More guns, much more sadness

Last updated 09:23 23/07/2012

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. 

memorialIt 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.

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.

HolmesBut 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.

NonviolenceThe 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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Fair Go   #1   10:04 am Jul 23 2012

Well I am Kiwi that owns guns. All legitimately held on the appropriate licence, stored in a large safe and protected by a monitored alarm etc.

I have been shooting since I was 8 and to me, guns are no big deal really. Shooting is an olympic sport and a perfectly legitimate hobby.

Personally, although not specifically permitted in NZ (nor specifically banned despite the incorrect assertions of NZ Police), I can see merit in the ownership of firearms for self defence. Obviously, I do not hold mine for that reason, but imagine for example if someone in the cinema in the USA had had a concealed carry permit for a handgun and had shot the man dead as he started, cutting the deaths significantly. Would that be good or bad?

On the subject of armed police, that is an increasingly common sight in NZ - especially at airports.

mike   #2   10:11 am Jul 23 2012

I agree with your points. I was working in the Caribbean, on a ship, and due to a Hurricane, we had to call back into Miami, and all crew had to disembark , go through customs, and then immediately return to the ship. All crew were already security vetted, and our passports held by the ships purser. On lining up at Customs, I was served by an immigration officer who looked like an older version of Hans Moleman from the Simpsons. Despite me coming ashore from a high security vessel, this bold officer had a Glock on his hip, and four spare magazines of bullets, just in case he found some irregularity in my passport documentation. It was all rather sad and pathetic..... and I didnt see why he would need in excess of 60 rounds of ammunition to pump into my lifeless corpse if he had indeed discovered some heinous typo in my US work visa, or something..... It was nice to return to NZ and be welcomed home by friendly, unarmed immigration officers :)

bOb   #3   10:11 am Jul 23 2012

I wish you hadn't included a picture of the guy.

James   #4   10:18 am Jul 23 2012

There is a maxim 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it'. The corollary of this is, of course, do something if it needs to happen! The Constitution of the US is at fault. The Second Ammendment has given Americans the view that the right to have guns - uncontrolled at that - is an inalienable right. Well, just as laws can be written, so they can be repealed. Constitutional components included. The sad thing is that the US is so involved in navel-gazing and destructive partisan and ideological warring, that nothing will come of any attempt to control guns. So unchecked gun control will remain something that the US thinks makes them a great, free country, and periodical mass-killings will become the norm - an inconvenient by-product of a sick society. America needs to realise, but then in a country stubbornly sticking to feet and inches, they probably won't. Gone are the days when log cabins need to be defended from bears or long-distance trains from bandits. And it remains to this day that assault weapons and vast quantities of ammunition can be bought over the counter, legally, at the same store you'd buy your slippers and PJs from.

J Smith   #5   10:20 am Jul 23 2012


I'd have to disagree with your assertion that arming more people will help the situation, although that is an argument we see over and over again in the US.

Firstly, I cannot think of a single instance where a mass shooting was stopped by an armed member of the public, despite many American states allowing the carrying of firearms by members of the public under a 'concealed carry' permit. Secondly, in this case anyway, the shooter was wearing body armour from head to toe. (Also legally obtained).

I would also suggest also that the guns you legally own here are very different from weapons that can be legally bought there. I would completely agree that there is no need to ban the rifles and shotguns that are commonly held in this country.

However, an AR-15, (the civilian version of the military M-16) and Glock handguns are weapons designed to kill humans, and they can, and do, so very efficiently.

Nic   #6   10:24 am Jul 23 2012

Relatively simple solution. Ammunition control. In that all ammo can only be purchased from Law enforcement / the government. Limited to let's say 10 rounds per year.Only purchasable when spent rounds and accompanying police report / gun range visit certificate are produced.

Yeah people will start making their own ammo, but this is happening already, and anyone doing so illegally likely has illegal firearms in the first place.

samm   #7   10:25 am Jul 23 2012

Good piece from the Onion on this:,28857/

Given how embedded the archaic-in-origin "Right to bear arms" idea is, this is probably just going to keep on happening until someone important gets in the way. People kill people sure, but guns enable those people to kill more and faster.

KateJ   #8   10:29 am Jul 23 2012

I'm in American living in New Zealand, my kiwi husband goes hunting frequently and we have guns in the house. However, just the extra protocol that is required for a gun license in NZ (requirement to have locked gun safe, interviewing spouse or partner separately from the gun license holder to identify any lapses in background or character) are well beyond measures that are currently in place in many states in the US.

I think the big difference that we're seeing in these massacres in the US compared to other places around the world is that the killers had easy, legal access to military grade weapons. These weapons are not designed for hunting animals or self-defence, but are designed to quickly and efficiently kill people. I can support citizens owning bolt action rifles and pistols, but when they have access to military assault rifles like the AK-15 that can shoot 60 rounds in under a minute over the internet, then I think it points to a serious problem that's prevalent in the gun culture within the US.

Big H   #9   10:33 am Jul 23 2012

Have to agree with #1. The founding fathers made the second amendment so the people had to power to protect themselves. People that shoot up public places would surely think again if they knew everyone was carrying a gun, it would also cause a reduction in the number of overreaching police in the US.

The 2nd was put into place to keep the government in check. The founding fathers knew eventually every government wants to become more powerful and control its citizens. It's a real worry to see Obama (and presidents before him) attempting to change gun laws. It seems the US cannot get to a police state quick enough.

"When they tell you you don't need them. That's when you need them the most."

Rich   #10   10:36 am Jul 23 2012

'if someone in the cinema in the USA had had a concealed carry permit"

Has this ever happened?

The AOS, who train continuously and have accurate weapons, have still managed to shoot bystanders during armed incidents. How much chance would an untrained civilian with a cheap automatic in their handbag, that they fire once a month and clean annually, have?

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