On the John: A call to (set down) arms

On the John
A call to (set down) arms
Originally completed March 20, 2009

We are one month away from the ten-year anniversary of Columbine.shootingsfb

Also, we are less than a week removed from the 29th gunfire murder of a Chicago Public School student in this school year.

When it happened, the Columbine shooting prompted an examination of cultural violence in video games like Doom, movies like Natural Born Killers, and the music of Marilyn Manson. Parents, teachers, and news reporters tried desperately to determine the cause, to figure out why those two boys had shot up their school. Where and how did they secure their weapons? Why weren’t they identified as potential murderers months earlier? Where were the parents and how did they fail?

Meanwhile, these CPS killings continue to prompt what I can best describe as a muffled cry for help from those who care, and glib pity or smugness masked as indifference from those who don’t. Mayor Daley and Jesse Jackson speak out, the Sun-Times carries on with its admirable STOP THE KILLING campaign, friends and family grieve for the fallen child. There is not much, if any, “examining” being done, and if there is it is rarely of the killers’ emotional condition, the assumption being that when white kids from the burbs shoot each other, it is because something has gone terribly wrong, but when black kids from the city shoot each other, it’s just the way things are. (We’ll come back to that in a moment.)

Of course, the anniversary is still a month away. Odds are sadly and frighteningly strong that at least one more CPS student will be killed during that month, and when that happens, it is entirely possible that the ten-year-old Columbine shooting will garner just as much present day attention (What have we learned? Are our schools safer?). This disparity in coverage and caring will lead to the usual—and justified—complaint that black city murders don’t get nearly as much play as white suburban murders, and then the next Columbine will take place, and the CPS number will rise to 30, 31, 32, and we’ll spend more time discussing these two “separate” occurrences, searching for causes and solutions and someone to blame, some people focusing on one, others on the other.

Among all that, though, my guess is that the lone important connection between these events will be largely ignored. So here goes: in both cases, a whole mess of American kids got shot up but good.

Youth murdered by youth, nearly exclusively with guns. And then us, still playing shocked after all these years.

Here’s how I add it up: we do not take nearly good enough care of each other in this country. This creates oodles of hate, fear, anger, jealousy, etc. Naturally, this extends to the kids. Also, we like guns and have a lot of them.

Why talk about anything else? What differences could possibly matter more than those similarities? Is it really that surprising that white kids from the burbs kill each other differently than do black kids from the city? Of course the circumstances of their respective killings differ. The circumstances of their lives differ.

Has something gone terribly wrong when white kids start shooting each other? Is it just ‘the way things are’ when black kids do the same?

I say yes to both.

As far as I can tell, Columbines are committed by kids who are at the end of their ropes. Why do I say this? Because in nearly every case, they are revealed to have been filled with anger and resentment, not towards specific individuals, but towards broadly-defined groups like Society or Jocks. Because the scope of their act suggests that they view it as something epic to be remembered. Because they put themselves in a position where suicide or prison are the only options, and they nearly always choose suicide. Because the number of kids who actually commit these shootings is nothing compared to the number of kids who at some point feel teased or disrespected or who are emotionally unstable, leading me to believe that the small number of kids who do decide to shoot up their school have fallen way beyond saving.

This is pretty much the opposite of what happens in the city. There, we see more shootings but fewer deaths per each one. Are these CPS shooters at the end of their ropes? Doesn’t seem like it. To my knowledge, they do not follow their deed with an immediate suicide, nor do they view themselves as having committed an epic act that will stand out, nor do they go about their plan knowing their actions will be front page, screaming headline news.

And when you hear that there is a section of society where people have to keep a running total of children killed per school year, and when you hear that total is 29 and it’s only March, and when you hear that 508 (and now more) children have been shot in the past 16 months, and when you surmise that these shootings are being committed by many different people, it seems reasonable to me that poor, city kids probably view gun violence as a normal part of life. Just another thing you have to deal with.

Both of these situations are tragic. Both need to be corrected. And if the black shootings are, in your eye, a more serious and urgent threat to a society’s well-being, (and I would agree), that is only due to the higher number of serious and urgent problems in all facets of black or poor city life, with which the number and nature of shootings shares a direct correlation. Again: we do not take nearly good enough care of each other in this country. And we do not take care of black people or poor people nearly at all.

The two categories of shootings require different, specific solutions based on the needs of the communities. Where there are greater needs, there should be greater attention. That just makes good, logical sense to me.

Yet I believe it is of vital importance that we remain focused on the bigger picture. We can no longer afford to be so thick-headed and careless as to think that these acts are somehow fundamentally different from each other when they so clearly are not. It does not make a lick of difference if whiter, richer kids from the suburbs are killing in rare, spray-crazy, all-inclusive, suicidal bunches, while blacker, poorer kids from the inner-city are killing with a multitude of shooters in a multitude of controlled, focused singles and doubles. The point is this: our kids are killing each other in record numbers. And we are letting it happen.


All of this hurt and anger and mistrust would still be a problem even if we only had knives, bombs, clubs, and fists to worry about. But there is no denying the additional destruction brought about by guns. I believe fully in the importance of personal responsibility, that we should be granted the freedom to make our own decisions and given the proper guidance to make them. I am not here to debate about our rights, about what you think they are as Americans or what I think they are. Arguing about the 2nd Amendment no longer makes much sense to me, and I’ll leave the NRA, hunting, and everything else for another day.

The only thing I care to say now is that if you are a gun owner, or if you have any direct effect on the legality of gun ownership, I hope you do society the service of considering the reality of what guns do and how people use them. Not how we hope people will one day behave, or how people should behave, but their actual behavior with guns. There is too much at stake to stand atop personal freedoms for personal reasons. If you own a gun, no matter the reason, no matter your intended use, you own a thing that is designed to kill and does so with great frequency and success. Can you say that about anything else you own?

Copyright 2009, jm silverstein


4 Replies to “On the John: A call to (set down) arms”

  1. Jack,

    An excellent piece. I agree with your points. But what is the next step. You’ve talked about what people do and have done but not about what people could or should do. Will you?


  2. Well written piece, Jack. Keep it up. It’s always good to read someone with a point-of-view. But I must say that gun owners will tell you they have considered the impact of their gun(s). An African American gun owner in the city or a suburb will tell you that he or she keeps a gun in their house for protection from addicts, robbers, gang bangers, anyone out to do the home owner harm. White gun owners will say the same thing. Children, adolescents, teens and twenty-somethings will tell you they need guns to protect themselves from others out to do them harm. I don’t believe there is a short-term answer to gun violence in poor neighborhoods such as Chicago’s Lawndale or areas of Elgin, Illinois, for examples. To eliminate violence as a rule, we need to strengthen families, provide relevant education for youngsters and older, meaningful employment, positive role models and build self-esteem in individuals even as we continue our law-enforcement activities. It’s a sad day when we accept the wanton murder of another human being as “normal”. That is unacceptable.

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