Repeatedly, he noticed the means to kill -- and then four days after that huge outpouring of youth-led activism for gun security, Stephon Clark was indeed gunned down in his grandmother's backyard in Sacramento, California. The police officers who shot him were looking for someone who had been breaking car windows in the neighborhood and they fired 20 shots into the dark in his direction. The independent autopsy found that he had been hit eight times, mostly in his back. Clark turned out to be holding only a cellphone, though the police evidently mistook it for a tool bar, which could have done them no harm from that distance, even if he had wielded it as a weapon.
Maybe the police saw a weapon the same way my five-year-old son sees one. He can make a stick or just about anything else, including that little basket, into a "gun" and so evidently can the police. Police officers have killed black men and boys holding pipes, water hose nozzles, knives, and yes, toy guns, too.
Where Does the Violence Come From?
Parkland (17 killed, 14 wounded). Newtown (28 killed, 2 wounded). Columbine (15 killed, 21 injured). School shootings are now treated as a structural part of our lives. They have become a factor in school architecture, administrator training, city and state funding, and security plans. The expectation that something terrible will happen at school shapes the way that three- and four-year-olds are introduced to its culture. Part of their orientation now involves regular "shelter in place" and "secure-school" drills.
At my daughter's pre-school, the kids are told that they're hiding from rabid raccoons, those animals standing in for marauding, disaffected white boys or men roaming the halls armed. As parents, we need to do more than blindly accept that these traumatic exercises are preparing our kids for the worst and helping them survive. Kids are vulnerable little beings and there are countless dangers out there, but they have a one-in-600-million chance of dying in a school shooting. We endanger them so much more by texting while driving them home from school.
After every episode of violence at a school -- or in the adult world at a church, night club, concert, movie theater, or workplace like San Bernardino's Inland Regional Center or the YouTube headquarters -- there's always a huge chorus of "why"? Pundits look at the shooter's history, his (it's almost always a guy) trauma, and whatever might be known about his mental health. They speculate on his (or, in the rare case of those YouTube shootings, her) political leanings, racial hatreds, and ethnic background. The search for whys can lead to hand wringing about hard-driving rock music or nihilistic video games or endemic bullying -- all of which could indeed be factors in the drive to kill significant numbers of unsuspecting people -- but never go far enough or deep enough.
Two questions are answered far too infrequently: Where do the guns come from? Where does violence come from?
Guns of all sizes and description are manufactured and sold in this country in remarkable numbers, far more than can be legally absorbed in our already gun-saturated land, so thousands of them move instead into the gray and black markets. Evidence of this trend shows up repeatedly in Mexico, where 70% of the weapons seized in crimes between 2009 and 2014 turned out to be made in El Norte. We have an estimated 300 million guns in this country, making us first by far in the world in gun ownership and some of them couldn't conceivably be used for "hunting." They are military-style weapons meant to tear human flesh and nothing but that -- like the AR-15 that 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz legally bought and used in his grim Parkland shooting spree.
This country, in other words, is a cornucopia of guns, which -- honestly, folks -- doesn't have a damn thing to do with the Second Amendment.
Where does the violence come from? I've already shared my inexperience with guns. Now, let me add to it my inexperience with violence. I don't know what it's like to have to react in a split second to or flee an advancing perpetrator. No one has ever come at me with a gun or a knife or a pipe, or anything else for that matter. And I count myself lucky for that. In a nation in which, in 2016 alone, 14,925 people were killed due to gun violence and another 22,938 used a gun to kill themselves, it's a significant thing to be able to say.
And yet, I know that I'm the product of violence (as well as the urge, in my own family, to protest and stop it): the violence of white privilege, the violence of American colonialism, the violence of American superpowerdom on a global scale... and that's no small thing. It's a lot easier to blame active-shooter scenarios on poor mental-health screening than on growing up in a world layered with the threat of pervasive violence.
Power is about never having to say you're sorry, never being held accountable. And that's hardly just a matter of police officers shooting black men and boys; it's about the way in which this country is insulated from international opprobrium by its trillion-dollar national security state, a military that doesn't hesitate to divide the whole world into seven U.S. "commands," and a massive, planet-obliterating nuclear arsenal.
And don't think that any of that's just a reflection of Trumpian bombast and brutality either. That same sense of never having to say you're sorry at a global level undergirded Barack Obama's urbane dispassion, George Bush Junior's silver spoon cluelessness, Bill Clinton's folksy accessibility, George Bush Senior's patrician poshness, Ronald Reagan's aura of Hollywood charm, and Jimmy Carter's southern version of the same. We're talking about weapons systems designed to rain down a magnitude of terror unimaginable to the Nikolas Cruzes, Dylann Roofs, and Adam Lanzas of the world.
And it doesn't even make us safe! All that money, all that knowledge, all that power put into the designing and displaying of weapons of mass destruction and we remain remarkably vulnerable as a nation. After all, in schools, homes, offices, neighborhoods across the country, we are being killed by our kids, our friends, our lovers, our police officers, our crumbling roads and bridges, our derailing trains. And then, of course, there are all those guns. Guns meant to destroy. Guns beyond counting.
So what might actually make us safer? After all, people theoretically buy the kind of firepower you might otherwise use only in war and pledge allegiance to the U.S. war machine in search of some chimera of safety. And yet, despite that classic NRA line -- "The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun" -- are we truly safer in a nation awash in such weaponry with so many scrambling in a state of incipient panic to buy yet more? Are my kids truly on the way to a better life as they practice cowering in their cubbies in darkened classrooms for fear of invading rabid "raccoons"?
Don't you think that true security lies not in our arming ourselves to the teeth against other people -- that is, in our disconnection from them -- but in our connection to them, to the web of mutuality that has bound societies, small and large, for millennia? Don't you think that we would be more secure and so much less terrified if we found ways to acknowledge and share our relative abundance to meet the needs of others? In a world awash in guns and fears, doesn't our security have to involve trust and courage and always be (at best) a work in progress?