The gun lobby won in the U.S. Senate because Senators either fear 1) they will be defeated by pro-Second Amendment constituents, 2) they will lose a major source of campaign financing, or 3) they genuinely stand with the NRA and gun-manufacturers.
I am. Every one of us is biased. Our experiences shape how we feel and how we think about these matters. My limited experience with guns influences how and what I see in the national discussion of gun control. I share these real life “scenes” In the interest of furthering honest discussion.
I am in Junior High School in Broomall, PA, a small town west of Philadelphia where my father is a pastor. The upstairs phone is in my bedroom. The phone rings in the middle of the night. I answer the phone. A police officer is asking for my father. Dad comes to the phone. “Reverend Stewart, we have a situation here. We need your help. Mrs. Smith (not her real name) is holed up at her home on Darby Lane. Her son called us. She’s threatening to kill him and herself. She has a gun. Can you help us?”
My father gets dressed, goes to the home. Mrs. Smith lets him in. He sits down with her. She finally agrees to give the gun to my father, her pastor.
President John Fitzgerald Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas. Initial reports point to the Grassy Knoll. The Warren Commission concludes all the shots came from a single rifle from a window in the Book Depository Building.
I am a graduate student at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, IL. A senior project on allegations of police violence on Chicago’s North Side involves spending the night with a police officer in a police squad ride-along.
A little after 3:00 A.M. a Plymouth Valiant makes an illegal turn on a major street. The officer decides to warn the driver. “I’m just going to make sure he knows that he made an illegal turn. There’s no traffic. I won’t give him a ticket. Just want to be sure he knows not to do it next time.”
As the squad car makes the right turn to follow the Valiant, the Valiant takes off. An APB comes over the police radio. There’s been a break-in at a store three blocks from our location. “He’s hot!” says the Officer. He draws his pistol.
The Valiant leads us down a number of side streets and narrow alleys, making hair-pin turns on two wheels. Making the hard right turn, the Officer’s revolver flies out of his hand onto the floor on the passenger’s side in front of me.
”Get the gun! Get the gun! Just hold it until I tell you.”
I’m holding a deadly weapon in a life or death high speed chase. The chase ends with six squad cars blocking an alley. They throw the driver – a father with a baby at home one block away from home – onto the hood of the car – and make the arrest. We return to the police station.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated in Memphis. I am Assistant Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Decatur, Illinois where I am responsible for “Teen Town” a program for youth from the public housing projects.
The kids learn that Dr. King has been shot. The room is hot. We quickly gather up 12 tape recorders, divide the kids into 12 groups, and tell each group that this is their time to talk. Their time to speak about what they’re feeling. What they say needs to be heard. We, the adult leaders, will see that city and school officials hear what they have to say. The evening ends peacefully.
Scene 5Bobby Kennedy, Presidential candidate, brother of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, is assassinated.
A despondent professor at the college and member of the college church I serve goes into his basement, calls his 15 year-old son downstairs, puts a pistol in his own mouth and pulls the trigger.
It falls to me to minister to the son and his wife. I do the memorial service and spend endless hours with a traumatized family. All I can do is stand with them. The horror will never leave the son’s memory. The college and congregation are also in shock.
Five years later a woman calls the church office. Her boyfriend is at home by himself. He has a gun. She has left because she’s afraid he would kill her and himself. Would I go to the house?
I go to the house. I know him well. He trusts me. He lets me in. As my father did when I was a teenager, I stay calm. I listen as he paces the room, waving the pistol, ranting and raving and crying about how meaningless life is and about how he’ll never get his life in order.
After an hour, he calms down. He gives me the gun and asks me to take it away.
I have no idea what to do with it. I gave it to Karl, a church member and friend who has a gun collection. I tell Karl I can’t tell him where it comes from. “Just get rid of it.”
On a Monday morning, a 70 year old ex-Marine calls the church office. He’s a big man. What other men might call “a man’s man,” a World War II Marine, 6’2”. 250 lbs, part of the invasion of Saipan in the South Pacific when he was 17.
“My wife’s out of town. Can you come over tonight for a drink?”
I’ve never been to their home. I’m guessing he wants to talk about his marriage.
He takes my coat. We sit down. He pours us each a Scotch.
“You know, your first couple of years here I didn’t come to church much. I didn’t like your preaching. I’m not one of these peace guys. But something made me keep coming back. I started to listen and I kept coming, and all this peace stuff and Jesus stuff started to get to me. It’s been a long time now. That’s why I called you.
“I hate the Japs! I know I’m not supposed to call ‘em ‘Japs’. I hate them! But I can’t hate them anymore.”
He gets up and walks over to the mantel above the huge stone fireplace.
“My wife has no idea what’s in this box. I’ve never told her. I can’t tell her. I don’t want it anymore. I’m asking you to take it. I can’t live with it anymore.”
He takes the box from the mantel, places it on the ottoman in front of me, and opens the locked box with a key. He is shaking now and crying.
“This poor bastard! I killed this [expletive] with my bear hands!”
His whole body shakes as, one by one, he removes the contents from the box:
• the soldier’s helmet;
• a lock of hair;
• two eye teeth;
• his ID, and…
• the soldier’s pistol.
“All these years of hate. And this poor bastard was just doing the same thing I was. He was just doing his duty to his country. How will God ever forgive me? I just want this stuff out of my house. I want it out of my life! How will God ever forgive me? I can’t hate any more. I can’t.”
We stand in the middle of his living room. I hold him like a baby: a grown man – a “man’s man” – sobbing and shaking with guilt, sorrow, and grief.
I take the box and the contents home. I give the gun to Karl. I have no memory of what I did with the box or the artifacts of what remained of the Japanese soldier. Memory is like that. It was too personal. It was too hot.
It’s a Tuesday night in 2013. I am hosting a community dialogue on “Gun Violence in America.” I am the Moderator of the program. 138 people crowd the Chapel. Normal attendance at the Dialogues is 35 to 50. Tonight the overwhelming majority are gun owners, many of whom have come in response to partisan emails from Second Amendment gun-rights advocates.
I welcome everyone, invite people to introduce themselves to each other, and introduce the evening’s two speakers. Chaska Police Chief Scott Knight is an outspoken advocate for increased gun control legislation. Carver County Sheriff Jim Olson takes a more conservative position, arguing instead for enforcement of existing laws. The Chief and the Sheriff engage in respectful exchange. The program then turns, as it always does, to the floor for comments and questions.
I recognize the first of many hands, a woman from the back of the Chapel. She reads from a prepared script. She is angry about government. At one point she says that government has no business telling her whether or not she can have a gun. The Second Amendment guarantees that right to every American citizen.
I do what I have always done over the seven years we’ve been holding these Dialogues: I ask a follow-up question meant to stimulate deeper thought and discussion: “Let me ask a follow-up question to be clear about what you’re saying. Are you saying that anybody should be able to buy a gun anywhere, anytime?”
“I didn’t say that!” She was angry. The room was hot.
I knew then that this would not be a dialogue. The best we could hope for was a series of monologues.
After a series of statements, a participant sites a Facebook posting which had declared that “the second best thing that could happen to Obama would be for him to be impeached.”
The speaker continues, “And we all know what the best thing would be…assassination.”
There is a visceral outcry objecting to painting Second Amendment rights advocates as racists and potential assassins.
Later a woman stands to ask how many people in the room have lost a loved one to gun violence. Three hands go up. Before she can continue, there are shouts from the back of the room. “That has nothing to do with the Second Amendment.” The shouts continue. I address the shouting, reminding the shouters of the rule that one person speaks at a time without interruption. By the time order is restored, the woman has finished the story I could not hear. Her father committed suicide with a gun. The woman is weeping. She sits down.
Ten minutes later a man speaks from the front. He makes the case that the American economy is going to collapse because the federal treasury is dependent on derivatives. He will need his gun, he says, when there’s not enough food and the girl from next door comes over to get the food he’s stored up for just this eventuality. He puts the Chief of Police on the spot. “So, if an order comes down (from the President) to take away our guns, will you obey the order?”
In the social time following the event, four women tell me they were afraid physically. They don’t think they will come back for the second program. The woman who has shouted down says, “I don’t think I can back.” Two first-time attendees to Dialogues seek me out to say they didn’t expect this. “I can get this at home watching television. I expected something more enlightening, not just more of the same,” says one of them.
The gun rights advocates express pleasure with the evening and are looking forward to the announced second program in the series featuring a debate between an NRA representative a pro gun control advocate. There is no indication of dissatisfaction with the evening. “We’ll be back. Thank for doing this.”
One of the visitors identifies himself as a Republican Second Amendment advocate who came because of an email. He thanks me for the evening and for the even-handed moderating.
“But I have to say I’m really disappointed. I’m sad. How can anyone not have compassion for that poor woman who tried to tell her story about her father’s suicide? I don’t understand the response. No matter where you stand your heart has to go out to her, no matter where you stand.”
The church board meets to review the program and to prepare for the next one. We are concerned that the First Tuesday Dialogues’ purpose of “examining critical public issues locally and globally” will be no better served by the second program than it had been at the first. We also know that the night’s capacity crowd will increase for the next program. A hundred gun-rights advocates who were attending a hearing at the legislature in the state capitol the night of the first event will be free to attend the second program. There is no room to accommodate a larger crowd, and the purpose of meaningful conversation diminishes with larger numbers.
We cancel the next program and publish a letter in the local newspaper explaining our decision.
In response to the cancellation, Letters to the Editor and on-line comments declare that the Moderator was biased and that the real reason for cancelling the program is that the Moderator was surprised and disappointed by how many Second Amendment gun-rights advocates attended.
We’re all biased by our personal histories (the Scenes in our lives). No one is objective. Perhaps the place to start is speaking out loud the experiences that prejudice every one of us.
Can the members of a community, a city, a state, a nation, a community of nations, engage in meaningful conversation about their mutual safety and security? Can we begin by sharing our experiences? Might the open expression of our various personal experiences be the narrow door that leads to the other side of suspicion and violence? Or will the NRA and the gun manufacturers call the shots?