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Tomgram: Frida Berrigan, Growing Up With the Threat of Pervasive Violence

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

It's been a terrible year for gun makers. The venerable Remington filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy after its sales fell 27.5% in the first nine months of Donald Trump's presidency. (Its officials had expected a 2016 Hillary Clinton victory to ensure a burst of gun purchases.) And Remington wasn't alone. Sales have been ragged across the industry. Gun company stocks have slipped, profits have fallen, price wars are breaking out, and corporate debt is on the rise. January 2018 was the worst January for gun purchases since 2012. (A mere 2,030,530 firearm background checks were logged that month, down by 500,000 from the same month in 2016!) It was the "Trump slump" in action.

The good old days for the gun makers -- you know, the ones when a Kenyan Muslim was in the White House and a mass of Democratic congressional flamethrowers was preparing to shut the spigot on gun purchases in America forever with draconian laws -- are long past. The National Rifle Association reigns; Republicans control Congress; Trump rules; gun control laws are something to be found in a galaxy far, far away; and all is safe, sound, and well in the world.

Or put another way, what's often referred to as "fear-based" gun buying is no longer buoying the industry. One sign of this: in the past, mass shooting incidents (and the media brouhahas around them) were surefire gun-purchase inducers. Those background checks (a good measure of gun sales), for instance, rose 50% after Sandy Hook, 43% after the San Bernardino killings, and 40% after the Orlando Pulse nightclub massacre. But after last October's Las Vegas slaughter in which 58 died and hundreds were wounded, they sank by 13% compared to October 2016. And even the recent Parkland school killings and the gun debate and youthful protests that followed didn't seem to help sales (at least not until quite recently).

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So, fear and guns. After President Obama was elected and the Democrats took Congress, gun production tripled in this country (and imports doubled), while, according to recent studies, white men who fit a certain profile -- "anxious about their ability to protect their families, insecure about their place in the job market, and beset by racial fears" -- stockpiled guns in record numbers. The gun, as one study reported, feels to them like "a force for order in a chaotic world," though such owners are significantly more likely to use a gun in their home to kill or wound themselves or someone in their family than a burglar, intruder, or anyone else.

Think about a country filled with guns in numbers that should stagger the imagination, weapons that often have the power to rend flesh in ways that fit war, not the home. Then imagine the fears that have run rampart in this country in recent years and read the thoughts of TomDispatch regular Frida Berrigan, as a mother, as the child of famed pacifists who protested violence and weaponry of every sort, and as a relatively sane soul in a country deeply on edge with itself. Tom

Gunning Down the Easter Bunny
The Weaponization of Everyday Life
By Frida Berrigan

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Guns. In a country with more than 300 million of them, a country that's recently been swept up in a round of protests over the endless killing sprees they permit, you'd think I might have had more experience with them.

As it happens, I've held a gun only once in my life. I even fired it. I was in perhaps tenth grade and enamored with an Eagle Scout who loved war reenactments. On weekends, he and his friends camped out, took off their watches to get into the spirit of the War of 1812, and dressed in homemade muslin underclothes and itchy uniforms. I was there just one weekend. Somehow my pacifist parents signed off on letting their daughter spend the day with war reenactors. Someone lent me a period gown, brown and itchy and ill-fitting. We women and girls spent an hour twisting black gunpowder into newspaper scraps. I joked that the newspaper was anachronistic -- the previous week's Baltimore Sun -- but no one laughed.

A man came by with a long gun, an antique, resting on the shoulder of his jerkin to collect our "bullets" and he must have read the gun terror written on my face.

"Wanna give it a try?" he asked.

"Sure," I said, stumbling to my feet, pushing my gown out of the way, and trying to act like I didn't have broken-rifle patches, symbols of the pacifist War Resisters League, all over my real clothes. I felt a surge of adrenaline as I took the heavy weapon in my way-too-small hands. He showed me how to wrestle it into position, aim it, and fire. There were no bullets, just one of my twists of powder, but it made a terrifying noise. I shrieked and came close to dropping the weapon.

And there it was: the beginning, middle, and end of my love affair with guns -- less than a minute long. Still, my hands seemed to tingle for the rest of the afternoon and the smell of gunpowder lingered in my hair for days.

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Got Guns?

One in four Americans now owns a gun or lives in a household with guns. So how strange that, on that day in the late 1980s, I saw a real gun for the first and last time. I grew up in inner city Baltimore. I've worked at soup kitchens and homeless shelters all over the East Coast and stayed at dozens of Catholic Worker Houses around the country -- Providence, Camden, Syracuse, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles -- every one in a "tough" neighborhood. I lived in Red Hook, Brooklyn, in the mid-1990s, before you could get a $4 coffee or a zucchini scone on Van Brunt Street, before there was an Ikea or a Fairway in the neighborhood. All those tough communities, those places where President Trump imagines scenes of continual "American carnage," and I've never again seen a gun.

Still, people obviously own them and use them in staggering numbers and in all sorts of destructive ways. Sensing that they're widespread beyond my imagination, my husband and I have started asking the parents of our kids' school friends if they own guns when we arrange play dates or sleepovers. We learned this from the father of a classmate of my 11-year-old stepdaughter Rosena. The dad called to make the arrangements for his son to come over after school. We talked logistics and food allergies and then he paused. "Now, I am sorry if this is intrusive," he said, "but I do ask everyone: Do you keep guns in your house?" He sounded both uncomfortable and resolute.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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