Thursday, December 27, 2012

FTT Off-Topic: Mapping the Third Rail

Going to go long and hopefully thoughtful today, but probably just wind up irritating people. You've been very much warned; skip if I'm about to raise your blood pressure.
Oh, hey, and since I'm going long, here's some musical accompaniment. Atmospheric, no?

Here's a true sign of the times, in re the awakening debate over gun safety... a newspaper mapping out permit holders and publishing the public records, so that people can see which of their neighbors are capable of deadly force. Which, of course, does not sit well with many of the people who were outed, as it treats them in much the same way as we treat sex offenders. (It also, one suspects, has high value to people interested in a home invasion or burglary, and contributes to the highly profitable cycle of fear that, well, sells more guns. Yay. Those companies are having such a good year. Job creators.)

Now, I know people -- lots, actually -- who are gun hobbyists. And I've pretty much known people who go this way my whole life. When you grow up in the Philadelphia suburbs, there are always relatives who go upstate to hunt, and others who feel like the only way they can protect their lives and possessions are to put these, well, tools, into their hands for home defense. And these people include some of the best people I know, who I'd trust my kids with, who are fantastic parents and husbands and friends and relatives and so on and so on. They also have the great good sense to avoid proselytizing about their hobby, at least not to me, and are hence, far more polite than I'm about to be. Hopefully, I'll stay on good terms with them even despite this post.

I've also owned, and fired, a shotgun. Knew how to clean, arm and load it, took it to a range (you do get a fair amount of attention for it, rather than the far more stylish pistols), and bought it for the express purpose of ending a human life, or at the very least, scaring the living crap out of one specific person so that he'd never come near my house again.

Full sidebar and disclosure: It was over 15 years ago, and the circumstance was this. I was living in Fishtown, a lower-class Philadelphia neighborhood that was drug-infested, grimy and crime-tastic, but "safe"... if you were white and looked like you were somehow who had lived there for decades, and didn't drive anything that was worth more than $500. If you didn't look like that, you risked your possessions and your life, but the payoff was rent that was a pittance of what everyone else in the area was paying. I never paid more than $250 a month to live there, and sometimes lived in de facto mansions. Which is how I got out of college debt, since I pulled a decent Center City salary, used mass transit and bicycles to get around, and made my nut for a decade-plus of loans. It sucked, but it was manageable.

I spent most of the 1990s there, and there were three highly fretful months where I took in a coworker and her three mixed-race kids while she was getting out of an abusive relationship. Her ex was the kind of guy who hit women, and my neighbors were the kind of people who would leave bricks on your car if they felt like your house guests didn't, um, fit in. I was expecting trouble that, mercifully, never came. (Once they were on their feet again, I put the gun away, and a year later, I left for the West Coast and didn't take the gun with me.)

Now, a quick word about my dabble into gun ownership. In thinking about that time, I realize that I was, well, not in my right mind when I made the choice to own and operate a weapon. I was living in poverty, squalor and fear. I was convinced that I was morally justified in taking these people in, and that the community and police force around me were not to be trusted or reasoned with.

I never gave my neighbors the chance or opportunity to be better than my negative story of them. I just did what I thought was right for me and mine. Everyone else was on their own.

It made me feel dirty, dragged down to their level. And on some level, I still feel dirty about the whole thing, even though any number of people seem to want to assure me that I acted properly.

But here's the smallest and shiniest truth that I get to, when I think about that time. I wasn't making the community safer, or better, when I made the decision. I was just thinking about this woman, her kids, and how I would feel, as an individual male of limited physical stature and no financial means, if there was an incident.

Which is, to say, impotent.

At the time, I didn't think I was a bad member of the community. Hell, there were crackheads, thieves, homeless, inbred and worse, along with the healthiest collection of racism seen outside of Appalachia. I had college degrees, worked with my mind instead of my hands, and was destined for escape and better things. But I was no better than they were, no less selfish, no less ready to take the easier way out in a decision that spent no time thinking about tomorrow or next week.

The people I know who own guns do not consider themselves to be bad members of society, and aren't. But we are all -- every single person on this Earth -- an unspeakable day, or week, or month -- away from becoming the danger. We are not infallible, and our brains are susceptible to damage, delusion and degradation. We are all capable of gross and terrible acts of violence and ugliness, and it's all stunningly close. (Here's another song about that. A better one than Reed's.)

The only difference is that the people I know that own guns, if the unspeakable happens, will be able to kill any number of people. They are all that competent, all that powerful, all that skilled.

So they should be mapped, and known, and feared. Maybe even, for the people who do not know them well, avoided or shunned, since, well, no one really knows how their day, or week, or month, is going.

And if you are on the other side of the issue from me on this, and feel that's overwrought, or unfair, or naive or offensive...

Well, so are abilities that your gun gives to you.

Here's the last thing I'm going to say about this... the only way that anyone in this country is going to stop being a gun owner is to volunteer it up themselves. This isn't something we're going to legislate out of existence, or get over by limiting ammunition or types or whatever. The only way to get to an America with fewer guns in it is if the people who currently have and hold them give them up, of their own free will, or from societal coercion. Perhaps with statistics that show how unlikely the happy scenario of killing an evildoer happens, or how more and more concealed carries are not making us safer.

Of course, I'm not going to convince them to do that, and neither is anyone else. They'll get there on their own, the same way that all meaningful social change is achieved, with stops and starts and breakthroughs and regressions. We live in a country where daylight savings time is nearly universal, men are not required to wear hats outdoors, smoking is a niche hobby, the President is half African American, more and more places allow gay people to marry and you don't have to be a certain gender to get the vast majority of available jobs. Change is happening, with more and more speed. Gun ownership might be one of those things, or it might not. I don't know.

But I do know this:

When I owned a gun, I felt a lot less safe than I do now.

Now that I know my neighbors, I feel much better about my ability to protect my family.

And if I ever do lose my ability to know right from wrong, and become a dangerous animal that needs to be put down...

It's not going to make the national news, because I won't have the tools.

Admittedly, not the highest standard of good neighbor behavior, but a standard nonetheless.

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