Recent stories of family and school shootings tend to propel people into two camps: those who are opposed to gun ownership and possession, convinced guns are the reason for much of the world’s senseless violence; and those who support the right to bear arms, equally convinced that guns are not, well, the smoking gun.
In between is a small group of people that both sides have chosen not to see or hear. Ironically, it is the actions of the smaller group that is the primary focus of the two opposing sides.
I am personally opposed to gun ownership and would love to see a world without weaponry of any kind. I am not, however, opposed to the right to bear arms. In this country at this time, this right has been oiled up and slapped around until the only person who actually has the unconditional right to bear arms is the criminal.
The worst part of all of this has nothing to do with guns or those on either side of the argument. It is our tragedy that many of those who are without a criminal history are opting for the path of least resistance when looking for a way out of their strife. They are not lazy. They are spent.
Getting any kind of help with any kind of problem not only carries with it the difficulty of trying to secure that help. There is also the wholly unfair, unnecessary, and ineffective stigma of needing help in the first place.
Won't you bring your sorrows, bring your dreams
It's a place for you to be
There's no more tomorrow or that's how it seems
Won't you come to me? I've got a vacancy*
We as a nation are so myopically focused on the weapon (as if no one was ever stabbed, thrown down a flight of stairs, or run over by a car), we’ve lost sight of the person behind the weapon. We ask why, but do we really care?
With shooter after shooter we have come face-to-face with one person after another who felt some kind of way and acted on those feelings with a gun. We waited to act until they did something for which we could arrest them or take them down. If they offed themselves instead, all the better for our collective conscience.
Another name, another key, another pass to glory
Another night, another sight, another bedtime story
Another stage, another chance, for gentleness or violence
Another birth, another dance, another death in silence*
We’re so good at that: judging, convicting, and incarcerating. We’re also pretty good at hauling off the shooter’s dead body, doing so with a sickening pride that allows us to believe we’ve reaped some good from something so bad.
We suck at listening, assessing, and assisting. We’re also not so hot at making eye contact, smiling, touching, or taking just 60 extra seconds to see and hear what’s going on around us and to whom something may be happening.
The sheets show their struggles, the glasses their fears
The ashtrays the hours passed, the towels their tears*
Before any shooter so much as thought about a gun, we had already heard them and we had already seen them. We knew who they were, where they went, and what they did. To some extent we even knew how they felt. We dare to say we were broadsided by their despair and yet we did nothing before shots rang out. We can say we didn’t know, but that is a bold-faced lie.
We heard them shouting at a Wal-Mart cashier and cursing in the DMV line. We watched them try to maintain composure as the bank teller told them about another returned check fee that effectively erased half their grocery list.
We saw them with their head down on their steering wheel when their car wouldn’t start and we knew it would make them late to work again. We even wondered if they would still have a job as a result.
We watched them clench their fists as their teenager ran away with the latest pierced and tattooed loser of the year. From our kitchen window we spied them sitting in a lawn chair in their backyard crying when their spouse walked out.
We glanced them at the bus stop staring off into space as they tried to figure out a way to deal with their job loss and the repossession of the same car that wouldn’t even freaking start. We winced at their realization that they’d have to forgo medical and mental health insurance because they only had enough money left to pay the water bill so they could at least flush their toilet.
We heard the teenager say he was bullied, hurting, scared, and angry. We watched his grades plummet. Right before he became invisible to us, we saw tears of frustration well up in his eyes, and we knew just how big the lump was in his chest, his stomach, and in his heart.
We saw the schoolchild’s bruises and we knew those injuries didn’t come from falling off the their bicycle, even though that’s what the child said. We knew this because we also heard that child’s parent yelling at them before letting them out of the car, making them late to school.
And what did we do? We hid.
We hid from them and their despair because it put us in touch with our own despair and inadequacies. We needed to stop feeling helpless more than we wanted to help – if we wanted to help it all. We called it minding our own business. We labeled it an assumption that they would, somehow, find a way to deal.
Well, they did.
It’s the gun, we say – not the person, not their despair. It’s the bullets, we insist – not their words, not the tears.
Every shooter telegraphs their intent, and some of them are brazen enough to directly announce it. Still we don’t listen, still we ignore them, and still we turn our backs.
As has been evidenced time and time again by those who raced to be interviewed and televised in the aftermath, someone knew and didn’t say anything. Someone heard and didn’t listen. Someone looked – and then looked the other way.
Yesterday we were comfortably numb, but then the reporter showed up today. Suddenly we are aware, knowledgeable, and feeling.
Innocent people are dead because we don’t hear words, cries, shouts, or pleas. We only hear gunfire. By then it’s too late for our innocents and we’ve even sent the message loud and clear to others who are desperate that we will not hear a cry for help unless and until it comes from a person who has been shot.
The shame of this choice to be deaf and blind, and the shame of this neglect is incalculable. It has created a tension so thick between each and every person on this planet, it can only be penetrated by a bullet.
Gun laws address guns. They don’t address people. Lobby your life away if you must, but if you cannot also be bothered with your fellow human being when you know they’re having trouble, then at least have the decency to call someone who can.
*Lyrics excerpted from “Vacancy,” Harry Chapin, Verities & Balderdash, 1974