, some states have long interpreted this amendment to incorporate the preservation of individuals’ right to bear arms too. But I doubt if James Madison, the chief framer of the Bill of Rights, had the powerful, corporate gun industry lobby in mind as a prime force upholding “individual” rights.

Furthermore, if you read the Second Amendment in historical context, it speaks to a people still reeling from a violent political revolution, and, we must admit, an inverted kind of xenophobia. Many European colonists and westward-moving settlers feared Native Americans, whose civil and human rights were quickly usurped in the name of the very freedom the revolutionaries claimed for themselves.

I suppose I ought to resist my urge to, let’s say, target the phallocentric symbolism of the gun. Besides, the gun lobby has already beaten me to it. By local press accounts, it was NRA influence that pushed a recent “conceal carry” bill through the Minnesota legislature -- coauthored by two nice ladies in suits and pearls, Rep. Linda Boudreau and Sen. Pat Pariseau. This new legislation was signed straightaway by our new, conservative young governor. Now, it’s easier for Minnesota gun owners to obtain permits to carry their weapons on their person in public. A gun owner requesting a permit must be issued one provided he or she receives basic training in how to use the gun and passes the background check. By putting a feminine face on this bill, its handlers effectively subverted the perception that gun advocates are testosterone-laden bullies, shady pawnshop hangers-on or wacko separatists. An illusion is an illusion is an illusion.

So now the woman in line behind me in the supermarket might be packing. OK, maybe she’s experienced the horror of rape and fears another attack. The guy sitting next to me at the Vikings game in the Metrodome could have a pistol in his pocket. He might live out in the exurbs and have the perception that walking the dreaded city streets from the parking lot to the stadium is rife with danger. My neighbor down the street who shoots crows with his BB gun might switch to a .357. Let’s hope he doesn’t transfer his disaffection for the early-cawing birds to the late-night partying neighbors.

These folks might feel safer by being able to legally carry their firearms. I sure don’t.

Kris Berggren lives in Minneapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, June 6, 2003

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