I was fourteen-years-old on April 20th, 1999. It was almost the end of the school day when we heard the news that there had been a shooting at a high school in Colorado. The days that followed were strange ones. The names of the two perpetrators were everywhere, as we had yet to realize that those were the wrong names to say. Those in the punk/goth scene were reminded, over and over, that as it was people dressed like them who had targeted football players and cheerleaders during the attack. Our administration went as far to ban trench coats, as though it was the perpetrators’ clothing that had done the most harm. We were no longer allowed to eat our lunch outside, or leave the building for any reason in the middle of the day.
And at no point in time did we talk about guns.
How could we? We were a school district that gave students the first day of hunting season as a holiday, so that we could grab our shot guns, and head into the woods to bond with our uncles and fathers. We invited military recruiters into our cafeteria, and we took turns holding their firearms. There was never a critique of manifest destiny. Good guys needed to pack the heat – that’s how the West was won. While I never shot a firearm myself, I confess, I accepted this worship of fire power as inevitable.
It would be almost a decade before a there was a disturbance tacitly pro-gun psyche. I was living in Mindanao, Philippines, and I was going into a shopping mall to get a postcard to send to a friend for their birthday. And a police officer holding an US-made M-16 searched my bag before I was permitted inside. This was hardly unique. All over the archipelago, police and soldiers (there’s no real distinction between the two) are armed to the teeth with guns the United States bestows on puppet politicians in exchange for Philippine national sovereignty. And each time I saw a police officer holding an M-16, I thought how ridiculous, how minacious, it was.
But on that day, I dropped something on the ground at the security station, and the officer and I both reached to get it at the time. He bumped into me with his M-16. He apologized, and we both smiled. But as I was walking away from him, the gun became real to me. It was cold and heavy. It had been within my reach. And for the first time, I though about how easy it would be to pull a trigger. And that was when I realized two things for the first time: Those guns that the Philippine police use to intimidate their citizenry are, essentially, the same guns that Americans use on one another. And, just like how, at any time, the United States could stop sending guns to the Philippines, we, as Americans, could stop arming ourselves with assault rifles.
In the decade that followed that day in the Philippine shopping mall, I developed a more nuanced understanding about firearms. I drew distinctions between assault weapons and hunting rifles. At parties, among like-minded people, I said things about background checks, and firearm certification. I was always quick to point out that there were responsible gun owners, like the men in my family, and those who sought to do harm to other people.
On May 14, there was a mass shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, and then, on May 22nd, another at a school in Texas. According to NPR, there were also at least eight other mass shootings over the last weekend. Statistically, it is all but certain, that more people have been killed by guns in interpersonal altercations and domestic violence since then. And that even more people have died by self-inflicted gunshot wounds since May 14th than in all of those incidents combined. Those are just the numbers.
In the past few weeks, I have spent hours talking with family and friends. I have reflected on the ‘responsible’ gun owners in my family – one of whom almost died when he accidentally shot himself years ago, and another, from whom we once hid his guns, because he was so depressed the we feared the worst might happen. I have also reflected on my own complicity. I have been quick to say that I am not to blame simply because I do not own a gun – never mind, that for every other societal ill I espouse a need for collective action. I have no defense for this inconsistency, except to say that I have been too long-steeped in the worship of firearms.
As a white person, I am among those who have benefited the most from what guns do; starting with America’s original (and ongoing) sin of settler colonialism and leading to the state-sponsored violence of today. And so, it is not enough for me to deny my participation in gun culture. Absolution is not ours to give to ourselves. If I want absolution for my idolatry of gun-worship and complicity, then I must first repent.
Repentance begins with confession. There are ways in which we have worshiped guns, even if we do not fire them. There are movies we watch. There are professions that we glorify. There are turns of phrase that we use ever day (ie trigger warning, shoot from the hip, taking aim, etc, etc). Guns are such a part of American culture, that it’s worth examining every aspect of lives, just so that we can be aware about how much work we will need to do to rid ourselves of this sickness.
Repentance begins with confession, and it continues with ongoing humility. It will not be enough for like-minded people to talk with each other, and celebrate how right we are. We will need to have conversations, lots of conversations. Certainly, there are plenty of people who might never listen, but like with most social issues, we do not need to change the opinions of the most hardcore enthusiasts. For every gun-owner I know, I know just as many people who sit on the fence – simply because they don’t feel like they should speak up, or because they feel helpless in the face of gun violence. You may know those kind of people, too. Those are the people we need to be talking to, and we need to talk to them with humility. Speaking the truth matters most when we speak in ways that people can hear. That’s the beginning of people power. That’s how we encourage folks to contact their elected officials. That’s how those people find the courage to talk to other people. That’s how we build a movement. It’s slow work – far too slow – but no work has ever been hastened by delaying its inception.
In the more than twenty years since the shooting in Columbine, not much has changed with America’s worship of firearms. But something has changed for me – I no longer believe that gun violence is inevitable. It isn’t. It never was. In each and every moment, in each and every age, we have the opportunity to do something different. We have the ability to repent and to change. We have a choice. We can can limit and – god-willing – eventually restrict access to firearms.
And in the meantime, we can be the people who are brave enough to admit that we are also responsible. We can resist the culture of gun-worship around us. And we can begin to live into a different world in which people power, not fire power, shapes us.