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ARISE, ANGER AND GRIEF TOGETHER
December 17, 2012
 
How to do church yesterday, when the slaughtered innocents of the Sandy Hook School have not even been buried yet? How to speak to the sorrow and still communicate trust and safety? Without lying? How to preach to a congregation that includes young children? Do we read the names? Do we include their ages? What do people need from me right now -- do they need to wade deeper into their pain, or do they need some relief from it? Can we somehow do both of these things? Because different people need different things. And how to organize my own thoughts into something of use?

Our record in caring for the mentally ill is lamentable overall. Not surprisingly, our ability to predict who will become the next mass murderer and take steps to prevent it is, too. We can make this somewhat better than it is now, probably, but short of arresting and holding every angry, lonely young man in the nation, our options are limited. Still, we don't have to arm him while we're learning how to help him. His right to bear arms does not create an obligation on our part to enable his illness.

Shooting is fun, a test of aim and skill. But its unregulated exercise is not worth the death of a child, let alone twenty children at once. Nobody's right to participate in a sport, however much he may enjoy it, outweighs a child's right to live.

And nobody's delusions about his own ability to protect himself and his family in the event of an attack without accidentally blowing them away can be allowed to dictate a 21st/century nation's gun policy. In a combat setting, where people are highly trained and expecting attack, soldiers are still killed by friendly fire. Highly trained police officers get it wrong sometimes, too. But you, citizen, are going to be able to respond with accuracy in the middle of the night, in the dark, in a matter of seconds, when someone's in your house and you were asleep? You'll be able to do the same on a crowded street or in a movie theater or train or airplane? You'll be that sure who the perpetrator is amid the chaos? You'll have that clear a shot? And you think this because you're good in the controlled environment of the firing range? And you want me to bet my grandchildren's lives on this conviction of yours? I can't do that.

I like hunting. I think it is far preferable to the misery of an animal living its entire life in a feed lot, and also preferable to allowing displaced game animals to starve to death or get hit by cars because our McMansions have encroached on their habitats. We consume more venison at our table than we do beef -- much more. But hunting is a highly regulated activity. Responsible hunters don't mind this: they accept their duty as conservationists of the woodlands they enjoy.

We don't need to lump all firearms together in this discussion. I know lots of cops, but I don't know anybody in law enforcement who thinks citizens need automatic weapons in the drawers of their bedside tables. I know many hunters, and they enjoy hunting with other kinds of rifles -- some of them use bow and arrow. There is a parity between hunter and prey in the wild: you have a rifle, yes, but he knows the woods better than you ever will. More often than not, the animal wins your contest. There is no contest if your encounter with a noble animal amounts to spraying his immediate surroundings with bullets: being a good shot has little to do with it in that instance. You would get your deer not by virtue of your skill, but by the law of averages.

Many of my readers won't like this essay. It lacks my usual reconciling tone. It employs sarcasm. This is because I am angry that our politicians have not had the fortitude to stand up to a ridiculously extremist gun lobby, and sarcasm is an easy weapon for me to wield. It is because I am tired of my country's insane admiration of violent death, enshrined in law and on display for the world to see in our popular music, our television, our games, our cinema -- everywhere. And it is because I am unspeakably sad about the Newtown massacre, too sad to talk about it, trying not to imagine the terrified faces of children facing death without their parents to save or comfort them, not to see the desperate valor of their martyred teachers, fighting my imagining of those last seconds of these short lives -- trying to push these images away, and failing utterly. It is because I am too cowardly to face the terrible weakness of my grief, so I choose the power of my anger instead. I know this. I will try to do better.

But I think I will do it the way Mother Jones did it: I will pray for the dead, and fight like Hell for the living. The madness of gun violence has got to stop, and there is no one thing that will stop it. Support for the treatment of the mentally ill and for those closest to them is part of it: it must become much more possible to help those who, by the very nature of their illness, may not want our help. Joining the rest of the developed world in enacting a sensible gun control policy must also be part of the solution. Public officials who do not support our need to inhabit our public places without fear must be held to account. We elect them, and we must use the power we have. They need to become more afraid of us than they are of the NRA.


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Mary Harris "Mother" Jones was an Irish-American schoolteacher and dressmaker who became a prominent labor and community organizer. Mother Jones worked as a teacher and dressmaker, but after her husband and four children all died of yellow fever and her workshop was destroyed in a fire in 1871, she began working as an organizer for the Knights of Labor and the United Mine Workers union. In 1902 she was called "the most dangerous woman in America" for her success in organizing mine workers. In 1903, upset about the lax enforcement of the child labor laws in the Pennsylvania mines and silk mills, she organized a Children's March from Philadelphia to the home of president Theodore Roosevelt in New York.
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