Guns, racism, and people like you and me

We sit in the comfort of our homes and we watch video recordings of arrests that end in death. Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, so many, too many to name. And now Alton Sterling and Philando Castille. It happens more often than mainstream media report. Sometimes the event is recorded and the evidence is clear, sometimes not so clear. And we draw our separate conclusions based on partial evidence filled in by our individual emotional contexts, predictable conclusions that continue to exacerbate an already polarized culture.

I am an academic, someone who tries to look at social problems from as many intellectual angles as I can possibly master. I am also a parish pastor, an experience that has grounded me for the last 25 years in lives challenged by struggle, suffering, loss, and pain. Several years ago the husband of a member of my parish was shot point blank in the back of the head during a dispute over the sale of a gun, in his own home. It was a senseless act of violence committed by someone who held little value for human life. It was a horrific experience of pain and loss for the murdered man’s family.

Members of my own family and friends disagree with me about guns. I grew up in a rural Midwestern context where the legal sport of hunting birds and small game animals is a substantial part of our way of life. I must disclose now that I stopped hunting decades ago, but I have no qualms about the legally regulated practice of hunting. My disagreement with family and friends has always been about the idea of unregulated gun ownership. They argue the slippery slope, the camel’s nose in the door of the tent. I argue compromise and the willingness to give up some extreme freedoms (that used to reside on the edges of our experience) to enjoy other freedoms that can be characterized as more commonly shared experiences (that now are viewed as too limiting).

I remember a conversation I had with one of my brothers and some cousins. It was shortly after President Ronald Reagan signed into law a ban on fully automatic assault rifles. The trajectory of the conversation was predictable. They argued that there should be no regulations against gun ownership. I argued that if there ought to be no regulations then we should be able to own tanks and cannons and other high caliber automatic weapons (a hypothetical suggestion that is today in part a reality, at least the high caliber automatic weapons part). My memory is that they conceded the point. They, of course, probably remember it differently. Today the argument sounds simplistic, but we’re talking about 1987, almost thirty years ago.

The issue of gun regulation and the freedom to own assault rifles has morphed dramatically since 1987. A lot of water has passed under the bridge, both in terms of the expansion of gun ownership and the growing numbers of victims of gun violence. The assault weapons ban was lifted in 2004. Since then, “13 of the 26 worst mass shootings [in U.S. history] occurred between 2005 and 2014 (after the expiration of the assault weapons ban).”

The problem is not just with assault rifles. Handgun deregulation has reached a near fever pitch, to the point where 25 states have legalized concealed carry without a permit, the kind of insanity that makes me long for 1987 again.

It’s no wonder that law enforcement officials are living on the edge. And this is not an apology for non-prosecution of police officers who shoot first and ask questions later. This is a complicated issue, as President Obama has said; “it makes the job of law enforcement harder.” How does it make their job harder? The combination of racial profiling for criminal arrests and our exacerbated fixation with gun deregulation is a vicious, brutally violent cycle.

The systemic racism embedded in our subconscious emotional responses that fill in the gaps of partial evidence is a socially constructed paradigm that we need to face together and overcome together. Our subconscious emotional responses that we rely on to fill in the gaps of narratives that are only partially constructed by video recordings of violent acts are themselves conditioned by our own individual contexts, and we have to be honest about that.

We need to rise above our self-serving, stultified arguments hardened by fears stoked in contexts of ignorance and profit-making corporate narratives. We have to be honest with ourselves about the ugly realities of racism that have twisted and distorted our own experiences, our personal stories, constructing barriers of hatred, nurturing fears, that limit our lives together as members of the human race. We need to have this conversation. We need to listen more and talk less.