Saturday, March 31, 2012

Freedom: the Capacity to Gun Someone Down

I find myself lately changing the channel when I see news about Trayvon Martin’s killing. This reflects my weariness with the sorrowful tragedy of the case. It could so easily have been avoided had the killer been less gun-obsessed.

I’m making judgments about the killer, George Zimmerman, without knowing more about him than what the news offers, but I feel pretty sure about my judgments. This is partly because the idea of carrying a gun around in your neighborhood of an evening bespeaks obsession.

But it also reflects some of my experience as a receiver of hate mail over the decades. Soon after I began writing for newspapers some 30 years ago, I noticed that the two topics I could write about that would almost guarantee hate mail responses were guns and race. At first I couldn’t see a connection, but gradually, it dawned on me that the depraved hatred expressed in these two kinds of letters was rooted in a single sentiment: Dread. People who feel encroached upon by “those they perceive as different” are often the same people who nurture a need to arm themselves with murderous weaponry. Both of these sentiments reflect a feeling of vulnerability that drifts easily into fear.

However, we non-psychotic citizens also have cause to be fearful when we consider the crazy laws that the gun lobby has managed to get Florida to put on its books. The infamous “stand your ground law” that was passed here in 2005 is a perfect example. It might more accurately be called the “I-think-I’d-like-to-kill-someone-today-and-claim-that-I-was-standing-my-ground law.”

From the start it was obvious to normal people (but not, apparently, to Florida’s legislators) that this law was an invitation to gun nuts everywhere to snuff out those fellow citizens whom they found particularly annoying. Passing this law was, at the time, surely the craziest thing Floridians had ever done - but that was before they elected Rick Scott as governor.

The use of the phrase “stand your ground” is part of the problem, and it calls attention to the fact that the gun industry knows how to win wars of words. “Stand your ground” calls up visions of John Wayne or Gary Cooper displaying American-style manliness by bravely facing down a no good varmint or two. But it’s hard to see that kind of Hollywood bravado in a heat-packing, middle-aged man tracking an unarmed teenager until a confrontation results in the latter’s death.

There is a sickening difference between the gloriously brave sounding phrase that the gun lobby used to shove this law through the Florida legislature, and the creepy reality surrounding the many killings that have been justified by this law - a number which, by the way, is rapidly rising (Tampa Bay Times). Also rapidly rising is the number of Florida residents seeking licenses to own guns.

I’m not sure how the gun nuts are managing to win the language war, but so far they are. In their world, the word “freedom" means little more than the capacity to blow someone’s head off with a twitch of the trigger finger. Anyone who isn’t packing heat, they seem to believe, isn’t free.

Note that there are dozens of countries in which people are free even though almost nobody owns any weapons - England and Japan for starters. It’s also true that in some countries households have long been heavily armed where there is no freedom at all – Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, for example. I’m not sure how the gun lobby, in spite of these realities, has managed to indoctrinate the culture with the idea that guns equal freedom, but it has.

Related to this is the nutty idea that we are only truly free if we have the household armaments necessary to face down “the government.” This notion harks back to the Revolutionary War era, a time when it made some sense. But face it, is there a community anywhere today in which citizens are prepared to take up their household armaments and go mano-a-mano against the U.S. Marines? Or the First Armored Division?

I raise this point with some hesitation since I’m sure there are some crazies among the gun lobby who would like to demand the right to own howitzers and anti-tank missiles and I’m frankly a bit leery of stirring them up.

Finally, in the language war department, there is the phrase “Second Amendment rights.” True, the Second Amendment references the right to bear arms in the interest of maintaining a militia, but the gun industry has used the phrase “Second Amendment rights” so regularly to promote legislation like Florida’s “stand your ground law” that the real nature of the Second Amendment is buried beneath their propaganda.

In an ideal world, every time some pro-gun politician or lobbyist used the phrase “Second Amendment rights,” a courageous journalist or politician would stop them in their tracks and insist that they reference the basis of a “militia” as the constitutional justification for gun ownership. But Florida, I fear, is light years away from this “ideal world.”

It may be too late, but I still believe it is worth the struggle to take back some of the language that the Murderous Weaponry Lobby has so effectively commandeered. Let’s start by bringing back this good old American phrase - “gun nuts.”