More guns, much more sadness

01:11, Jul 23 2012

I had planned to write today about my fascination and repulsion at police officers with guns in America. I had something all ready, completed in a fit of ideological enthusiasm after I had seen a fresh-faced private security guard outside a bank in a well-to-do San Franciscan neighbourhood with a revolver on his hip. 

It was one of the first times that planning ahead backfired on me. Because early on Friday a gunman - allegedly James Eagen Holmes - burst into a cinema in Aurora, Colorado and opened fire, killing 12 people and injuring 58.

I needed to retool what I had written - but not entirely, because I don't think the horror I felt at news of that massacre was completely unrelated to my strange curiosity at seeing policemen always armed to the hilt.

America is a society of gun owners. In a Gallup poll at the end of last year, 47 per cent of American adults said they kept a gun in the house. Guns in America are the second most frequent cause of death for 15-to-24-year-olds and reputedly the second deadliest consumer product in America.

As a kid growing up in the city in New Zealand, I had no interaction with guns. I'm fairly sure the first gun I saw in person was on an American police officer when I was a backpacking 19-year-old traipsing through California. I was 22 before I touched, and later fired, a gun for the first and only time, at LP's uncle's house in Ennis, Montana. 

American police officers carry guns indiscriminately.

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In Boston at the building site down the road from us a policeman would be assigned every day. It was not a high-stress job. At most the officer would have to make sure that no pedestrians walked into the path of a reversing dump truck or tractor. The officer assigned to this duty was invariably out of shape and old, appearing to be two days away from stepping out into a big pension. Still, he had a handgun.

American traffic cops sent out to marshal cars through intersections in the event that a traffic light goes down... totally have handguns.

You know when you're going to the lavatory on an aeroplane and you see the big red lever on the door, or you're standing close to the edge of a big cliff, and you're briefly overcome by a strange, self-destructive exhilaration and think: what if I pulled that lever? What if I jumped?

I feel this same thing every time I walk past a cop with a gun in America; I am stricken with curiosity about what would happen if I just grabbed the gun from its holster and ran.

There's something ridiculous and terrifying to me about a police officer with a gun. I know that this is entirely a product of my upbringing in New Zealand. I think we in New Zealand are the better for not having to see a gun on the hip of every police officer. As intangible and wishy-washy as this may sound, I sincerely believe that having officers armed sets a bad tone and has its consequences.  

Twenty-nine police officers died in the line of duty in New Zealand in the nearly 12 decades between 1890 and 2009. In America last year, 166 police officers were killed.

A news report from October 2008 put the number of people shot by police in New Zealand between 1941 and 2008 to be 22. That amounts to one every three years. There were 387 "justifiable homicides" committed by American law enforcement in 2010. Some, a lot of people would argue, more justifiable than others.

Even accounting for the different sizes of our countries, those are huge disparities.

But then something like the Colorado tragedy happens, and it hits home that police with guns in America is a symptom of a more serious problem. This country is beset by a runaway societal arms race where everyone needs guns because everyone else has them, and supposedly everyone has the constitutionally given, ingrained and irreversible right to get and own that gun, too.

So it's way, way more complicated than just taking guns off police, which would probably be a disaster. (I would argue, though, that you could take guns away from the traffic cops and construction detail without any harm done.)  

It's more complicated too than a mere tightening of gun control, which given the power of the American gun lobby and the fact that it is believed that the guns James Eagen Holmes allegedly used were legally bought would still be a really great start.

There's a senselessness and a depravity in mass shootings that transcend gun laws. American mass shooters are often young, male and from relative privilege. Holmes comes from a good family, it seems, and till recently was studying toward a doctorate in neuroscience.

I'm sure mental illness aided and abetted by lax gun control had a huge role in what the theatre gunman did. But the regularity at which lone gunmen open fire in public spaces in America points too at an anger and frustration bubbling in parts of this country that terrifies me.

The original, simpler moral of my first plan to write about seeing cops with guns everywhere was that in America I'm so much more aware of guns, every day. It unsettles me, because you couldn't carry a gun on your hip without ever wondering if some day you might have to use it. It brings the idea of violence out into the open.

The Aurora gunman took this thought to a much sadder extreme. Because this spectrum of awareness of guns in America, which starts with a policeman with a handgun, extends toward this kind of mindless atrocity. It is a tragedy beyond most people's conception, but its occurrence is no longer surprising.

This probably won't be the last time that innocent people die en masse in a public space in America. Which is even sadder. 

That this all took place in a movie theatre, a place of joy and innocence itself, is another blow. I saw The Dark Knight Rises on Friday night, at a small neighbourhood cinema near where we live in San Francisco. It is a great film, but the themes of the movie create an uneasy tension with a recent story of real-life mass murder rattling about in your head.

I found myself aware throughout the movie of my fellow patrons. I'd keep half an eye on them as they went to the bathroom. A handful of times in the movie I turned around when I heard someone walk in the door. I didn't really think I was at risk, or that something like what happened in Aurora could happen in a small San Francisco suburb.

Walking home, LP and I talked as much about what happened in Aurora as we did about The Dark Knight Rises, which we had both enjoyed. That small San Francisco cinema, watching Batman, had become yet another arena where I had found myself aware of the sad reality of guns in America. 

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