OK. I have nothing to lose, so I’m going to go all the way out to the edge on this gun issue.
In 2005, I watched as my friends at Red Lake were killed, traumatized and besieged by reporters, then forgotten, after a confused and alienated kid drove to the school where I had worked and killed seven people.
I am, as I write this, on a plane back to my home in Portland, Ore., 180 miles north of the mass-murder site in the town of Roseburg, where I used to buy car parts when I lived in the Oregon woods many years ago and where I have visited on my journeys south through the magical Oregon countryside.
I shop at the Clackamas mall where in 2012 one more confused white kid brought out a gun and killed three people for no reason that any of us can fathom — or should have to fathom.
And all of the politicians, no matter how pained and grieved, are dancing around the issue of guns with vague platitudes about the need for mental health services, background checks, the necessity of enlisting the support of responsible gun owners, and on and on.
But let’s cut to the chase: It’s guns, pure and simple. Guns.
So, let’s go to it.
What is it about guns that so obsesses Americans? Yes, I know all about the Second Amendment and how it supposedly protects our rights. I know all about the perceived slippery slope into governmental control of our lives. I know about beard boys in Idaho wearing camouflage and face paint and crawling through the woods to hold out against an upcoming takeover by the fascist government, and about frightened fathers and mothers keeping guns in their houses in cities and suburbs to protect against intruders. I know about all of this.
But forget all of that. Tell me about guns.
There are otherwise perfectly normal human beings in northern Minnesota, where I lived, who can barely feed their families but who have 25 rifles, pistols and semi-automatic weapons in their closets.
Why? You don’t have 25 refrigerators, or 25 pipe wrenches or 25 of anything other than perhaps baseball caps and pairs of shoes, and those things are questionable enough. So, what is it about a gun? Is it some feeling of power? Is there some crypto-sexual thrill in holding it? Shooting it? Stroking it?
I know I’m being a bit demeaning, but, damn it, I simply can’t understand. And, frankly, I don’t want to. I am sick of hearing arguments for these cruel and lethal objects. They scare me, they disgust me and it makes me ashamed that such an adolescent and selfish obsession can be one of the few sacrosanct things in our country.
What drives it? Why are we like this?
Sometimes I think it is part of this culture of fear that comes with our out-of-control capitalist society where every advertisement is based on fear and perceived deficiency, and a gun is just the physical embodiment of a sense of control. Sometimes I think it has a subterranean racism at its heart, where fear of the terrifying black man at the door drives white people to want to have the fantasy of a protective weapon at hand.
Sometimes I think it is the residual frontier ethic. But the Canadians have every bit as strong a frontier ethic, and they don’t share this cultural mental illness.
And, yes, that’s what it is — a cultural mental illness, fomented and fanned by an armament industry that needs, or, at least, wants every man, woman and child to be packing a weapon in the name of freedom or security or whatever abstraction they can sell us.
But, my God, children are dying, and they are dying from guns. No amount of counseling or monitoring or background checks is going to stop this. People will get guns like teenagers get beer, and no amount of laws will stop it.
Consider the sheriff in Roseburg. He stated quite forthrightly that he would not enforce any federal gun laws, nor would he allow his deputies to do so. And now he is looking in the faces of the mothers and fathers and husbands and wives of the dead. How can he sleep at night? Is he at least a little conflicted?
Sadly, probably not. To him, it wasn’t a gun that killed all those people. It was a person. And the fact that it was a gun in the hand of that person, just as it was a gun in the hand of the killer at Red Lake and the killers at Columbine and the killer at the Aurora movie theater and the killer in every other mass murder in America doesn’t register with him or people like him. It is a mind-boggling disconnect that simply beggars the imagination.
So, what will stop it? One and only one thing: getting rid of guns on our streets. And this is no easy task. It cannot be done by fiat; it cannot be done in one legislative swoop. It can only be done by changing hearts and minds, and that takes time.
There needs to be incremental change — make it illegal to own handguns and semiautomatics for starters, then begin confiscating them as they come in contact with the legal system. Stop the manufacture of them. Then get beneath this and start to educate our children to the reality that compassion will eventually trump fear and that there is nothing magical or mystical about a piece of metal (or, sadly, plastic) that can kill at a distance. In fact, it is simply sick to look at them as problem solvers.
So, go ahead, unfriend me, refuse to buy my books, write me enraged e-mails filled with the tired old tropes.
But, for the love of Jesus and Mary and Buddha and things that go bump in the night, take a look in the mirror and ask why this piece of metal that is essentially a killing machine is so damn important to you.
Red Lake. Clackamas Town Center. Roseburg. Coming soon to a neighborhood near you. And you will be shocked and you will be surprised and you will say, “This was such a nice, quiet community. Things like this aren’t supposed to happen here.”
Well, sorry. They aren’t supposed to happen in your particular “here,” but they will. And if you prevaricate and trot out tired old bromides and talk about abstractions while another child’s face gets blown off by a gun, the blood is on your hands.
Kent Nerburn, a Minnesota native, is an author in Lake Oswego, Ore. (kentnerburn.com).