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Posted at 03:10 PM in AR General Assembly, Assault Rifles, Concealed Carry, Gun Control, Gun Deaths, Gun Owners of America , Gun Violence, Guns, Gunsense, It Can Happen Here, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Moms Demand Action, Murder Rates, Nonviolence, NRA, NSSF, Statistics | Permalink | Comments (0)
If you've spent any time at all cruising the social media sites where gun-control advocates and open-carry extremists air their differences, you've probably seen someone from the gun camp claim the Dalai Lama as a kindred spirit.
"If someone has a gun and is trying to kill you," the quotation usually runs, "it would be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun."
The quotation has been taken out of context—so, let's restore that context, and see where we stand.
The source of the quotation is a newspaper report written by Hal Bernton for The Seattle Times on May 15, 2001. And Bernton isn't quoting His Holiness, but probably paraphrasing from his notes—there are no quotes around the sentence attributed to His Holiness. Or perhaps he had a transcript. It doesn't matter. The day before the piece appeared, the Dalai Lama had spoken in Portland to an audience of 7600 high-school students from Oregon and southwest Washington, and Bernton's article is refering to this appearance. According to the report, His Holiness returned again and again to the importance of finding ways to break the cycle of violence that "poisons" our schools and our lives.
And why shouldn't the Dalai Lama warn this audience against the long-term effects of violence? Three years earlier, at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon, Kip Kinkel had murdered his parents, and then entered the high school where he killed two more and wounded twenty-five students. Kinkel was fifteen years old.
Thirty-five students from Thurston High School, a war-zone in the students' minds now, were present for His Holiness's talk three years later, and the audience, obviously and understandably, had mass-killings on their mind.
As we all do nowadays.
So here before them sat the world's leading advocate of nonviolence; here before them was an unparalleled opportunity to ask a genuine practitioner of peace how we might handle such a dangerous situation.
One student, obviously wanting to understand the practical, daily methods of nonviolence, asked what she ought to do if she saw someone attempting to kill her classmate. A reasonable and heartfelt question from a young woman who lived in an area that only three years earlier had witnessed a senseless mass-shooting in a high school.
And so in that charged environment, His Holiness, obviously reaching out to the distressed, impressionable young woman, stated plainly that if she had a gun, and if someone was trying to kill her, or her friend, it would be reasonable to shoot back in self-defense.
But he also added that the intention should not be to kill the assailant, but to wound him by shooting him in the leg. And then he added that this violence should not be forgotten, and that the assailant should be forgiven.
I can't think of a more appropriate thing to say to a young person, obviously and justifiably upset by the prospect of more school violence on her horizon. His Holiness did not call for students to arm themselves; he did not issue an endorsement for guns in schools; he did not offer up sanctimonious praises of the Second Amendment.
He confirmed her opinion that in certain extreme circumstances, self-defense is of course justified, but only with a full mastery of those methods of self-defense and with a clear conception of the after-effects of having protected one's self by harming another person.
Hardly the kind of language you find coming from the open-carry advocates or the NRA.
His Holiness tried to put a young person's mind to rest by contextualizing an act of violent self-defense within the larger context of compassion, forgiveness, and love for our fellow human beings—a life that he has ceaselessly advocated and embodied since for over seventy years.
And like Gandhi, who walked this ground before His Holiness, and to whom His Holiness often refers, violence, even in self-defense, is only reserved for those who are incapable of the more demanding, the more courageous action—sacrificing one's life for the high purposes served by love and compassion. Few of us are capable of that sacrifice.
Those who are, and those who do make such sacrifices, we call martyrs.
I could list here scores of quotations by His Holiness that insist on the importance of nonviolence as the defining context of all human action—"the ultimate method of solving human problems," he has said—but I won't. Nonviolence forms the backbone of his vision, his daily practice, and his advice to the various communities that gather to hear him.
I will let His Holiness have the last word, however, with a story that appears in his book, Ethics for the New Millennium, and one that I have heard him tell in person on several occasions. He is speaking of a quality that in Tibetan is called sö pa, a word that has no satisfactory equivalent in English. We often translate it as "patience," but its literal meaning has to do more with our ability to bear or withstand hardships, and it specifically applies to our attempts to resist the negative thoughts and emotions—revenge, hatred, violence—that rise up when we are forced to bear those hardships, when we are threatened, or when we are harmed.
Obviously, these emotions play a prominent role in the the emotional landscape that attends our current gun debate.
The story I have in mind concerns a Tibetan monk, Lopon-la by name, who was held in a Chinese prison for over twenty years. As with most of the Tibetans held in these prisons, torture and deprivation were part of Lopon-la's daily regimen. Tibetans since the Chinese occupation suffer scores of human rights abuses, and many of them never live through the ordeal. But some of them do, some of them escape, and some of them arrive in India where they are given an audience with His Holiness—a service the Dalai Lama has provided to every Tibetan arriving in Dharamsala, India, since 1959. His Holiness had known Lopon-la in Tibet. In the passage below, he describes their meeting in India:
He looked older, of course, but physically he was unscathed, and mentally his ordeal had not affected him adversely at all. His gentleness and serenity remained. From our conversation, I learned that he had, nevertheless, endured grievous treatment during those long years of imprisonment . . . he had been forced to denounce his religion, and, on many occasions, he was tortured as well. When I asked him whether he had ever been afraid, he admitted that there was one thing that had scared him: the possibility that he might lose compassion and concern for his jailers (p. 102).
It is a parable for our times. His Holiness tells this story because it embodies one of his essential teachings about confronting violence. When facing hardships, when looking clearly at the prospect of violence, abuse, and even death, the Dalai Lama writes, "the ones who suffer the least are those who attain a high level of sö pa (103)."
Listen carefully. He does not endorse the constant carrying of arms, he does not declare that an armed society is a polite society, and he does not worry about the health and well being of our Second Amendment. He worries about the health and well being of our heart, which he sees as the seat of compassion and sö pa. All of our efforts, in his opinion—an opinion developed over a life-time and easily accessible to anyone who has the requisite curiosity—should be directed toward enhancing precisely those qualities of compassion, nonviolence, and equanimity.
Any attempt to remove a single sentence from the Dalai Lama's massive body of work on nonviolence and compassion, and a single sentence, at that, spoken to a young woman in distress about the nature of self-defense, and then on the basis of that sentence, to imply that the Dalai Lama has sided with the American gun-lobby . . . well, I won't insult your intelligence by laying out the desperation that lies behind such a maneuver.
I read the news last week from Moms Demand and looked away from my computer screen. O boy.
Here's what the announcement said: "On Thursday [October 10], gun lobbyists announced that more than 200 gun-rights groups from all 50 states will sponsor 'Guns Save Lives Day' on Dec. 14, 2013, to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn."
A few days later, I learned that Alan Gotlieb of The Second Amendment Foundation, the group that had started the "Guns Save Lives Day," finally relented to public pressure and switched his gun-celebration day to December 15th to mark the original signing of the Bill of Rights—or more accurately, to mark the day that Virginia, the last state to ratify it, signed the Bill.
Make no mistake about it. Gotlieb switched his gun-event because of the bad publicity his bad decision generated.
But it's still worth looking at the anatomy of his original decision; American violence is an illness, and we're not close yet to managing it effectively. We still have to monitor folks like Gotlieb, and raise our voices when his thirst for violence and humiliation exceed our fairly tolerant limits.
A little background first.
Early in September, in one of the largest studies of gun violence in America, we found statistical validation of what reasonable observers of the American gun-tragedy had suspected for years: widespread gun ownership in our country is fueling our gun-violence epidemic. These numbers arrived at about the same time we learned that the NRA tried to stop one of its own members from conducting research into gun-control and the effectiveness of background checks, an effective censorship the NRA has practiced for years.
The reason for this isn't difficult to fathom: the gun industry in America grosses $31.8 billion in annual income, $10 billion more, for example, than the Ford Motor Company typically collects. The industry's vast resources keep our Congressmen in line, refusing to pass legislation that, in the case of expanded background checks, finds favor with 90% of Americans.
These embarrassing numbers have international implications. Our violent reputation is spreading around the world. When Jimmy Davis, a disc jockey in London, heard about the Navy Yard shooting, he said he wasn't surprised. "Buying guns [in America] is like buying sweets from a sweet shop — it’s no problem."
The most effective gun-control in America nowadays is prohibiting online access—the inability to use the vast internet resources devoted to the gun market. Need an AR 15 without going through a background check? Head on over to ArmsList.com, a Craigslist kind of operation that sells privately and, in many cases, without background checks.
One buyer was able to secure an AR 15 with no background checks in twenty minutes.
Once this kind of money is in place in our country, with little or no restraint on purchasing the product in question, change will come very slowly. As with cars, houses, and careers, so now with guns: they have taken their place in American life as part of our identity politics. Gun owners in America want to be known—and seen—as Gun Owners.
Why else would they insist on open-carrying their military-grade weapons into otherwise peaceful settings, like coffee shops, restaurants, and grocery stores?
And so Alan Gotlieb of the Second Amendment Foundation proclaims the Newtown anniversary as National Guns Save Lives Day.
Why this happening now is anybody's guess. But in one of the most recent, sustained, and engaging critiques of human violence, Slavoj Žižek suggests that when we "find ourselves bombarded with mediatic images of violence . . . we need to 'learn, learn, and learn' what causes this violence" (p. 8, Violence).
Agencies and organizations around the world have taken up this challenge, and have done so for years. But as new information arrives daily, we still struggle to make sense of the kind of mindless aggression that allows Gotlieb to proclaim the shooting of twenty children and six staff members as the perfect occasion to celebrate gun culture in America.
Surely, we can differ civilly about the interpretation of the Second Amendment, about the nature and extent of controls we place on the buying and selling of firearms in America, on who carries them, and where they carry them, and we can make these differences known. We can and should, even, try to gain political capital from our differences because it is through our political process that our differences are finally adjudicated into law.
But still we have to ask, if we are to learn, learn, and learn about the genesis of violence in our culture: what species of aggression confronts us when Gotlieb proclaims, regarding the first anniversary of the Newtown tragedy, that "we don't want pro gun-control groups to own that day . . . we are gonna be there first?"
It turns out that this sort of violence is simple-minded, bluntly reasoned, and horrific. Which is to say that this is systemic violence. Žižek compares systemic violence to the chocolate laxative available in America: "In other words, eat the very thing that causes constipation in order to be cured of it" (21).
Systemic violence will do everything it can to survive, even citing its own violent structure as the recommended cure for its diagnosed illness . . . which is violence.
Žižek's comment applies to Gotlieb's special day as well: "the same structure—the thing itself is the remedy against the threat it poses—is widely visible in today's ideological landscape" (21).
It is the NRA's perennial solution too: we cure gun violence with more gun violence. And Žižek is right. It is part of our ideological landscape. Mr. Gotlieb decided to respond to the victims of gun violence with . . . a celebration of guns.
And while Mr. Gotlieb is the latest bearer of this corrosive tactic, we know this violence is systemic, even robotic, because it ignores the individual agony that each member of the Newtown family will undergo on December 14. And not only ignores it, but raises an ideology over the personal tragedy that occurrred in Newtown.
But we know this, and we must never forget it: the most effective response to systemic, ideological violence, the response that generates the appropriate legislation, is the power of personal testimony.
It works like this: take a childish demand—let me carry my gun wherever I wish, regardless of my ability to use it safely and responsibly—add to it an adult fantasy—like my eighteenth-century forebears, I stand armed in this coffee shop against tyranny and foreign invasion—and we have concocted this latest affront from the gun lobbies to one of our most deeply held convictions: that we shall be allowed to mourn our dead, unmolested and peacefully. It was the power of personal testimony from the survivors of the Newtown tragedy that finally frustrated Gotlieb's plans.
Personal testimonies of this sort, though exhausting, are vital in this struggle. Systemic violence of this sort strikes far deeper than the violence that accompanies anger or revenge, which often erupt quickly and just as quickly dissipate. And are followed by healing, reparation, and the judicial process.
You can't prosecute a violent ideology, which often survives the legal maneuverings and the red-faced debates that inhabit our public arenas. But the personal testimony, the human voice in its many modulations of sorrow and compassion, will give it pause, and at times, stop it in its tracks.
This is what happened to Gotlieb. Personal testimony deferred, for one day, a violent ideology.
This is why we often refer to ideological violence as intimately associated with evil—because it seems, at times, intractable. It requires a different level of commitment, both from it proponents and its adversaries.
And it debases all of us in different and essentially untenable ways.
To say that we cannot prosper under this sort of violent ideology is obvious enough; to say that we will not survive it is the crippling temptation.
A prayer: may we all resist it successfully.
A few days ago, I'd had enough of the extreme gun-rights activists—their fact-free rhetoric and violent language—and so I started reading George Orwell, who dealt with extremists of all stripes and understood their deep-water operations. How they trigger primal responses in us, instinctual really, that link up with aggression and anger. I was feeling down.
In his essay, "Shooting an Elephant," Orwell confesses that while he was a "sub-divisional police officer" in Burma, he shot an elephant that he did not want to shoot. He killed the poor animal, who was causing trouble in the village, because the Burmese villagers—over 2000 of them—wanted him to kill it.
Orwell concludes: "The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly . . . I was only an absurd puppet, pushed to and fro. . . ."
In the current gun debate, I sometimes feel like Orwell, pushed around, trying to respond with reason, logic, and equanimity to the bullying, ill-informed, and unreasonable judgments made by the radical Second Amendment advocates. This happens continually on Twitter and other online forums where zealots, as Lydia Kiesling writes, "refresh their comments until their eyes bleed and yak and brag and constantly remind one another that they don't know shit about shit."
A democracy of voices, it turns out, is depressing. Why? Because all opinions are not created equal, and Twitter gives equal time to the smart, to the not-so-smart, to the sensitive, and to the bullies.
Besides, it's tiring, and it's pointless, and it's frustrating, and your eyes bleed when you spend your time online with someone who proclaims himself a Molon-Labe-Constitution-Defender-Jeffersonian-Don't-Tread-On-Me-Patriot.
Just say no. You will never make progress in this discussion because you're talking to an ideologue.
Ideologues make the trains run on time, of course—see Mussolini—and ideologues carry their assault rifles into coffee shops because the Second Amendment gives them the right to defend themselves wherever they please from whatever attack they imagine is imminent in the middle-class coffee shop in their local strip mall. The right to play army. Or cowboys. And if they can't do that, their rights have been infringed.
Question this, and you will get vapid 140-character lectures on the difference between rights and laws and privileges and god-given scriptures and Jefferson (dangerous though it is to mention Jefferson and god in the same tweet) and the Constitution, which they claim proudly to have read. And then more Jefferson.
It's just wierd.
So that's how I felt yesterday when my wife sent me Eddie Vedder's quick-take on gun-violence in America and a world that's gone "absolutely crazy, fucking mad. . . ." (At the time of this writing, the full segment was viewable here, and contains more of Vedder's views on gun-violence. But the segment has disappeared from the official YouTube site, and from this site as well.)
I recognized Vedder's reaction to the gun problem immediately. He's angry. It's a pure anger, and one that that we all shared when we first became involved in the gun debate. It's fueled by the fact that our country has been hijacked by the radical gun lobby, that 90% of us want sensible gun laws, and that innocent citizens of all ages are being shot and killed because too many unstable or careless people have too many guns, and apparently don't know how to use them.
Congress, as always, is irrelevant, as it cowers in the long shadow of the NRA.
I live with Vedder's purifying anger every day, as all of us do, but I have tried to put it aside reasonably to "discuss" the issues with the radical gun advocates.
To no avail, of course.
Vedder's anger reminded me that people who aren't openly engaged in the gun debates, like Vedder, need only be made aware of the numbers, the sheer depth and breadth of gun-violence in our country, and they find those numbers inexcusable, horrific, and epidemic.
It's not just about high-profile rock stars. If, for example, you work at a trauma center or an emergency room, as Dr. Katie Bakes does, you've been feeling this for a long time now. And you're angry too.
My point is this. The numbers speak for themselves. The broken families, the dead children, the lives lost to a culture soaked in guns . . . when the community becomes aware of the numbers, the community organizes.
And the community will not tolerate the gun lobby's diversions, nor even participate in them: the debates on clip size, on assault-weapon definition, on the preamble to the Second Amendment, on tactical training and state militia.
That's a bait and switch. Instead of needless slaughter, which doesn't matter, let's talk about clip size, which matters.
When the numbers are made clear—the great fear of the gun lobbies: clear numbers—the community organizes to do something about those numbers. Because, like a budget, the numbers that chart gun violence in this country are a moral document.
And so we organize to write a moral document that we can respect and leave as a model for our children.
That is happening now. We don't have to be constitutional scholars, or debate champions, and we don't even need to read Jefferson's voluminous correspondence and wonder what Jefferson would do.
Only the numbers. That's my mantra now.
By making them available, and by finding effective ways of delivering those numbers, the community will gradually cease to tolerate the culture that produces those numbers. Gandhi knew this, King knew this, Suu Kyi knows this.
But we do have to raise public awareness, and there are many organizations, some of whom, like the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, have been doing the essential work for a very long time. And others, like Moms Demand Action, have entered the debate after Newtown and have already created a formidable and defining presence.
I salute these organizations every day for their endurance, their commitment, and their willingness to debate the issues in every forum.
After Newtown, of course, many amateurs like myself have entered this struggle, for both local and national reasons. But I became involved partly because I couldn't explain the numbers. For the civilized country I once imagined America to be, they didn't add up.
And because I have neither the resources, nor the time, nor the simple psychic energy to live in the trenches of this vital debate, where I am told, in effect, to back down because the trains run on time, I have chosen to focus on raising awareness. Because the trains aren't running on time.
Only the numbers. And Vedder's anger, and Dr. Bakes' too.
And Gandhi, who said: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win."
They are fighting us now. Which is a good thing because it means that more and more Americans are becoming aware of the appaling numbers, and we are moving closer and closer toward sensible gun legislation.
And then we win.