Nearly ten years ago, I sat down and poured out some of my despair and frustration at America’s difficulties in coping with gun violence in an essay to a few friends. Then, the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut that killed 20 first graders and 6 faculty members was coming up on its first anniversary. Activists all along the spectrum of opinions about appropriate and inappropriate gun uses and gun restrictions were ramping up pressure for change.
My heart is again breaking after a shooting at a Richmond, Virginia high school graduation site in a city where I’d spent much of my adult life. The episode killed a father and his newly graduated son and wounded multiple others.
A decade on, not enough about our approach to gun violence has changed. Some rules about gun purchases have been tightened, but gun deaths from homicides, suicides, and accidents, after multiple years of relative decline, are again on the rise. So are mass shootings.
Some progress has been made in providing preventive counseling and mental health services to those most at risk. An increasing number of jurisdictions are crafting “red flag” laws, allowing relatives or authorities to petition courts to temporarily remove or restrict firearms use by persons deemed a danger to themselves or others.
Too much of our gun violence debate consists of folks with well-entrenched views talking past each other. At events and informal meetings, I’ve had chances to listen to folks whose views are diametrically opposed to mine. Whatever we disagree on, we seem to share some basic assumptions:
1) the death or maiming of anyone through misuse of a firearm is tragic and has long-term consequences for survivors;
2) everyone wants to be able to keep him/herself and family and loved ones safe;
3) we cannot through legislation alone prevent instances of inappropriate use of guns.
There are no ready-made or easy solutions to the problem of gun violence in America. According to The Trace, a non-profit journalism site dedicated to reporting on gun violence in America, a gun industry trade group estimated in 2020 that there were about 434 million civilian owned guns in the United States (https://www.thetrace.org/2023/03/guns-america-data-atf-total/#:~:).
Properly maintained, a gun can function for as long as a century. Properly stored, ammunition has almost as much shelf life. Estimates of number of guns stolen vary substantially, with a 2015 Harvard study indicating about 380,000 guns stolen that year, risk factors being “owning 6 or more guns, owning guns for protection, carrying a gun in the past month, storing guns unsafely, and living in the South region of the United States.” (https://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/32630640). Given the vast number of firearms and the difficulty of tracing some of them, even if we further tighten loopholes in background checks, restrict sales of certain kinds of guns and ammunition, and limit locations where guns can legally be taken, we will still have a substantial reservoir of guns that in the wrong hands or under the wrong circumstances can do deadly harm.
Our inability to completely solve the problem makes it doubly foolish, I believe, to act as if there is nothing further we can do. Though the same gun statistics can suggest different outcomes to people with different backgrounds and biases, we rarely have authoritative data about guns and their uses. For starters, we need to obtain and to publicize more reliable, complete statistics about the extent of gun production, gun sales, gun ownership, thefts, and gun uses in the U.S. as a baseline. (A partial repository of U.S. gun violence data has been kept since 2013 by the non-profit, non-partisan Gun Violence Archive: https://www.gunviolencearchive.org/about).
Another way to work toward resolving our gun violence problem is through personal stories. We need to continue to share our gun-related stories, quietly but firmly, without demonizing the opposition or suggesting that we have the only answers. Here are two of the gun violence stories most compelling for me:
“Teedy”(Thornton Glen Berryman) was the adult son of close neighbors and friends in the working class inner city Richmond, Virginia neighborhood where I lived during the 1980’s and 90’s. His gun murder was my first exposure to that sort of death for someone I actually knew. Teedy was killed in a gangland style shooting in December, 1992. His murder may have been related to the crack cocaine epidemic that exploded in the U.S. around that time, hitting urban neighborhoods especially hard. He had been missing for two days when his bullet-pierced body was found by a stranger walking his dog. Teedy’s funeral was packed, but few people except those who knew the family paid the loss much attention. The media were mostly silent. Black-on-black violence (this was assumed) was considered a sad but unimportant footnote to wider American culture. His family has never stopped mourning the loss.
When a deranged student at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia opened fire on fellow students and staff on April 16, 2007, killing 32 and wounding 17 others in two separate shooting sprees before committing suicide, I was half a world away, teaching English in a remote area of northwest China. News of the shooting reached us slowly. One of our children had earlier attended Virginia Tech, so I was relieved when I learned that no students or faculty members he knew were among the victims. Still, no one with any association with Tech can totally forget that awful spring morning or avoid feeling for the families of those impacted.
The Chinese government took maximum propaganda advantage of the Tech tragedy. America’s obsession with guns can be hard to explain to those in cultures where gun ownership is severely restricted. Why, my students wanted to know, if America was the home of the free and the brave, were so many misusing that freedom in cowardly episodes of killing each other and themselves? (China has a population nearly 5 times that of the U.S., and an overall homicide rate about a tenth as high. Civilian gun ownership or possession is strictly prohibited there.)
Trying to “resolve” a dispute or a despondency through gun violence only adds to the resentments, distrust, and family and community dysfunction that are likely sooner or later to result in further violence. To reduce gun violence, we need to share both reliable information and personal stories, doing our best to avoid skewing or further inflaming the debate. We can educate ourselves and our loved ones about the appropriate uses of guns. We can minimize the chances that any gun we own will be stolen or misused.
Despite our best efforts, there will continue to be isolated incidents of gun violence that we cannot totally prevent. There are assuredly more that, with a better social fabric and better public policy, we can avoid. May Teedy and Tech provide cautionary tales, incorporated into more reliable, more transparent overall information. May we continue efforts on all sides to put our own experiences into a broader, more realistic perspective.