My brothers, sometime in the Fifties.
The new face of gun violence is actually an old one and a familiar -- familial -- one. Mostly they are the faces of women and children or even the face in the mirror. We’re used to thinking automatically of images of scary strangers intending to do harm or images of cops trying to suppress or limit the harm of guns by using guns in return. But the real truth is that people (including youngsters) who commit suicide are able to do it quickly without intervention because there is already a gun in the house.
And violence between family members is most often fatal when there is a gun to be picked up close by -- the same as most familial murders happen in the kitchen because that’s where the knives are. Even “friendship” shooting deaths tend to happen in the kitchen, sitting around the table getting drunk, arguing politics, losing at the argument and maybe also at cards. I’m excluding gangs, but what are they except imitations of family? I suspect they are violent with each other as much as with other gangs or bystanders. I don’t have figures, but I’d bet money that I’m right.
These thoughts surfaced partly because of the public dialogue going on right now, but also because my cousin mentioned that they had had in the house a “hand gun that looked like an old-fashioned cowboy gun” -- I assume a revolver -- which had originally been bought before WWI for safety on the road when our grandfather bought a motorcycle and went with our great-uncle on a cross-continental road trip. My cousin and her mother got to thinking about it a few decades ago and called the police to see what to do with it. The police were happy to swing by and remove it. My cousin lives in a nicely upscale neighborhood that rarely has break-ins or disorder.
Unlike my own nuclear family and childhood home where things always had a bit of a low-income edge and in the Nineties was gang territory. Our family handgun -- in addition to long guns which didn’t exist in my cousin’s home -- was an automatic that my mother kept in the nightstand drawer along with the (ahem) tube of Vaseline. My father was on the road, a wool buyer, and she felt she needed it. During WWII when my father was sent to SF to load wool onto ships on an emergency basis and she and we kids, all pre-schoolers, went to get drive him home, that gun was in the glove compartment. I assume that one of my brothers (both of them were Marines) simply absorbed it into their own collections.
When I was married to Bob Scriver there were corners full of leaning antique long guns like Sharps buffalo guns and a Winchester 66, as well as a fine handmade long gun hanging over the fireplace and replacing a Hawken, a Navy Colt handgun on the bookcase, a battered .22 behind the pickup seat (loaded with birdshot), and I’m not sure where the contemporary hunting rifles were except that they had to be kept in the studio/house to protect them from theft. We always meant to get a formal gun locker but never got around to it unless it was after I was gone. (I graduated from the marriage in 1970.) The infamous Scriver artifact collection included a major gun collection that had little to do with Native Americans except as targets.
As little kids in Portland, there was still enough open and ag land to spend an afternoon picnicking and target shooting. My brothers both earned marksmanship badges in the Marines. Every morning with Bob we went out to shoot a gopher to feed our wild pets. When I was an animal control officer in Portland, I didn’t have trouble qualifying on the rifle range. I can’t think of anyone in my immediate family who ever shot anyone or had to defend their house with a gun. Mostly our pattern was that if there were lost tempers, someone simply left. We were road runners.
Bob Scriver would go to blows and so did his brother. Bob’s second wife kept a baseball bat behind the door and deployed it as a threat if necessary, but never put it into action that I know of. Her family threw things at each other. But Browning is a place where people kill each other often, one way or another, especially men killing intimate women or rivals, young men killing each other. In the past it was mostly knives and clubs -- guns are expensive.
Maybe the most effective way to control guns would be television shows that included domestic shootings instead of criminal shoot-outs. Plots about suicide or card games gone wrong. Little kids who find handguns -- we always knew where the household automatic was. Teach a new pattern.
A gun is an exaggerator of what is already there. People say, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” and that’s quite right. But it’s really the basic pattern of interaction that kills people -- it just does it much more quickly, conveniently, and intimately if there is a gun on the premises.
And a gun is a potent symbol of power for the powerless. When I was far away from the rez, living the “good life”, a friend asked me about what it was like living “among Indians.” Among other tales, I said something about a person I knew in prison for violence against a woman and my naive friend said, scoffing, “What could an INDIAN have done to harm a woman?” The guy had been staggering drunk and raped his girl friend with a .357 revolver. Couldn’t get his penis stiff enough to shoot off. The inquirer had never held a gun of any kind nor could he recall ever meeting an Indian -- though he probably did and just didn’t know it. Both were stereotypes in his mind.
Actually, many of the suicides among kids around here are from hanging, which these days has sexual connotations. It’s the military who have been taught that their gun is their friend, to have embedded its use into their reflexes, its anatomy into their muscles, who are dangerous if emotions go wrong -- turn in on themselves. Even cops are not likely to have made their gun that much a part of themselves. But sometimes.
I see society as having let too many layers of assumption, impression, and slippery thinking bury basic elementary human dynamics like rage and self-destruction, quite apart from accidents waiting to happen. Laws just seem to pile on more layers. Media goes to the cheap and sensational. And families now are more confused than ever, though probably not quite so much the pressure cookers they were when no one could just leave.