Sunday evening I drove to the local video kiosk to rent a movie for the children. As I pulled up I saw that there was a woman perusing the selections, and I thought I would wait in the car, as it was very cold.
There was a pickup parked next to me, and the man in it was also waiting. He assumed that I was going to get out of my car and cut in front of him. He opened the door to get out, giving me a surly look. As he emerged I saw that he was wearing a large handgun in a holster on his hip.
I sat there stunned for a moment, and decided to drive to another kiosk.
While I realize that what the man was doing is legal in Ohio, I had never seen anyone packing a gun in public like that, aside from photos from gun rallies.
I found it profoundly troubling. And creepy.
If you have been reading what I write here you know that I recently purchased a shotgun when my family felt threatened (we awoke to an intruder in the house in the middle of the night). I am a longtime peacenik, but have always said, abstractly, that I was not an absolute pacifist and would defend my family, or any innocent, from an aggressor, with force if necessary. The silhouette of a stranger in my bedroom doorway was no abstraction, nor was the fear on my childrens’ faces.
A cleric friend, an advocate of gospel nonviolence, told me, when I related this story, that he himself would only try to disarm an attacker nonviolently, would consider it a martyrdom if he was killed, and likewise consider those who were victimized after his death -the ones he was ineffectively trying to protect- as fellow martyrs. He said that while the Church says that it is not murder to kill in self defense, Christ’s words demanded absolute nonviolence. He also said that he neither condemned nor commended me, admitting that as he is childless he could not grasp the visceral reaction of a father. But he was clear on what he thought right, however gently he delivered the message. He said he would lay down his life in imitation of Christ.
This is a man whom I hold in high esteem, and the next day I considered his words; maybe I was simply too unspiritual to understand.
But I concluded that his choice of nonviolent -ie, ineffective- resistance would be wrong. While it may be laudable and holy to die rather than resist violence toward oneself, the equation changes when one is called to defend a child or other innocent. To not effectively do all one can to stop the aggressor is to subject the child to the trauma of being a witness to your murder -in my case, her daddy’s murder- as well as to whatever evil the attacker will do to her after you have been dispatched. Nor are you imitating Christ: His sacrifice actually saved the world; yours is saving no one. In fact, it seems to me that you have sinned against the child that it is your duty – duty – to protect. And it is a sin against the God who gave her into your hands to care for and to defend.
The Church would seem to agree with this assessment; here is Blessed John Paul: “…legitimate defence can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life, the common good of the family or of the State. Unfortunately it happens that the need to render the aggressor incapable of causing harm sometimes involves taking his life. In this case, the fatal outcome is attributable to the aggressor whose action brought it about…” (from Evangelium Vitae).
Indeed, it occurred to me that this discussion mirrored the very first thing I ever wrote for publication, an essay that appeared in the journal Fidelity, some twenty years before its editor drove it off the deep end of anti-Semitism. I wrote of pacifism as a sort of charism, like the evangelical counsels, a good and holy thing, but limited to celibates by the nature of the vocation of parenthood (and even celibates vowed to nonresistance would be obliged to protect an innocent).
I write this as someone who has experience in the turn the other cheek department; practical experience, not merely abstract.
Not that I am a particularly irenic person; indeed I am fierce by nature and fought a lot as a kid, not least because I was small for my age. But when I was fifteen or so I became enamoured of the hippie counterculture and became involved in the local antiwar movement in Flint. I read Thoreau and became committed to nonviolence and civil disobedience. My friends and I were outspoken in our opposition to the Vietnam War.
In my little town in 1968 this did not go over well. Knowing that we had renounced violence, a couple of times other kids put us to the test.
“So, I hear that you are against the war.’
“And you don’t believe in fighting?”
There followed cursing and a punch in the face. I raised my fingers in the peace sign: “Peace, man.”
Another punch ensued.
Again, “Peace, man.”
At this my tormentor started looking awkward, like he felt pretty stupid. I forget what he said, but he walked away.
No one ever hit me a third time.
And the guy, ironically a former good friend in the Catholic school we had attended through eight grade, was even smaller than me, so he didn’t do much damage.
But one time we got a scare.
We were in the park behind the community center when a few minor punks walked up to us.
“Hey. Kenny wants to see you.”
Kenny was the baddest guy in town, a large kid, a couple of years older than us, who could whip anyone in town. We walked over to the picnic table where he was enthroned, a bunch of eager toadies surrounding him.
“”So”, he said to me as he lit a cigarette, “I hear you guys are against the war.”
“That’s right”, I replied, wondering if I was about to die.
“And you don’t fight, even if someone hits you?”
Gulp. “Uh huh.”
He took a deep drag on his cigarette.
“I think you guys have a lot of guts.”
That was it, and no one ever hit us again.
Of course it didn’t occur to me back then what I would do if I was a father and my family was threatened; that situation did not enter my life for very many years.
And when it did, ironically, it was right before the Sandy Hook atrocity, which launched a new movement for gun control.
There are a lot of myths and oversimplification, and downright paranoia, on both sides of that debate. For example, I was relating my experience at the kiosk to a friend who is very right-wing.
“Have you ever been to Texas?” he asked.
I told him that my only time in Texas was sitting in a plane in a stopover on my way to New Mexico.
“Everyone in Texas wears a gun on his hip” he said. “And there is no crime.”
I expressed doubt about this. I later checked it and found that in fact Texas had the fifteenth highest rate of violent crime in the nation.
This is the myth of the right, that a well armed society actually is less violent. The myth of the left is that strict gun control, like in Europe, means fewer gun deaths, as though there were not extreme cultural differences at work as well.
America is, in fact, uniquely gun-oriented. In our mythology it is the lone guy with the gun who solves problems with a firestorm of vengeance.
Even Canada, a neighbor and another land of immigrants, has such a different historical experience- their settlement was much more orderly and lawful- that gun deaths there are miniscule in numbers compared to the US.
So the problem is much deeper than lack of gun regulations, which does not mean, say, that it should be easier to purchase an assault rifle and a thousand rounds of ammo than it is to get a driver’s license of a green card.
I obviously do not object to owning a weapon for self-defense. I am not a vegetarian, but my shotgun is not for hunting; I have no desire to kill anything, let alone gut it. My shotgun was purchased to defend my family, if I must. But I bought a shotgun, a pump-action one, because the universal language of a shotgun being pumped – “cha-chink”- generally means that the intruder will flee and you will not have to use the weapon. It didn’t occur to me to buy anything else.
No one needs a semiautomatic weapon with a thirty round clip to defend his family or shoot a deer; such a thing is good for one thing only, to kill a lot of people quickly.
No, guns don’t kill people, people kill people. But a person with a semiautomatic rifle can kill a lot more people than someone armed with a baseball bat, or even a shotgun, in a lot less time.
Cars don’t kill people either, people driving cars do, but I don’t know anyone who thinks that we should do away with traffic laws or drunk driving prohibitions.
Surely there must be some common sense middle ground, without the illusion that any particular regulation will stop violence or the illusion that a world of gunslingers, eyeing one another over their place in line at the kiosk, is a civilized place to live.