Guns in America
by Kevin Powell
Annie Christian was a whore always looking for some fun
being good was such a bore, so she bought a gun
she killed John Lennon, shot him down cold
she tried to kill Reagan, everybody say gun control”
—Prince, “Annie Christian” (1981)
“…a prayer vigil/press conference at Brookdale Hospital to pray for the 16 year old girl that was shot point blank in the face. The Saturday, January 15th shooting took place on Belmont and Sackman in Brownsville, Brooklyn….”
—Email posted by Brooklyn clergy/community leaders (2011)
Prince, the musical genius and icon, was singing about an American mindset of 30 long years ago, one that is very alive today. And, obviously, far more males than females engage in gunplay as evidenced by who shot John Lennon, President Ronald Reagan, and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Regardless of the metaphors, we should heed Prince’s point.
And the Brooklyn girl referenced above is Kervina Ervin, who was in critical condition but has progressed enough that she will now have surgery on her mouth, since it was badly damaged by the bullet. There has been much speculation on why Kervina was shot (Was it gang-related? Was it revenge for some prior street fight?). But what is clear is that Kervina is, symbolically, millions of miles away from Tucson, Arizona, and the national outpouring of grief (well-deserved) that has accompanied the day-to-day vigil for Congresswoman Giffords.
For sure, Kervina Ervin’s life is as valuable as the Congresswoman’s. Yet we would not know that because there has been no presidential visit to Brownsville, one of the poorest communities in America, and a ’hood whose pockmarked skies are often littered with the pop pop pop of bullets.
Nor has there been round-the-clock media coverage. What we have instead is Kervina’s family, led by her mother, doing the best they can to make sure Kervina survives that gunshot.
And I wish I could say Kervina was the sole victim of gun violence in Brooklyn in January, but I cannot. For the period of Friday, January 14, 2011, through Thursday, January 20, 2011, there were 2 murders, 7 non-fatal shooting incidents, with a total of 11 non-fatal shooting victims. And that is only for communities in northern Brooklyn. Imagine what is happening in other parts of this New York City borough that I love dearly, or in so-called ghettoes nationwide. Right here in our America we are losing a generation of young people to gun blasts that rival the violence in Afghanistan or Iraq, or in other war-torn countries.
Accordingly, as we debate guns, gun control, and what happened, precisely, in Tucson, Arizona on Saturday, January 8th, and who, exactly, is responsible, I think it time we cease pointing fingers at each other and take a good look in the mirror at ourselves.
For there is something wrong with us as a people, as Americans, when some of us can justify, in the aftermath of that Arizona shooting tragedy, or the countless shootings in America’s suburbs and inner cities, the right to bear arms. I am very clear what the Second Amendment says but, honestly, it is tough to hear those words this very moment, especially since I have had to deliver eulogies at more funerals than I can count. And console more mothers, fathers, relatives, friends, and distraught community members than I care to recollect. Each and every single funeral tied to gun violence.
For that reason America needs to be completely transparent about the fact that we have a profound and dysfunctional relationship with guns, that we are literally blowing each other away, and few seem genuine in their desire to stop the bloodshed for good.
For sure, as I sat in my living room during our most recent Dr. Martin Luther King holiday weekend, gunshots spit from the bowels of Fort Greene Projects, directly across the street from my condo building. I could not help but think of the great irony of the hate email I had received since the Arizona shooting tragedy. Individuals saying I had incredible nerve to call for gun control, that I was “un-American,” “unpatriotic,” and one critic essentially figured out a way to portray me as anti- our American soldiers overseas because of my desire for major gun control. I also hear the words, frequently, of what my dear friend April Silver said to me in the aftermath of Congresswoman Giffords being shot: “Kev, you are out there as a public figure, too. That could have been you—”
It could have been any of us with strong opinions about our nation and our world that someone out there does not like. But I am not afraid, and I am not anti- anything. I am for nonviolence, love, respect, and peaceful solutions to conflicts. And I want to see the endless merry-go-round of Americans, regardless of background, being wounded, maimed, paralyzed, or murdered purely because someone figures the only way to resolve a beef or differing point of view is through the barrel of a gun.
Indeed, when something like the Arizona calamity happens, or the mass killing on the campus of Virginia Tech (2007), or the slaughter at the Fort Hood military base in Texas (2009), or the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado (1999), we Americans are aghast with horror, we freeze, we ponder and reflect, and vow, with substantial passion, that we will not allow this to happen again. And then it does. At our homes, at our workplaces or our schools, on our public transportation systems. Wherever we be, there be bullets flying when we least expect it.
Just this past weekend, in fact, we had the shooting outside a Washington State Wal-Mart that left two dead and two Sheriff’s deputies wounded. Both the shooter and a teenaged girl police believe was somehow connected to the suspect were killed. In Detroit, a lone gunman was brazen enough to walk into a police precinct, opened fire, and wounded four officers before return gunfire took his life.
Why? Because we are a violent nation, a nation that was founded on violence. Just ask Native Americans, Black Americans who had to trek through slavery and segregation, poor and or ethnic Whites, Mexicans, women, the LGBT community, or any other group in our lengthy and hectic history who have had to deal with guns being aimed in their direction. No question that we are a nation that has often settled scores, in our wars, in our movies, in our video games, and, no doubt, in our political gripes, with gunplay. Or with talk or boasts of gunplay. Pump that, like a drug, into the minds and veins of any people enough, and add anger, rage, alienation, or, yes, emotional instability or mental illness, and you’ve got a recipe for American tragedy after American tragedy.
That said, the great misfortune to me is not simply Tucson, Arizona. God bless those victims and survivors, and God knows I am praying for Congresswoman Giffords’ full recovery. But the greater misfortunes are the ignored, forgotten, or anonymous individuals, like Kervina Ervin, who wonder, each and every single day of their lives, in some cases, if they will catch a bullet, as we say, just because they live in a community where guns are so easy to obtain. Or if they are the wife or girlfriend of a man who is an abuser and has threatened to shoot them. And the stories go on and on—
That is why stats like these are so staggering:
1) Since 1968, when Dr. King and Robert F. Kennedy were murdered, with guns, over a million Americans have been killed, with guns
2) In any given year there are over 9000 gun-related murders in America. In developed nations like England there is 39 per year, or just 17 in Finland in any given year
3) Murder rates due to guns in America are 6.9 times the rates in 22 other heavily populated and high-income countries combined
4) Medical costs and costs to the criminal justice system, in America, plus all the security precautions (think of metal detectors at airports, at schools, and elsewhere) wind up costing us, as taxpayers, over $100 billion per year
What we are discussing, then, is a national crisis that must become a national priority and a national conversation, led by our president, Barack Obama. Mr. Obama should start by urging passage of a bill, H.R. 308, to ban large capacity ammunition magazines, an important life-saving measure now before Congress.
Beyond this, under President Obama’s leadership we as citizens sick and tired of being sick and tired of gun violence need to challenge our elected officials to put more meat on the Brady Bill, signed into law by President Clinton in the 1990s. That means cities, towns, states, and the national government have got to work together to make it much more difficult to get a gun. We’ve got to fix the background check system immediately, create a national formula for that, and make all records available of anyone who wants to purchase a gun, including medical and criminal records, or any reports from a school or workplace of unstable behavior. And those loopholes that make it so easy to get a gun without any check whatsoever must be closed. What kind of nation are we that a teenager, or even younger, can presently get a gun from someone, and use it for deadly purposes, as if he, or she, were playing a video game for fun?
When I look at how easily Jared Lee Loughner was able to secure a weapon to shoot Congresswoman Giffords and others, I just scratch my head and wonder where were the background checks, the sharing of information about his emotional instability and why, for God’s sake, was he pulled over by the police, just moments before the tragedy, and summarily allowed to carry on?
(The running joke in many Black communities, and not so funny, either, is that if Mr. Loughner were Black, no way the police would have allowed him to carry on so easily. Well….)
I am not suggesting that anyone individual or institution is responsible, but certainly we are in this together. That means some of us have got to get the courage to stand up to the National Rifle Association, finally, and to gun manufacturers. And to gun sellers as well, be they at gun shows, or in the streets, back alleys, or hallways of America. It is a kind of national sickness to think it normal to carry a gun, to have access to a gun, just because you want one. But, conversely, when I was speaking at a college in rural Maryland last weekend, a student asked me about guns for those who hunt for food. I had to pause for a second and recall that my own South Carolina born and bred family (although I am personally a vegan these days) hunted to survive. And that some of my kinfolk, in the South, still do. Until we have an alternative way of feeding every single American, I can’t be mad at folks for doing that, even if I don’t personally like it. There is a big difference between hunting for survival sake and hunting people, like prey, just because—
But what I am also concerned about is a gun lobby so powerful that fought, tooth and nail, against the Brady Bill, and which continues to jump through those loopholes that make gun access so easy. We the American people must collectively gather the nerve to challenge these folks until they, and we, understand that we do not need “civility,” as has been argued since the Arizona tragedy.
No, what we need is a culture of nonviolence, one where, again, it becomes a national priority right in pre-school or grade school, to teach our children the lessons of Gandhi, of Dr. King, of anyone who is rationale enough to understand violence in any form, or the ready availability of guns, is simply not acceptable for a society that calls itself civilized.
And this conversation is not just for everyday American citizens, either. It needs to extend to some in law enforcement who are what the singer Marvin Gaye once crooned, “trigger-happy polices,” especially given the rampant use of gunfire at Black and Latino males in our urban environments. Yes, being a police officer is a dangerous job and I have the utmost respect for our police forces. But they too have been contaminated by a culture of violence where brute force, or gunshots, has often become the first and only solution for our conflicts, problems, or fears.
Thus if we are going to talk about guns and gun violence, the national conversation must be from every single angle. Each one of us must ask ourselves why is it okay to reside in a culture where violent blockbuster movies rule our theaters, why television habitually features gunplay, why historical tales we’ve digested since childhood have always featured weapons and violence, and why it is okay for our children, or us, too, to play video games that showcase violent imagery that feed our seemingly insatiable appetites for murder and mayhem, even if it is fictionalized?
This is the only way we as a nation will turn this corner, if we are totally real with ourselves, and are willing to steer the DNA of our culture in a new direction. And as Martin Luther King III said earlier today, at a press conference with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in response to the crisis of guns in America,
“We are a much better nation than the behavior exhibited.”
And way past time for us to show it. For our children. And our children’s children, too—
Kevin Powell is a public speaker, activist, and author or editor of 10 books, including Open Letters to America (Soft Skull). He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and can be emailed at email@example.com.