When Will Blood Outweigh Bullets?

16 11 2018

Mass shootings are more and more commonplace, and still our congress does nothing. The political calculus is insurmountable. The NRA and the gun industry just have more influence than human blood and breath. Or so it seems.

I asked myself, what will it take to change the equation? Do the dead and the bereaved just need to greatly outnumber the gun advocates? How long until we reach that point, if we haven’t already?

I was going to pose the question as a brief pithy post on social media, but I thought I should at least try to dig into the numbers first. Not surprisingly, the question quickly became far too complicated to address in a single sentence.

Be aware, as always, I’m not a journalist. I don’t have the time or resources for anything but an abstraction that nevertheless will at least point to the truth, to the best of my ability.

Also, I was quickly reminded in my Googling that hard data around guns is scarce. The CDC is forbidden from from studying the impact of guns on public health. No one knows exactly how many guns we have in America. Only in the last few years, as national leadership has utterly failed to address the rising body counts, have private citizens taken it on themselves to track and analyze mass shootings.

Given all that, here’s what I got.

Best estimates generally agree that about 52 million households own guns, about 45% of America. I have to admit, I was surprised that nearly half of American households own guns. But I don’t have a quarrel with simple gun ownership. I believe that the majority of gun owners are fine and decent people, who would not oppose common sense gun regulation, let alone open fire without dire provocation.

Much of the resistance to gun regulation comes from the NRA. As mass shootings have become a national norm, the NRA has pushed farther and farther into extremist policies and dehumanization of gun control advocates and shooting victims. The influence of the NRA is a brick wall in Congress that few candidates and zero legislation can get past. So, for my little thought experiment, the people that the dead and bereaved have to outnumber are the members of the NRA. They don’t give an exact figure anywhere to anyone, but their website says “nearly five million members.”

The Gun Violence Archive tracks injuries and deaths by shooting, going back to 2014. They record the total number of shootings, then break it down into deaths, injuries, death by age groups, officer involved shootings, defensive shootings, mass shootings, and other categories. By virtually all measures, the numbers keep ticking up, except for the current year.

gun stats Agun stats B


I don’t have the statistics skills to do any kind of extrapolating, so I’m just looking at averages. I started with the total number of deaths, then subtracted suspects shot by officers, home invasions, and defensive shootings. There is a lot of nuance within each category, not to mention the overall total, but to me this seems like the best snapshot of preventable, unjustified shootings. The average per year: 7,934.

gun stats C

At that rate, it would take 630 years to reach 5 million dead, the same number as members of the NRA. But the number of dead isn’t strictly what I’m after. My original question was about voters; how long until those directly affected by gun violence outweigh those who advocate for unrestricted gun rights?

To answer that, I can only estimate. Those directly affected would include all the loved ones of the dead, all the injured, and all the loved ones of the injured. I think a safe and conservative estimate would be that for every death, 20 other people feel traumatic loss. That’s 158,680 people, which adds up to 5 million in 31 years.

Honestly though, I think it’s more realistic to assume that for every person killed, 100 others would either know that victim personally, or feel a loss through some other connection (an injured party, proximity to the location, a shared interest or workspace, etc). In that case, the traumatize would outnumber the NRA in just over 6 years.

Then we have to ask, what year to we start counting from? When did our epidemic of violence start, and when did it spiral out of control? There’s no way to definitively answer those questions. If I had to choose, I would choose the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. That singularly horrifying event should have been the moment when gun regulation finally got some traction. Instead, it became a painful, sickening object lesson on the values expressed in our national policies.

If my estimates are correct, then now is the time we should start to see some progress. And there is some evidence that progress is starting. In the 2018 midterm elections, over 1,000 candidates in state and federal elections ran and won on platforms of gun control.

Our years of inaction convinced the Parkland students to mobilize, because no one else would defend their lives. Many others are equally fed up and fired up. We’re not there yet, but I’m seeing signs that our reckoning with unfettered deadly weapons is on the horizon.


Stuff I Believe

2 01 2017

Right after the election I read a blog post (now lost to the mists of the internet, my apologies to everyone) about how to prepare to live under a fascist regime. The author, who had spent time in fascist nations, suggested writing down what you believe in. Because fascism works by causing you to question and then forget your own humanity.

I don’t necessarily think we are about to find ourselves under a fascist regime, but the possibility is far stronger than it should be. And we are living in the golden age of disinformation, gaslighting, and doublespeak. So here is what I believe in, or at least a first step in identifying and laying it out.

I believe that our greatest strength as human beings comes from protecting and nurturing those who are most vulnerable.

I believe that hate binds people together as surely as love. When you hate someone, you attach yourself to that person. When you hurt someone, you create a burden that you carry afterwards. Different people are more or less aware of these truths, but they are true for everyone.*

I believe there is a bright line between right and wrong, but it’s different in every situation. There are no absolute guiding principles; yet if we have the strength to be honest with ourselves, we can always tell what’s right.

I believe we are all in this together. I am very upset about this election, I totally disagree with supporting Trump, and I plan to resist everything he represents. But we in this country still have to live with each other. And I believe Trump supporters and Trump opponents are all decent humans who fundamentally want the same things.** In a larger sense, the same goes for the rest of the world.

*Except for those with certain mental illnesses, i.e. sociopaths.

**Those who support Trump out of overt bigotry…to be honest I still think they are decent, under a mountain of psychological damage. But also honestly I have no patience and no tolerance for their shit.


Time To Earn That Privilege

11 12 2015

(for my fellow white straight dudes)

5 months ago I started a post along these lines: it’s not enough for us straight white dudes to avoid giving offense. Bigotry is real. “Not all men” might be true, but “Some men” is also true and they are a real problem for people less privileged than us. “All lives matter” might be true, but it’s an offensive petulant whine coming from a white dude. Non-white, non-male, non-straight, less-able people struggle every day in ways we cannot appreciate. So we need to do more than not offend. We have a duty to recognize our privilege and become ambassadors for equality. This can be pursued in small, simple actions, such as noticing your attitude at a four-way stop or entering a public building. Because I noticed, to my unpleasant surprise, than in such situations I often felt entitled to go first. Not out of any sense of biological superiority– most of the time I can’t even see who’s driving the other cars– but just due to the habit of getting my way. It’s less pronounced, but the same impulse that leads to things like manspreading. So now I hold the door for someone else whenever I get the chance, regardless of who they are, as a way to break the habit and embody common courtesy.

That was five months ago. Since then the chaos erupting everywhere hit home on several fronts. The tension between police and African Americans keeps boiling over. A close friend lost someone when an aggressive driver plowed into a crowd. If he’d had a gun instead of a car it would have been tallied with the increasingly commonplace mass shootings. White supremacists in Minneapolis fired into a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters, in no small part because a major presidential candidate is giving space and permission to violent bigots. It’s been terrifying. My little draft about resisting white privilege suddenly seemed pathetically naive.

Then there was this incident of Deepinder Mayell being intimidated by a white dude at a Vikings game. Here’s the takeaway: “But what scared me the most was the silence surrounding me. As I looked around, I didn’t know who was an ally or an enemy. In those hushed whispers, I felt like I was alone, unsafe and surrounded. It was the type of silence that emboldens a man to play inquisitor. I thought about our national climate, in which some presidential candidates spew demagoguery and lies while others play politics and offer soft rebukes. It is the same species of silence that emboldened white supremacists to shoot five unarmed protesters recently in Minneapolis.”

Five or six years ago, I was on a bus in Portland, sitting near the front. The driver stopped the bus to aggressively yell at a young woman who he felt was speaking Spanish on her phone so loudly that he couldn’t concentrate on driving. I was sitting right across from her. I should have spoken up. I could have politely told the driver that his attitude was uncalled for. Anything to let the driver and the woman both know that his belligerence was his alone, and that she was among friends. But I didn’t do anything. Eventually people toward the back of the bus did speak up and shut him down, but not me. I’m disgusted with myself over this memory. I hate sharing it, but I feel I have to if this post is going to be at all honest. I sat there, safe in the safest cocoon there is; straight white dudedom.

Despite the title of this post, the kind of privilege we white straight dudes enjoy can never be earned. But still. We are the ones who don’t have to fear being arrested, beaten or killed for the slightest provocation. We are not the ones dismissed as hysterical when we say there’s a problem. We are not the ones receiving violent accusations of being terrorists (or terrorist refugees, as if that made any sense). We are in the position of power. We have the least at risk when we stand up to the bigoted ass-clowns. If we don’t stand up to them, we might as well join them, because our silence props them up and threatens everyone else.

Bigotry is out in the open again. We have to fight it. And holding a damn door open is not going to cut it.

Just Bozos in Tights

19 11 2015

Alan Moore recently said of superheroes: “this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence … it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times.”

I also saw this from Jeet Heer: “Superheroes work best as all ages entertainment because the roots of the genre are in the children’s daydreams: to be able to fly like Superman, to wield a lasso like Wonder Woman, to run like the Flash, or to leap from building to building like Spider-Man.”

Moore’s comment expresses a nagging doubt I have every time I read and re-read superhero comics. But, I think what he’s talking about is a symptom of a larger cultural stagnation (see this article again). We are awash in reboots, remakes, and rehashes, from the upcoming Star Wars Episode 7 to the exploitative cash-grab of Go Set a Watchman.

Heer piling on forced me to walk back a bit from my view of superheroes as urban fantasy, with veins of cultural ore akin to classical folklore (I have a tendency to– guess what– take these things too seriously). Together these articles had me scrambling to defend my enjoyment of the superhero genre. But that’s a pointless exercise. I like what I like, that’s enough. But maybe I’ll try harder, in my own little way, to inject some originality into our stagnating culture.


An Open Letter to Members of the NRA

27 08 2015

Dear hunters, target shooters, and gun enthusiasts, I have no quarrel with you. While I don’t enjoy guns myself, I do like swords and knives. I don’t own a sword, but I would like to. So I can’t fault you for owning and enjoying guns. But I urge you to cancel your NRA membership immediately.

Some of you are my personal friends. Every gun owner I know takes great pride in knowing how to shoot, care for, and store a gun responsibly and safely. So why would you belong to an organization that promotes exactly the opposite values?

The NRA has become the voice and the engine of a powerful lobby that causes lawmakers to lose their jobs if they do anything to reign in our current policies of reckless abandon toward guns. The NRA continues to push for looser gun regulations, even when our country averages more than one mass shooting per day.

The NRA is effectively fighting to put guns in the hands of criminals, the mentally ill, and children. Why are they like this? Base, short-sighted greed is the only reason I can imagine. The paranoid fringe of gun culture is passionate, and passion is just the low-hanging fruit where business is concerned. While the NRA is composed of human beings, as an organization it is simply a machine that follows the money without conscience. The NRA will never respond to arguments about human lives. But maybe, if the sane and honorable gun owners were to stop paying membership fees, maybe the machine would get the message.

Ultimately my speculations don’t matter. What matters are the innocent people dying every day in murders that are 100% preventable. The NRA, as a powerful lobby with strong influence in our national and state legislatures, is directly culpable. Please cancel your membership today.

There Is No “We”

17 12 2014

The report is out: the CIA tortured prisoners (and lied about the nature, extent, and effectiveness of it.) One phrase I hear in a lot of outraged responses is “That’s not who we are.” But clearly it is who we are, because we did it.
Plenty of us are disgusted, ashamed, horrified, but there is also a segment of the population for whom torture is not a problem. How can we call ourselves one society with two viewpoints so wildly opposed? I’m starting to think we can’t.
This is the only way I can live with the torture report– to consider those in favor of torture as another country, a foreign subculture. I know it’s a cop-out to just say the divide can never be crossed. The enormity of the crime of torture demands (besides prosecution of all responsible) an effort to convince the other side that it’s wrong. Maybe I’m just tired, but honestly, does anyone see that working out?
The gridlock in congress is just a symptom. Gun rights, cop shootings, gay marriage, income tax, even women making video games; issues have become fault lines that no amount of argument or entreaty will entice people to cross. We are not a society, because we’re not interested in being one. We’re not interested in unity. We’re only interested in scoring points against the other side. I’m as guilty of it as anyone.
I don’t see any way out of it.
Well, okay, that’s not exactly true. I do believe that on many of these issues, the opposing viewpoint is a small minority that is disproportionately represented in the media and the government. If we had accurate representation, things would be different. But that’s a whole other topic.
I guess my point is, if we’re going to advocate for a national conversation about anything, we need to start from the premise that we really aren’t one people. We are a lot of seriously aggrieved subsets demanding satisfaction. We need to either be granted satisfaction, or convinced to give up on it.
How is that ever going to happen?
What it will take is leadership. Courageous, undaunted leadership in the face of deeply entrenched powers that profit from the status quo. That, or the caveman minority gives up on all their backwards bullshit. One seems about as likely as the other.

Music is a Weapon

7 02 2014

weaponI’ve been listening to Skinny Puppy for about 26 years– since just before the release of their fourth full album, VIVIsectVI. In that time, they’ve released 8 more albums, explored a wide range of industrial nightmare stylings, had one member go through rehab, another die of a drug overdose, broken up, and reunited. I saw them in concert once, saw two shows that included individual members (Pigface and Download), and I’m seeing them again this month. As a young teen, discovering Pink Floyd, Marillion, and Bauhaus after they had splintered, I wished I could have been there to follow any of those bands’ growth. As it turns out, I got to have that experience with Skinny Puppy. It’s been a privilege. I hope it goes on for many more years.

You may have seen a news story going around about the music of Skinny Puppy being used to torture prisoners in Guantanamo. I find this disturbing for many reasons. Foremost, of course, is that torture is going on at all. As I’ve said in this space before, torture is utterly unconscionable. There is no justification for it. Even if it yielded useful information (which it doesn’t), deliberately dehumanizing another human being is just about the most evil, despicable thing I can imagine. The fact that our government continues to practice it makes me want to find an overpass and just scream “STOP THE TORTURE” like a lunatic until my throat gives out. Or, failing that, listen to a  track like Hardset Head or Hexonxonx or Pro-Test at full volume, and let the pounding, roaring noise absorb enough outrage that I can function like a person.

Aside from the cathartic effect, Skinny Puppy made me feel powerful when I was a runty teenage weirdo. I knew that the hulking stoners endlessly reproducing Metallica logos in drawing class would not stand up to 30 seconds of Skinny Puppy. The same went for the cool kids at the top of the pecking order with their Huey Lewis and the News. Not merely loud, not simply aggressive, Skinny Puppy is challenging. In the 80s they challenged the whole notion of popular music. Today’s breakbeat and ubiquitous sampling owe debts to Skinny Puppy that will forever go unacknowledged. Which is fine. To cross over into the mainstream was never their intention. Us fans get to live forever in that “before they sold out” world.

Using Skinny Puppy’s artfully sculpted sensory assault as a blunt instrument against prisoners is just about the most banal expression of mainstream cluelessness there is. The worst part, though, is that I’m sure I’ve said at some point in the past (like when US forces were trying to drive Manuel Noriega out of the Vatican embassy with Guns ‘n’ Roses) “If those idiots knew what abrasive music really was they’d be using Skinny Puppy!” Now, at last, someone in Guantanamo has discovered my favorite audio sculptors. Maybe it was a fan who decided their music would be an effective torture device, or maybe it was some Hootie and the Blowfish frat boy. I don’t know which would be worse.

The band’s response is true to form. Consummate artists, acidic commentators, they’ve embraced the role thrust upon them by American torturers and invoiced the US government for $666,000. Then they titled their newest release Weapon, and made it a critique of our current state of lawlessness in pursuit of security. It’s probably the most publicity Skinny Puppy has ever gotten, and it’s drawing attention to the most glaring neglected atrocity in America. If the statements issued by cEvin Key about this event seem muted, there is always the music for channeling the outrage.

There’s a nice review of Weapon here.

Note: I’m sorry for hurling the term “mainstream” around like a club. As a grown-up I no longer bear the mainstream (whatever that means) indiscriminate ill will. Many are lovely people whose company I enjoy.