The tragedy at Umqua Community College is no accident. The fact that 10 more people were murdered by a young man with a handgun happened because of our collective choices. Yes. He was likely deranged. But that he and so many others can murder so easily happened because we have chosen a culture that values guns more than people. These are choices we can change.
Today, the United States is occupied by a group of would-be freedom fighters who declare how “free” they are. They bare their arms. They advocate for open carry laws. They terrorize and occupy their neighborhoods with the omnipresent threat of violence. Such is the price of freedom that “We the people” must worry about which one of them is the maniac and which one is the noble cavalier, which one is stalking death or a white supremacist and which is just a dude on a walk.
And they tell us to worry about the government seizing our freedoms. Last time I checked, the government wasn’t shooting kids in schools and black people in churches. Not in the United States anyway. We have a gun industry making tens of billions of dollars every year. They lobby our congress so effectively that even those of us who just want to talk about reasonable actions are painted as anti-American Reds.
They have effectively redefined assault rifles. Guns once advertised as assault rifles are now run of the mill. They are ordinary. Killing machines are ordinary in this country. Why?
Because of something people call freedom.
We are teaching our children that killing machines matter more than their lives. An industry built in part on the destruction of lives distracts us from creating good communities.
They—the industry, their lobbyists and the fundamentalist gun wing—have more power than teachers, doctors and nurses who nurture us. The gun industry is like the tobacco, chemical and fossil fuel industries who have externalized the costs of their damage onto us. Instead of being open to discussing the facts and data of the dangers of their industry and the actual responsible use of guns for most people—which is possible—they have circled the wagons and waged a war of deceit and peddled doubt in the name of freedom. They are merchants of deception.
“The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed,” wrote Steven Biko. The gun lobby has become an occupying force in our collective minds. They have so successfully transformed our conception of public safety that they occupy the center of our discourse. They don’t even need to monitor our speech much because we do it for them. Inside each of us is a panopticon tower from which we watch our ideas about “freedom.” We imprison ourselves for them. They have won.
This is not about hunting rifles and reasonable protection in the home, both of which I respect. Many of my friends and neighbors hunt with rifles and shotguns. I want to hunt. Some of my friends—ex-military and police come to mind—own pistols. They are sane, safe people. I’m not comfortable with them walking around with concealed weapons. I’m definitely not down with them being able to have high capacity magazines. Open carry? Definitely not. Stand your ground laws? Forget it. “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others,” said Nelson Mandela. When your freedom to carry guns casts our well-being in chains and is repeatedly shown to be a public health hazard, it is time to alter what we mean by freedom.
On November 24, 1862, Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to Mrs. Bixby of Boston, Massachusetts.
I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
Yours very sincerely and respectfully,
Every week we are shown the clips from the media, clips showing that grandparents, parents and children have been murdered ingloriously on a field of senseless battle. I feel how weak and fruitless our collective prayers must be for those whose loved ones died so that others can be more “free” than they or their dead loved ones are. How weak these apologies and prayers are for the families of those murdered at Umqua Community College in Oregon. How paltry for Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Reverend Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, and Reverend Daniel Simmons of Charleston, South Carolina. Our tears, prayers and apologies will be empty gestures if we don’t collectively confront ourselves and our violence. They will be mere attempts to beguile, gestures of empty rhetoric, dust in the wind.
We owe one another dignity. If we act from love and devotion then perhaps we could hold some solemn pride that the people who have died will have taught us something about ourselves, something worth knowing.
It’s too late to undo what’s been done. We cannot protect the victims. But we can protect one another.