Responding to the Murder Suicide at USC: After Gun Reform…Then What?

“This is, as I said and believe, a book about Heaven, but I must say too that it has been a close call. For I have wondered sometimes if it would not finally turn out to be a book about Hell — where we fail to love one another, where we hate and destroy one another for reasons abundantly provided or for righteousness’ sake or for pleasure, where we destroy the things we need the most, where we see no hope and have no faith, where we are needy and alone, where things that ought to stay together fall apart, where there is such a groaning travail of selfishness in all its forms, where we love one another and die, where we must lose everything to know what we have had.” -Wendell Berry in Jayber Crow

If the horrific murder-suicide on the University of South Carolina’s campus this past Thursday is anything like these kinds of tragedies in the past, we will skip way too quickly over the fear and grief and sadness and sense of violation. Instead, journalists and politicians from opposing sides of the issue will drum up opportunistic efforts at gun reform. People will sermonize that we need more freedom to carry and thus protect ourselves, while others will point to guns as the problem and say we need to do more to make it difficult to have one at all.

Gun reform is not the ultimate purpose of this blog post, but just so you know I’m not trying to smuggle anything in, let me start by telling you where I land at this point. I did not grow up around guns and thus I am not all that comfortable around them. I have never owned one, although I’ve shot guns on three occasions that I recall. I respect the practice of hunting, and don’t really blame someone who keeps a handgun or guns around in case he or she feels the need to protect one’s home or family or whatever.

With all that said, I have no problem saying I think semi-automatic rifles should be outlawed for civilians. What do we have to lose, other than a few tragic deaths? Right up front, we’ve got to deal with the Second Amendment, as I do think it’s possible to show some reverence for the Bill of Rights while also making determinations about what is good for us to today. The Amendment says this: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Let’s be honest, the meaning of this sentence is not exactly self-evident, and thus requires more analysis, some actual thinking. One question becomes about original intent versus contemporary needs and problems and then also about whether the text relates to official militias or individuals. I’m fine with interpreting this clause as giving citizens the right to bear arms, but then of course we have to ask, which arms? As you can see, this is all really complicated, and the talking heads on partisan lines tend to not take it seriously enough. Are we allowed to possess all “arms”? Don’t we already outlaw, for example, one’s ability to make, possess, and use various explosives and bombs?

So again, whether by Federal legislation or state laws or amending the Constitution, I would have no problem with this outlawing semi-automatic weapons. For me it is an issue of purpose, i.e. what are the advantages of having semi-automatic rifles? Certainly they sell, which means jobs and livelihoods are at stake. This is at least part of why the NRA is a powerful lobby. I don’t want to belittle that point, but I also don’t think the economics of semi-automatic weapons are enough to warrant keeping them around.

Another point people make is, well, we’ve got to be prepared to defend ourselves against the government. Any honest look at history suggests that’s really not that ridiculous of a claim. And yet, at the present moment I don’t personally feel physically threatened by the United States’ government. Ask someone in Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria (or even a Japanese-American during World War II), and they might think differently. For me personally, the bigger risk is that of consistently foolish governance. But I’m not afraid for my life, at least on a daily basis. A day like Thursday is in the extreme exception.

Semi-automatic rifles, like automatic guns before them, aren’t made for deer hunting or self-defense; they are designed for killing sprees. But here’s where the problem comes in: it appears that the other day, Sunghee Kwon — yes, the perpetrator in this instance was a woman, which is rare — did her dirty work with a handgun. This is where the logic of gun control begins to fall apart for me. Handguns and cars are more responsible for deaths in the U.S. than are semi-automatic guns. So how far do we go with gun control? Let’s say we really do outlaw semi-automatic weapons, like I would prefer. Is that going to make those weapons disappear? Of course not. Just like drugs. And even if we could make them disappear, did Timothy McVeigh need guns to kill 168 people and injure another 680 in Oklahoma City?

We need to be honest about the fact that stricter gun control would almost surely lead to two things: an even stronger black market for weaponry and other ways to kill, masses even, would become more common.

In the mean time, if we’re going to rage against machine guns and Adam Lanzas, it might finally be time to acknowledge that violence, destruction, and exploitation thread through so many of the practices that we, as Americans, accept and even actively condone. The cars we drive pollute the air we breathe. We destroy land in the name of “development.” We rape mountaintops in order to extract resources that will surely run out one day. We poison our food to make it “cheaper” to produce. Many of us rely on substances that poison our bodies in order to get through the day. We slaughter babies that don’t fit into our plans. When marriages get difficult, we terminate them. Rape is common and the porn industry thrives. We accelerate the deaths of sick, elderly people and our more extreme criminals. Our solution to disgruntled poor people and minorities that lack literacy skills seems mostly to be a bloating prison system. Many of our corporations outsource its real work to countries with lax labor laws so they can pay them like slaves. The Super Bowl attracts, among many other things, a huge movement of the sex-trade industry. Our government regularly invades and bombs countries that act against our “national interests.” That same government possesses weapons that can obliterate whole cities in a matter of minutes. We’ve used these weapons that make machine guns look like toys.

No, the violence at USC on Thursday was no isolated incident; it is our learned way of life. Better ways of living together in this world would probably require a more radical rethinking and change than we’re really willing to make. We want both our cake and to be able to eat it, too, even though we’ve seen a billion times that it doesn’t work.

So why are we so violent? Why is it so hard for us to be kind to each other? Why do so many people in this society we’ve built reach the point of hopeless desperation that Kwon apparently reached on Thursday? Why, in the words of a Walker Percy book title, are so many of us Lost in the Cosmos?

If there are answers to any of this, they aren’t easy or cheap ones, despite what the gun rhetoricians tell us. Gun policy (or mental-health policy or fill-in-the-blank-other policy) cannot solve our problems with violence because violence is a symptom, not the disease. To summarize, some gun control is necessary, but we ought to go about it democratically and with the understanding that the best we can do through policy is mitigate the symptom a little bit.

Now that I’ve pissed most people off equally, we can get to something I’m more interested in, which is: what are the real problem(s) we’re dealing with in situations like Thursday? Of course any answer I attempt is incomplete and not final. Our lives are better “answers” anyway. I suspect the real tragedy at USC, like anywhere this kind of thing happens, lies beneath the behavior that disturbed us so much. Hurt people hurt people, and on the other hand, people who feel loved and connected and seen and valued do not go out and do what Kwon did. I guess the thesis that is forming in me is that deadly violence (or for that matter, passive and harmful neglect) is the result of a wounded heart that goes unattended. Maybe what we need then, first and foremost, is to look inside of ourselves.

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