When I entered the Society of Jesus, I was surprised to find out our community was filled with guns. This is not a metaphor. Between backs of the closet, under beds and I-don’t-even-want-to-know-where there were at least a couple dozen rifles to be found in my novitiate, and who knows what else.
No, I hadn’t accidentally taken a left instead of a right at the “Branch Davidians/Society of Jesus” turnoff. (Although talk about two trees diverging in a yellow wood.) The truth was—and I hesitate to say this, for fear of reinforcing coastal stereotypes that Midwesterners are all basically subjects of a Coen Brothers movie*—my Jesuit novitiate was located in Minnesota, and our staff and novices included a number of hunters.
* Having said that, I have always found the Wisconsin practice of identifying water fountains as “bubblers” is not doing us any favors.
Now, I am from the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Guns are something people use to harm other people; that’s pretty much it. I think I had to handle a hand gun once in Cub Scouts—which frankly confirmed my instincts that Scouting that was never going to be for me (though 30-plus years later I am still pleased by the R2D2 Pinewood Derby car my dad and I made). That's the extent of my experience with firearms.
Still, if I have learned anything about myself it is that I have a natural talent for denying realities that are freaking me out. So I never raised a fuss, either as a novice or in the years later I spent working on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where pretty much everyone had guns because hunting is a real thing that people do and enjoy.
Actually, let me correct that. In the novitiate, the presence of guns was something that disturbed me. We were in St. Paul, for God’s sake. With the exception of the staff, who were actual honest to God hunters, no one ever came back having “bagged” anything. By “hunting” they really meant “wandering around the woods drinking.”
On the Pine Ridge, on the other hand, I never really thought twice. Because—and again, let’s all try and fight the urge to imagine rez life as a world of tipis (sic) and loin-skinned brown people on horseback hunting buffalo; in my classes ordinary conversation would regularly include references to Tupac and Biggie—this was rural life, and guns were a part of that. A pretty unobtrusive part, in fact.
The recent tragedies in San Bernardino and Colorado yet again raise the question of what in God's name are we doing with guns in this country. And as I have stated here not long ago, I am more and more convinced that those who think the United States does not have a gun problem are in the same untenable position intellectually as climate change deniers. I’m sorry, but the evidence is just undeniable. And arguing with them is equally of no value.
At the same time, it is also clear the San Bernardino situation is more complicated than “they had guns.” (Also, stranger: if you are still watching CNN or MSNBC after their bizarre/horrible “Let’s Be TMZ” inspection of the crime scene, please, tell me why.) It begs among other things for a conversation about how we are going to understand terrorism today, and what we can do about it.
Still, the accessibility of guns is a part of the problem. And personally it’s one that I am all too happy to solve with “no more guns.”
But then I think of those I know who live in rural America, where this is for the most part not such an issue.* (Obviously they have their own gun-related tragedies, but I’d bet more people have died from gun-related violence in Chicago this year than in all of small town America. Certainly that’s true if we’re comparing mass shootings.) Saying they can’t have their hunting rifles is a lot like punishing a whole class because a couple kids are screwing around—it’s not fair, and it’s also seriously counterproductive. If you ever want to motivate the apathetic, blame them for someone else’s misjerkery.
* Having said that, to those hunters who insist they need automatic weapons and/or high capacity magazines, I love you but why stop there? Why not land mines and drone strikes? Because it’s ridiculous, that’s why. Having some limits is legitimate; in fact creative types say it is often the key to ingenuity. When the deer start packing, let’s circle back and reconsider.
So this is the middle ground we are searching for—something that stems the flow of insanity that we’re facing and yet also allows for what is a normal part of some very reasonable people’s lives.
There are some obvious ideas as to how to get there. I highly recommend the Sunday New York Times article on Australia’s 1996 National Firearms Agreement, which contrary to some left wing spin did not ban guns entirely, but did end automatic and semiautomatic weapons, pump shotguns and instituted a 28-day waiting period for purchasing firearms, and has had a significant impact.
There are other things we could do, too, like thumbprint locks that prevent anyone but the owner from using a gun, or giving every gun and bullet an invisible tag by which it can be traced back to the store it was bought in. Or banning concealed firearms, which more or less assume that the world is dangerous while also becoming a means for some to fulfill that prophesy. (Also, when was the last time you heard about an act of terrible potential gun violence being stopped by civilian with a gun? I’m sure it has happened, but not often.)
Organizations like the National Rifle Association succeed in large part by framing the conversation as monolithic us vs. monolithic them facing an all or nothing proposition, which given our Constitution and our national character has only one possible outcome. (Sometimes I wonder how much better off we would be as a country if we agreed not to make/tweet/post pronouncements about tragedies for at least 48 hours after an incident, to allow ourselves some time to breathe and take it all in. Even 24 hours, just to appreciate what has happened, out of respect for those whose lives have been lost.)
Those on the left (including myself) who respond with a kneejerk “#NOMOREGUNS!” may feel better for having said so, but we are only reinforcing that incredibly unhelpful framework. For real change, we need to get beyond the emotions of the moment and easy generalizations. It is true, we are in the midst of a horror show, and change is needed. But it’s also true that Midwesterners are not doe-eyed buffoons; Native Americans do not send smoke signals; and many gun owners have a legitimate point to make too. They are not inherently violent conspiracy theorists.