A while back, a student in my ethics course, knowing I was beginning a Questions My Students Ask Me project, sent an e-mail and asked if I supported gun control. I wrote back and asked him if he had an opinion on the issue, given his particular childhood environment (D. had previously shared with me that he grew up in an inner city housing project complex, and spoke to me about the gun violence he encountered regularly). He responded: Criminals will get guns no matter what-they break the law because they don’t care. My childhood experiences made me supportive of weapons because I was part of that lifestyle and needed to be in order to survive. I had guns myself, not because I wanted to, but because I needed to in order to survive my neighborhood and protect my loved ones.
For the sake of context, I’d like to add that this student was shot several times prior to entering college, and his mother tended to those gunshot wounds in her kitchen. I should also share that this student had an incredibly gentle spirit. As a woman who grew up in a very safe neighborhood, a woman who has never had to consider gun ownership, a woman who as a mother never had to send her son off to school fearing he might be shot, I was humbled, to say the least, as I attempted to answer him.
I struggled with my response to you. I could have simply said “yes, I do support gun control,” and left it at that. But had I done that, I would have bypassed the complexity of a question that grew out of your personal experience with violence in your neighborhood. We can talk gun control, but to neglect the conversation about the cause of the violence, as well as to address the steps you can take to meaningfully address that violence, would be a superficial engagement at best.
You asked me if I support gun control, though I suspect you are asking me if I think gun control laws will have any positive impact in your neighborhood.
My answer is no. I do not think gun control laws will have much meaningful impact in your neighborhood, given what you have shared with me. Despair and rage and hopelessness do not evaporate because there are limitations on possessing a gun. Even if there are no guns, another means for spreading fear and terror will arise. And yet, I do support gun control.
Although law will not stop criminals from accessing guns, criminals don’t corner the market on gun violence. Because of that, I do support strict regulation and control of gun distribution, be it banning assault weapons, rigorous background checks, waiting periods, etc. While bearing arms is clearly protected by the Second Amendment, no civil right is immune from governmental interference—our exercise of liberty can and should be “interfered with” if the exercise of that liberty interferes with the liberty interests of others. Given the potential for harm guns promise, and given the devastating shootings we have witnessed in schools and theatres, I would question the agenda of any person who resists a ban on assault weapons, thorough background checks, waiting periods, etc.
As to your very personal experience with guns and violence:
I recently saw a video on the news that showed a young man at a park taunt a young woman, then punch her in the face. He bragged, he laughed, others watched. It was horrifying to witness his dangerous disconnect, not only from her, but from his own Self. Had someone stood up to this young man, and if this young man had a gun, that person may have been shot, because this young man struck me as a person who could shoot with indifference. But what I also just could not ignore was the very real truth that a mere 16 years ago or so, this boy was born a seven pound bundle of preciousness—that he is as much God’s child as any other, and that he is more, he is greater, than his most evil act. But something happened to this child, to this young man, and today, on the cusp of manhood, he has absolutely no idea how precious he is. His actions in the park made it clear to me that he is a terrified, ashamed, self-loathing little boy trapped in this shell of quasi-manhood. He has become the abuser, the criminal, the unabashed bully, in his neighborhood park. And he had the power.
But the power he has is inauthentic power—its’s an illusion built on despair—and he knows it, and we know it, but those in his midst don’t have the time or luxury to consider the illusion—they’re just trying to survive, much like you needed to growing up.
But we do have a choice. We can meet inauthentic power with inauthentic power (rationalizing violence as an appropriate means to an end is always an expression of inauthentic power) or we can meet inauthentic power with authentic power. A gun might be a strategy in the moment, but moment after moment after moment brings us to now. More often than not, when we throw up our hands and buy the gun, consider using the gun, we’re simultaneously throwing up our hands in resignation, and that is when the good work and the promise towards living in a community that is a genuinely secure and safe for all comes to an end. That is not a judgment, but rather a perspective.
You told me you were shot, though I don’t recall you telling me that you ever shot anyone—and you were in my class, healthy, driven, dreaming…I thought that was worth taking note of.
Addressing the epidemic of violence in your neighborhood:
You have survived your neighborhood, and now, as your ethics instructor, as well as someone you have reached out to, I am going to call you out to be the leader I know you can be. The violence, the despair, the suffering in your neighborhood will never cease until its cause is not only named, but healed. I suspect as a young black man you are not naïve as to the cause, but I want you to become the expert—I want you to have such a profound understanding of the ideologies, the policies, the practices, the people who benefit from the perpetuation of that despair, and the people who stand indifferent to that despair, so that when you speak, when you insist change happens, it will.
And if I may…put down your gun. Not because you need to be a martyr, but because owning a gun is a resignation, and when we resign ourselves to the unacceptable, we lose our power. Resist the overwhelming temptation to feel choice-less and power-less; those feelings often lead us into complicity with the very thing we wish to resist, which in this case is not criminality, but despair.
Perhaps my “no” to guns is nothing more than an utterance of privilege. Perhaps. But I’d like to believe that my philosophical and spiritual beliefs could withstand any situation I might find myself in. But I don’t know. All I do know is that anytime I’ve met aggression with aggression, I created more suffering, and whenever I met abuse with Love, I was at peace.
If you were my son, I’d encourage you to become the hero, the leader, the non-violent revolutionary in your very own community, wherever that might be. And I’d do so with a heavy heart and a prayer on my lips.