The Futility of Violent Protection

I was going to post about “The Mindy Project”, and the portrayal of women in this year’s sitcoms.  But something else has come up.


Of course.  You know what I’m talking about; everyone does.  The mass murder of elementary schoolers – of six-year-olds – is horrific on a level far beyond politics, beyond politicization.


But these things are politicized regardless.


Lots of very smart and compassionate people have already written responses to the event, responses full of insight and illumination and intelligence.  I was initially going to echo and expand some of those sentiments, but I changed my mind after encountering some of the words from the other side.  I am a pro-gun-control liberal; those who are simply pro-gun would find me guilty, for if only more people were armed – they claim – then those lives could have been spared.  If only the principal – who seems to have been the first person killed at the school – could have pulled out a gun of her own and slain Adam Lanza before he wreaked murderous havoc amongst children, then – then! – then America might be a safer place.


I have recently come to understand the fallacy – the foolishness – of this argument on a new level.


For about two months now I have been living alone.  I have never really lived alone before, and I was excited to do so; I was tired of slobby roommates and I craved privacy.  After several days in my new house with hardly any sleep I began to consider the possibility that it wasn’t simply a matter of adjusting to the place but rather a matter of admitting to myself something wholly unexpected: I hate living alone.  I have lived with hoarders and heroin addicts but living alone I detest more than any prior arrangement except being homeless.  It is, in large part, simple loneliness that gnaws at me: I am isolated in my current neck of the woods, and unless I am accompanied by the cheerful chatter of TV sitcoms or friends’ podcasts (thank god I know comedians!) the existential dread is overwhelming; I cannot fall asleep in the silence.


But if a need for connectedness inspires me to watch “Cougar Town” over and over again each night it is something else, and something even less flattering to my self-conception, which startles me in the darkness.  The sounds of life – refrigerator turning on, house settling, a car on the street – loom in my aloneness and in each noise I find a potential threat, even if for only a millisecond.  On one of my first nights in the house I unpacked the framing hammer that I used every day during my year in Habitat for Humanity, a solid-steel extension of my arm with which I am capable of significant things.  I carry it around with me at night, now, and it soothes me, this thing which makes me feel more powerful than my regular self.  I take it to the bathroom when I go; I take it to bed with me, a poor substitute for a partner.


It is laughable, and I know this – not only with the distance of writing far from home but even as I wield my hammer, I recognize its futility.  If someone were to break into my house, a hammer would not be like to stop them.  Even if the person who entered were unarmed, even if we grappled in hand-to-hand combat, I would not know well what to do with it – I am skilled with a hammer but at different things.  It is nothing more than a security blanket.  Rationally, I know this; I am fully aware of how little impact my hammer might ever have in an altercation.


But I cling to it anyway, for even the illusion of strength can be comforting.


This is what the gun lobby is peddling, in the wake of the mass murder in Connecticut but also every day.  Own a gun, they say first, and even though responsible gun ownership means keeping weapons locked in not-easily-accessible places we all know that such a scheme would not be much use in the event of a break-in (what’s the point of having a gun if you can’t get to it when you need it?) so they say next that we must carry them on our persons, that with hammers well in hand we can ward off evil.  We can all be action heroes.


But we are not all action heroes.  The vast majority of us – almost all of us – are not action heroes but sitcom schlubs; a weapon in hand does not change that.  It is a powerful, powerful fantasy, and I participate in it each night because it is a reassuring fantasy, this notion that possessing a tool of violence can make us invincible.  It transcends rationality.  I live in a safe neighborhood; so do most gun owners.  I have never previously been the victim of violent crime; neither have most gun owners.  I am not involved in gangs or drugs; neither are most gun owners.  And yet, there it is – that insidious unease, that distrust of what’s possible, that persistent sense that something is out to get us.


Nancy Lanza, mother of the shooter and his first victim, owned her guns legally.  The only protection they ever offered her was the certainty of a quick death.


Taking down a sociopath in their act of violence is not an easy thing.  Snipers are rare and highly trained, practiced towards Malcolm Gladwell’s ten-thousand-hours; they are professionals, action heroes by trade, and even they miss sometimes.  To suggest that additional gun ownership is a solution to gun violence – that we must all become vigilantes – is to imply that we each have the capacity to operate at the level of a highly trained professional, and in the middle of a firefight.  What if the principal had had a gun; what if she had tried to stop the shooter; what if she missed?  What if teachers were armed, and when the shooter entered the room one tried to shoot him but shot a running, crying child instead?  What if teachers were armed – carrying weapons on their person, because a locked and hard-to-access firearm is no good in a crisis – and a student finagled the gun away in a distracted moment (no one can pay attention to thirty kids at once) and fired?  What if the student didn’t stop firing?


Carrying a weapon does not make someone an action hero.  More than a nation of Bruce Willises or James Bonds we would likely become a nation of George Zimmermans: wretched by our usual prejudices but empowered now to act them out in the most terrible of fashion.


When I carry my hammer in the darkness it is because of the tempting delusion that, if called to, I might do something heroic with it.  But the truth is that my hammer has already seen its most heroic days, and they were with Habitat for Humanity.  An armed life is not a life of courage or heroism or inspiration.  It is a life of fear; fear of others, and fear of our vulnerability.  But there is nothing that we might hold in our hands to ever make us any less mortal than we are, and to believe otherwise is as silly and dangerous as any other strain of magical thinking.


Even as I grasp my hammer each night it does not help me to sleep; the only restful nights I have found are in the presence of others, at friends’ houses or when they stay over at my house.  I have a friend who lives in Oakland’s very roughest neighborhoods but I sleep easily amongst the Spanglish and commotion, there in an area where violence is a very real presence.  The flimsy guarantee of my hammer does not persuade me of my own security when I am alone.


There is some grain of truth to the adage on the right: guns don’t kill people; people do.  Violent tools work in tandem with those who wield them.  But the inverse is even truer still: guns don’t help people.


People do.

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