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Is an attack on one an attack on all?

The brutal consequences of our nation’s gun fetish

by Ken Sehested

       We are a nation awash in guns, increasingly inured to violence that doesn’t happen on our street or zip code or time zone, and increasingly addicted to militarized response to threat at home and, especially, abroad. The recent shooting of legislators in a public park, of those practicing for a charity baseball game, could be a teachable moment in how we might disentangle ourselves from these deathly habits.

       Will it?

       I wish I were more hopeful that lessons will be learned, penitence declared, restoration initiated, communal bonds recovered. People of faith, however, know that hope’s foundation lies deeper than present circumstances permit, however unfavorable.

       You know the aphorism: What you see depends on where you stand. A slightly more sophisticated way of saying it might be: What you see depends on your personal “risk factor” and your “boundary of relevance.”

       Those are terms journalists know, along with an inherited tradition of careful thought in deciding newsworthiness.[1] “If it bleeds, it leads” still determines much of the news cycle—not unlike the way we are entranced, at least momentarily, by a car crash scene; or the way the tongue keeps returning to a newly-broken tooth—even though countless courageous, truth loving journalists wish it otherwise. (The skyrocketing number of journalists killed in conflict regions is testimony to the savage ransom demanded by desperate rage.[2])

       Here’s an example of a newsworthiness decision. On the same day of the Alexandria shooting, a more deadly rampage erupted in San Francisco, at a United Parcel Service facility, when a disgruntled employee killed three of his co-workers, wounded two others, before committing suicide.

       Unfortunately, in the calculus of real world journalism—given the concentration of press surrounding our nation’s governing institutions—the San Francisco tragedy drew the short straw. Risk factors and boundaries of relevance prevail.

       Ponder for a moment our current political climate when it comes to the risks of refugees and guns.

       “In the four decades between 1975 and 2015,” wrote columnist Nicholas Kristof, “terrorists born in the seven nations in Trump’s travel ban killed zero people in America. In that same period, guns claimed 1.34 million lives in America.”[3]

       Including this week’s tally, 154 mass shootings (defined as four or more people wounded or killed per incident) have occurred in the US—just since the start of the year. Which means we're averaging 6.7 per week.[4]

       The risk factors shrink, and the boundaries of relevance constrict. The stock market and sales flyers catch our eyes. Outrage fatigue sets in. Consider, for instance, the fact that, just this year, more than 3,100 civilians have been killed by US air strikes in Iraq and Syria.[5] It’s very hard to stretch our boundaries that far, to faces we’ve never seen and voices we’ve never heard, in circumstances far beyond our horizon. The risks and relevance don't register.

       After the the 2012 massacre of school children in Newton, Ct., Shannon Watts, a stay-at-home mother of five children, began organizing mothers to speak out against gun violence. “I was wholly unprepared for the blowback headed my way,” she writes this week in the Washington Post.[6]

Right: "Our Lady Mother of Ferguson and All Those Killed by Gun Violence." Icon by Mark Dukes.

       “Within hours of speaking out about our nation’s lax gun laws, I received threats of sexual violence and death . . . my phone throbbed with angry texts and calls. I started getting letters mailed to my home—complete with cut-outs from magazines to spell out threat to my life.

       Her email was hacked; her Facebook photos were distributed publicly; her phone number and home address were shared online; her children’s social media accounts were hacked and the names of their schools shared online.

       “Just weeks ago," she writes, “a meeting of Moms Demand Action volunteers in a Kentucky public library was crashed by men who openly carried guns, waltzed in and sat in the front row.”

       In November 2015, Dallas, Tx., Mayor Mike Rawlings was asked to discuss the political controversy over admitting Syrian refugees to the US. He told MSNBC News, “I am more fearful of large gatherings of white men that come into schools, theaters and shoot people up, but we don’t isolate young white men on this issue.”[7]

       Our nation’s gun fetish, and its lethal consequences, is abundantly documented. US citizens own nearly half the globe’s privately owned guns.[8] Our gun-related murder rate is 25 times higher than 22 other high-income nations. Though our population is less than half the total of those other countries, gun deaths in the US account for 82% of the combined number.[9]

       Nevertheless, the House of Representatives is currently considering a loosening of gun regulations (under the specious title “Sportsmen’s Heritage Protection Act”), including a provision to legalize gun silencer sales, under the subheading of “Hearing Protection Act.” Columnist Dana Wilbank comments, “That’s like calling legislation that expands the availability of machine guns the 'Carpal Tunnel Protection Act’ because it spares would-be shooters the repetitive motion of trigger pulling.”[10]

       In case you need a sobering reminder, it was almost exactly this time a year ago that Sen. Rand Paul tweeted, “Why do we have a Second Amendment? It’s not to shoot deer. It’s to shoot at the government when it becomes tyrannical!”

       With many of you, I was inspired by House Leadership Paul Ryan’s dramatic plea for unity. “We are united in our shock. We are united in our anguish. An attack on one is an attack on all of us.”[11] Obviously, both the risk factor and the boundary of relevance were on full display in our capitol and its environs.

       But if that eloquent appeal to our commonweal—to shared risk and mutual relevance—is to have any meaning, it must be backed by corresponding public policy as well as personal behavior. We must create a culture of peace, not just its slogans and piety. Truth’s consequences will not be mocked.

       “Only those who do the truth,” Jesus said, “come to the light.” (John 3:21) Can I get a witness?

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

Endnotes

[1] See the Wikipedia entry for “News values” for more background.

[2] Not only by those labeled “terrorists.” Defending U.S. military censors’ refusal to release video footage showing Iraqi soldiers being cut in half by cannon fire from helicopters, a Pentagon senior official said: “If we let people see that kind of thing, there would never again be any war.” —quoted in The Christian Century, 11 December 1991, p. 1158

[3] “Husbands Are Deadlier Than Terrorists,” New York Times

[4] Nancy Coleman & Sergio Hernandez, CNN

[5] Sarah Almukhtar, “US Airstrikes on ISIS Have Killed Hundreds, Maybe Thousands of Civilians,” New York Times

[6] “These are the threats you get when you lead a gun-safety group

[7] Jack Jenkins, “Dallas Mayor Says He’s More Fearful Of Armed White Men Than Syrian Refugees,” ThinkProgress

[8] Rebecca Leber, ThinkProgress

[9] Robert Preidt, CBS

[10] "What Republicans are doing while you’re distracted by Sessions and Comey,” Washington Post

[11] Listen to his comment (5:37 video).