In all my years on social media, I have avoided, for the most part, speaking about guns. My Facebook page, for example, is strongly divided between my friends who are liberal and advocate frequently for stronger gun control measures and my working class family, neighbors, and friends who hunt, collect guns, and often carry them. There never seems to be a good time to talk about this divide in my life, never a good time to tell my part of this story. In the wake of so many tragedies, so much death, I just want to grieve. But I also have decided to tell this part of my story.
I grew up working class, in a predominantly white rural community, and I work in those communities now. I suppose a lot of people, looking into the place I grew up, would label us as gun toting, backwards rednecks.
I learned to handle weapons long before I learned to drive and it was a point of pride for me that I could handle rifles, handguns, bows, and bowie knives with ease. I was taught, like most working class kids, that guns were tools and were dangerous weapons. We used them for butchering animals on the farm, we used them to defend animals against wild dogs, we used them for hunting, and we learned to use them for self-defense. We never waved them in the air, never pointed at anything we didn’t intend to shoot, and kept them safely stored and cleaned.
The world I grew up in was never safe, much like the world everywhere else. Living on the edge of the wilderness meant that wild animals were always a threat and once, I was trailed by a pair of cougars who had been hunting livestock in the valley. Violence was common. Some of it involved guns, like when a friend was stalked by her ex-boyfriend threatening to shoot her. Much of it did not—the neighbors kids getting sexually assaulted, neighboring men breaking into fistfights and feuds. I learned early and thoroughly that the world is not a safe place and that evil is real.
I never had the illusion that weapons kept me safe, particularly. They were simply tools that gave me an advantage in a world that was dangerous and sometimes very evil. To this day, I still own a gun and, as a single woman living alone, it makes me feel safer. Not safe. Just safer, depending on luck and skill.
Now, as a priest, as a pastor in a rural community, I struggle with how to talk about weapons. Everyone I know carries some kind of weapon-- all sorts of hunting blades or pocketknives, mace, machetes, occasionally guns. I ask people not to carry weapons openly in our spaces, but I also know that people need these tools—for putting up tents as much as for defense. Young women come to me and ask my advice about carrying weapons, because they know that the rate of sexual assault for women on the street is officially at 100%. People (including many of these women) who are caught with guns and have a felony record spend years in prison. Those who advocate for stronger gun control laws rarely understand that the people who usually are convicted and imprisoned as a result of such legislation are not mass murderers—they are mostly poor, mostly desperate, disproportionately people of color trying to survive a bitter, deadly world.
Theologically, there are two points I think we don’t always consider.
First, even though I strongly believe in human capacity for goodness, even though I even lean Pelagian in my understanding of human nature, I am also aware of the tremendous human capacity for evil. The world is not, and never has been, safe for most people. And people living on the edge are especially aware of that. Fighting for survival in a capitalist society where there is not enough for everyone forces you to confront evil in a way that people living comfortably don’t always have to see. That evil is up close, in the person of your neighbor, and even your friend, who might be hungry enough to slice your tent and steal your food or angry enough at the world to fight you for your last cigarette or suffer from PTSD so badly that he thinks you are an enemy soldier. That evil is up close in the black market you are forced to participate in, where marketers battle for space and clients and resources. Your ability to defend yourself can mean life or death.
Evil is also structural. One of the ways that manifests is in who gets protected in our society. Our police and protection systems are meant, first and foremost, to protect property and its owners. If you do not own property, or are a threat to property, then your life is not necessarily protected. It may in fact be, and often is, targeted. With weapons and guns. In the hands of law enforcement. I’m not suggesting that AK-47s should be in the hands of private citizens, but I am wondering if they should be on our streets when police conduct a standoff in a rural neighborhood.
When I see blanket calls for more gun control, I wonder.
Do we intend to disarm law enforcement too, with 1,000 people shot by police last year, mostly young, mostly poor, disproportionally people of color, many mentally ill?
Do we intend to do something more to insure that people are not in constant competition for basic needs, which leads inevitably to intense interpersonal violence on the streets and in poor communities?
Do we intend to actually address the root causes of violence? Violence and death are always specific. The young man who went on a shooting spree in sororities in California targeted women because he felt women didn’t give him enough attention. The 49 people killed in a gay bar in Orlando were killed because they were queer and immigrant and brown and black. What do we plan to do about that kind of hate? Because all the laws in the world are not going to keep an assault rifle out of the hands of a private security worker who wants to kill a lot of people.
Sometimes, honestly, a call for gun control in our world feels like a cop out. I have no illusions that guns are going to save us from anything. I am not opposed to laws that regulate the sale of handguns or assault rifles. But I’m not sure that any of those measures would change the violence that I witness or the violence that we as a nation witness. I know for sure that these laws further criminalize poor people and fill our prisons.
There is harder work to do. People need access to enough, so they are not in constant competition for space and resources and black market cred. People need to be seen as human. Misogyny and racism and homophobia are real and deadly, folks. Law enforcement needs to be held accountable, especially for poor lives. Passing a few laws about guns is too easy. If we really want to stop violence, we need so much more.