My first scare with a gun caught me completely off guard. A person in my community took a head first dive into a deep depression, finding solace in nothing but a bottle. The depression had become so severe that someone close to him came to me for support and to investigate what was going on in his apartment. No one had heard from him for weeks and we went to find him in the bright sunshine of an early afternoon. We heard no response after knocking, so we opened the door with a key, making sure to make as much noise as possible as not to alarm him. The apartment smelled like bad body odor. Empty bottles of cheap vodka lined the one wall and the person we came to see was at least thirty pounds lighter than the last time I saw him. His drunken stupor was disturbing enough, along with his anger at us for interrupting his day. He lifted up the pillow where he had been laying and revealed a black handgun. While I know very little about handguns, I knew it carried at least a few rounds in the clip. Thankfully his severe drunkenness had taken away any physical or mental ability to use it.
Guns are a part of life in Detroit, and in all of our major cities. After twelve years doing work in this city I love, very little about guns is shocking. Even after living in four different neighborhoods, all considered safe, it is not uncommon to hear gun shots, mostly young people shooting into the air as a cheap form of fireworks and entertainment. When I recently approached a neighbor and told him my house would be empty for a week while on vacation, he made it clear he would be protecting it with his shotgun. What can a person say but, “thank you”?
As the debate about gun control and regulation escalates this year, the reality of gun life in our cities has not surfaced in the largest media outlets. Fear of guns and fear of gun owners tend to dictate the boundaries and terms of our discussions. What if we stopped living in fear?
Not long after I came out of the closet as a gay person to one of the congregations I served, a very mentally unstable person threatened me over the phone. Twenty minutes of rambling, psychotic messages were left on the church voice mail, including a gun threat. She was certain that someone would be bringing a loaded gun to the next church meeting. The police and a lawyer friend diffused the situation. In our world, guns are most often used to intimidate, threaten and create fear.
Faith and wisdom lead us away from fear and into confidence. The roots of all of the major religions lead us to find peace in God and one another. Of course true faith and wisdom are not ignorance or naivety, walking into dangerous situations without an understanding of that danger. Rather, they are a counterbalance to the irrational nature of fear and its cousins, ignorance and hatred. Guns, and especially assault rifles and high magazine clips and all the related weapons that go with them, are sold on a premise of fear, ignorance and hatred, depending on America to empty our individual and collective wallets. Gun manufacturers want us to be afraid. Our fear, especially of one another, makes them more rich.
More guns do not create more safety. If there was a gun on me the day I was carjacked, I would not be alive today. An addict needed a fix and my car and my wallet would get him closer to what he needed. The broad daylight boldness of his offense rocked my world for weeks. The small revolver in his hand remains burned in my mind. Somehow the federal debate about guns has yet to speak to this reality. Gun advocates would want me strapped. A gun however would not heal my fear, but increase it. Fear makes people dangerous.
It would be irrational and impossible to gather up all the guns and destroy them. It is far too late for that. Still, we must acknowledge that the cold, impersonal nature of firearms helps us remain cold and impersonal with one another, and allow us to threaten those whom we fear, almost completely devoid of conscience. Most guns are for people who are afraid. They are afraid of the uncertain and uncontrollable nature of life, and in America, we work to control everything.
The first gun I fired was put in my hands by my grandfather. It was a shotgun for game birds and I was about seventeen years old. That lesson taught me about respect for the weapon, safety for me and others and how not to be afraid of something with which I was not familiar. The lesson was about a gun. Now, in this time, let the debate be about people, that we may respect each other, build safety for all of us and not be afraid of people with whom we are not familiar. Guns do not allow us to achieve these goals, and in fact push us backward toward fear. No civilization has ever survived on fear.