In the last few years of his life, my dad believed that all of his junk mail needed to be read, and read with serious intent to make sure that important information was not overlooked. No amount of patient explanations that the assertions on the envelopes – always in bold type, always with exclamation points – were demonstrable lies and designed to frighten him ever dissuaded him from reading it as if it were worth his precious time. And his time was precious: he had Alzheimer’s, he was in bad health, and time was not our friend. In the last year or so of his life, he became distressed because the amount of alarmist junk mail had reached ridiculous proportions, due to his habit of writing small checks and sending them to whatever entities had included either the picture of a suffering child or – and it crushes my heart to admit this — a picture of a gun somewhere in their propagandist appeal.
While his innate concern for suffering children had always existed, it was late in his life that he became susceptible to the ugly side of conservative scare-mongers who threatened him with the loss of all our American freedoms if the evil liberals were allowed to run amuck. He was worried because he couldn’t keep up with all the important reading and he was sure he was missing vital content that would help him stem the tide of our country’s destruction. Hoping to stop the check-sending trend, I told him I would help him go through the mail and show him all of the important stuff, promise and cross my heart. And on my near-weekly visits, I did just that. I also stuffed multiple unopened envelopes covered in angry punctuation into my purse, and smuggled the hateful trash home to be torn up and put in the recycling (the least I could do to atone for the poor slaughtered trees used to manufacture this vile garbage). I couldn’t help but read some of it and of course I had heard my dad parrot chunks of it in his increasingly incoherent conversations with me. And one subject that came up frequently was the fear that our right as U.S. citizens to bear arms was going to be stripped from us and we would be forced to live under a tyrannous government who would then come after our religious beliefs, our material goods, and even our children. Good law-abiding, God-fearing people were under attack and we could only fight back if we supported guns. He was afraid, and he was angry that he was afraid, and the morally bankrupt persons behind these mailouts were aiming for just that poisoned mix of fear and rage.
Daddy had guns. He’d had the same guns my whole life: several old long guns (rifles? shotguns?) that he’d inherited from his dad and maybe his grandfather, I’m not sure. They were always on a rack, always in his and Mom’s bedroom. I don’t remember hearing him talk about them, I don’t remember seeing him use them, I know of no reason why he would have needed to use them. He wasn’t a hunter, even though he lived in rural areas for much of his life. And he never once sat down and told me, or my siblings for all I know, that we were not to touch his guns. Somehow, I knew. I was not to touch any of his stuff without permission and the idea of touching one of the guns – much less taking one down and playing with it – never crossed my mind. My dad was not physically abusive to me, but his anger was frightening and I didn’t have the guts to provoke it over these things that meant nothing to me.
They were never a real issue that I knew of, until his last year alive. At that time, one of my nieces, my older sister’s daughter, and her husband and their three young daughters were living with my parents to help them, as my parents’ serious health issues were complicating simple daily living. Dad was still driving (the legal process for taking away his license had not yet been completed), and one hot summer day, while doing his self-appointed errands at the grocery store and pharmacy, he was approached by two or three people – the story was never clear, due to the Alzheimer’s – who told him they were in need and asked him for money. Dad, being himself and always pulled in by a sad story, gave them the cash he had and told them that if they came to the house, he could give them some food and some more money. He then drove home and told my niece and my mom that these needy people he’d met would be coming to the house for help. My niece and nephew (a teacher, so he was home that day) were alarmed, unsure if these people had followed Dad home, concerned he’d given them his address or phone number or even his full name.
Even with Alzheimer’s, Dad realized how upset my niece was and then pieced together that he’d done a potentially dangerous thing. Unfortunately, in his distress, he also thought he knew best how to fix the problem, and so he went to his room and got down a couple of his guns. No amount of imploring or reasoning could get him to put them back up. He laid one on the dining room table, another one on the side table next to the front door, and he decided he was going to keep them out until he was able to shoot those people who had tried to steal from him. He was going to show the guns to any stranger who tried to drive up to the house, just maybe shoot a warning shot into the air to scare them and show them he meant business, and then shoot to kill if they came to the house. For days, he flatly refused to put the guns back in their rack.
I remember my little sister calling me to tell me what was happening. I lived about two hours away and felt utterly helpless. She lived much closer but felt the same. What could we do? My niece and nephew were making plans to move out for the safety of their young daughters (whom my dad adored and thought he was protecting), my dad was endangering everyone in the house, especially my mom who had problems walking and often held onto those tables as she navigated their large front room, and he was becoming combative toward everyone who tried to talk to him about it. So my little sister and I made a plan, and she communicated it with our brother: we would go to the house together and take the guns by whatever means we could and give them to our brother, the only son, who had been promised the guns as an inheritance anyway. And that’s what we did. My sister and I went to Dad and pleaded with him, held his hands and begged him, and he finally agreed to let my brother have the guns. My brother took them, put them in his car, and drove away while my sister and I stayed and tried to make it all better. My dad was very emotional, hurt and angry, seeing our concern and love as a failure to trust in him, and it took a while before he calmed down enough for us to leave the house. But we were relieved. The family was safe.
The next week, my father asked an old family friend to get him a handgun, and my niece and her family moved out a few days later.
Dad died the following summer, July 2015, from an aggressive form of cancer. As his health declined and I visited him more regularly, he would sometimes talk to me about how upset he was that we’d taken his guns away and insist over and over that he would have never hurt anyone, especially not Mom. I quit attempting to explain and would instead tell him I was sorry he was still mad, that it was okay for him to blame me, and that I loved him very much. He would usually respond, sadly, “Well, I don’t want to be mad at you. I love you.” Those guns had given him a sense of security, and as false as that security was, his feelings of fear and anger and betrayal were all too real.
I want to believe that Dad’s thinking process about guns was twisted by his Alzheimer’s. In the three years since his death, I have come to understand that I cannot hope the same for my fellow U.S. citizens. The fear and anger expressed by those who think they are defending the 2nd Amendment of our Constitution are not the product of physical illness. More importantly, they are not the product of mental illness. They are, rather, the products of a virulent strain of narcissistic emotional delusion.
There is nothing new to be gained by digging through historical documents to prove why the framers of our Constitution included the 2nd Amendment. They could not have imagined the culture we live in, due in most part to the advancements in technology (this is not an insult to them — I couldn’t have imagined a smartphone when I was in high school, and look how that one invention has changed everything in just the last decade). So even if I knew all of their innermost thoughts from when they were discussing the “right to bear arms”, I do not think those thoughts and words would have significant relevance now. Like us, they were a product of their time and what was known and experienced in that time, and now all these years later, we do not exist in that world.
There is nothing new to be learned by discussing the significance of guns in the expansion of our national borders. We can wish (well, those of us who see other human beings as being as important as ourselves might can) that the expansion had happened in ways that were not so egregiously genocidal, we can wish we honored the treaties we made with the indigenous nations, we can wish our history was not so bloody. But we cannot fix that violent past and we are now in this geographical space, with more blood soaked into the soil than we are willing to accept or comprehend, propped up by the myth that we couldn’t have formed our country without the ability to use guns to get our land.
While knowing how we got here is important and sometimes helpful, if also damn depressing, the reality that we are here is what gnaws at me. So maybe I should explain where I think we are. Where is “here”?
“Here” is a society where death by gun violence is normalized. It is an every day occurrence in every state, in every large city and in a good many smaller cities. It inhabits our entertainments, our arts, our law enforcement, our national consciousness. “Here” is where school shootings – often in high schools, but the most gutting are the ones in elementary schools — happen multiple times per year and the primarily white, primarily male shooters are often students or former students, and almost always members of the surrounding geographical community. “Here” is a society where white conservatives answer back calls for sane gun laws with the worn-out, “What about black-on-black crime?” and yet stonewall all efforts by the citizens in the most death-by-gun-saturated communities to make guns less readily and widely available. “Here” is a society where even the most strident of gun reforms groups hasten to assure the public that they aren’t for banning guns, just for making laws to restrict easy access to ever more technologically advanced guns. This infatuation with guns and the violence they are designed to inflict is the “here” we live in.
Yet why we are everlastingly caught in this “here”? Why? As I saw with my dad in his dying days, we are here because of the two forces that suffused his entire existence: fear and anger. But he was an elderly man, weak and ill. What are we, younger and healthier, so afraid of? What are we so angry about? I see that we are scared and enraged because of one thing: we, all of us, are going to die, and we cannot change this truth.
In our fear of and anger about our own deaths, we become deliberately, calculatedly self-centered and selfish. I understand this mindset. In this headspace, all of life is a zero sum game. All of it, all material goods, all social goods, all emotional goods, all are desirable but finite resources. And so it must be all about me and what I want. Not only does everything that happens need to revolve around me, also everything that revolves around me should be under my control. Next step in this thinking is, for everything to be under my control, I must also have power over you and everything you think you have. You can’t take anything from me because it’s mine and I’m who’s important, and I must take what it rightfully mine from you. I must control you and your things and your emotions, it is vital that I can make you do what I want. For me to get what I want, I must triumph over you. The better I am at conquering others – and I get to determine what “conquering” looks like, so no one can ever say that I failed — and getting what’s rightfully mine, the better I am as a strong and independent human being, and we in the USA are all about being strong and independent. And nothing will give me more power over you than the power of potentially ending your life with my gun. With a gun, I am God.
Even with the most powerful gun imaginable, I am not God. Obviously. None of us are, and in truth, we have so little control over our lives and ourselves that we cannot accept how frightened we are by the fact that death will come for us all. We all know, in theory, that we are mortal. We see our grandparents, our parents, friends, family, age and die. Our mirrors show us that we are aging, every minute of every day. No matter what we do to avoid the truth, we all see ourselves weaken and diminish as time marches us toward death, losing pieces of ourselves, our memories and abilities, along the way.
We know that we can’t avoid this reality, but here in the United States, we seem to believe that we must try anyway. Must. It is a civic imperative and we are weaklings of low character with dubious motives and no self-discipline if we don’t assert our will to surmount all obstacles. And if others are harmed while we’re working to secure our forever future, that’s just the price others pay for our freedom from being told what to do by anyone and anything. And price is relative if I’m not the one paying it, right? Cost changes depending on circumstance. If the price of my having a gun to threaten Others into doing what I want is acknowledging that Others aren’t as important as I am, so be it. Because they aren’t as important as I am, or as my family is, or even my friends. If they are different, if I can deem them as The Other, then I can justify all sorts of harm. These dangerous Others are threatening me and my chosen way of living. They are taking from me and I can’t let that happen. I must be the one doing the threatening and taking.
Killing or even threatening someone else doesn’t add time to my life. Even if using a gun against another human being gains me a temporary reprieve or illusive power, it doesn’t allay ill health and the effects of time. It can’t change bad traffic, bad weather, or even a bad cough. The threat of guns does nothing to stop the growth of a mutated cell.
Loud proclamations of power, hubris, rage about The Other, all this does is lead us down the twisted paths of hatred and evil. It is the root of our hideous racist slave-owning past, it is the determination to eradicate the First Nations by violence with our more advanced guns, it is our determination to keep all of The Other out of our country and away from our supposedly finite resources. It is our determination to grab the most we can to keep others from gaining what we want. It is the denial of death for ourselves and so a denial of life to others. It is the very essence of despair. It is Hell and we don’t even have to die to find it.
I could not fix my dad’s fear and I could not save his mind or keep him from dying. My siblings and I, we could only make sure he didn’t kill anyone else, especially my mom, with the symbols of his fear and anger. I could only love him and accept the blame for his feelings of hurt and helplessness. I could only love him and try to make my own peace with him before he died. I could only love him, no matter what he thought of me while doing what I could to protect him and my mom for at least a little while. I could only love him and yet could not defend myself without hurting him, I could not by force and violence take anyone else’s joy or love or goods or money to give him more life. I could only love him, and watch the sun go down on us all.
— fin —