I put in about 15 hours a week working for Everytown’s National Survivor Network. I reach out to other survivors, advocate for sensible guns laws, and give talks to all sorts of groups. In a couple of hours I’m going to be on the Topsfield Common talking to people assembled there for the local iteration of this year’s Concert Across America to End Gun Violence. The Everytown people call this “sharing my story” but, like some of their well-intended efforts, this one is a bit tone deaf. Most survivor’s stories are shit. If someone puts a plate of shit in front of you, are they “sharing” it? So over the past 25 years of giving these kinds of talks, I’ve learned to stay away from the wet hankie stuff. Here’s what I’m going to say this afternoon…
In 1978 my sister Wendy committed suicide with a Saturday Night Special – an unfortunate impulse buy she’d be able to make today in many states. In 1992 my son Galen was killed in a school shooting, random victim of a disturbed fellow student who’d purchased a semi-automatic rifle at a local gun shop – something he could do just as easily now as he did back in the day. These experiences have given me the unique perspective of someone who’s sat around for thirty years closely watching nothing happen. Or, watching a lot happen – most of which involves people getting killed by guns and politicians doing nothing about it.
This sort of situation could easily lead to hopelessness, cynicism and despair, but I can’t go there, because if I give in to cynicism and despair, the bad guys will have won. And out of respect for my sister and my son, I can’t allow that. So I just keep going along, doing what I feel I should be doing. For the past few years I’ve been working with Moms Demand Action and Everytown’s Survivor Network. But I’m not stressing out too much about short-term results.
Right now I’m excited because soon it will be October again, and for a whole month everyone will be wearing pink. And I’m thinking, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month – this is great! For once we’ve got our whole, poor, shattered country on the same page and we’re raising hundreds of millions of dollars to stamp out breast cancer, a terrible plague that takes 40,000 lives a year. Then I think, 40,000. Is that the number we have to hit to get things rolling? Because we’re at 32,000 gun deaths a year in America right now…
It’s interesting, because there’s this whole thing about Breast Cancer Awareness that the gun violence movement doesn’t have. I mean, breast cancer AWARENESS? Really? Is there anyone in America who’s not aware of breast cancer? Pink is not about raising awareness. It’s about affirming awareness. Knowing we have a problem and agreeing to work together to do something about it. Gun violence, on the other hand, is where cancer was a generation ago. Remember the “C” word? Something scary that seemed to be everywhere and that we didn’t like to talk about? This is something that survivors of gun violence encounter often. People come up to you and they look at you and their mouths are moving but what their eyes are saying is, “You poor guy. I’m glad it wasn’t my kid…” A shameful thought. It makes us ashamed and we want to bury it.
In 1963 a writer named Hannah Arendt did “A Report on the Banality of Evil” in which she discovered that Nazi war criminals were able to murder and torture, and then come home and pat their dogs and play with their kids like normal people, because they compartmentalized their experiences. It’s something we all do. Every one of us has a lock box, buried way down deep, where we keep the Newtowns, the Columbines, the Pulse Night Clubs, and all that other awful stuff.
And we do it, not because we’re Nazi war criminals, but because we’re healthy people. Because compartmentalization is a coping mechanism that helps us avoid a very troubling mental state known as COGNITIVE DISSONANCE – which is where two very strong and mutually exclusive ideas are held in your consciousness at once, which can be very uncomfortable and lead to hopelessness, cynicism, and despair.
So we put these opposing ideas in their compartments and all is well. In this case it might be something like, “These gun murders are insupportable. I’ve GOT to do something about them!” and, “What can I do? I’m just one person, and besides… the NRA controls everything.”
Well, guess what? The NRA has spent $3.2 million so far this year lobbying Congress for things like silencers and universal concealed carry. That’s a lot of money. But think about it.
There are 535 members of Congress. Subtract the 200 lily-livered liberal gun-grabbers who flunked the NRA report card, and that leaves about 335 pols in line for the NRA’s $3.2 million. Which works out to about $10,000 per Congressperson. Now, these politicians need to raise somewhere between $2,500 and $15,000 per day to finance their campaigns. How much power do you think a measly $10,000 has over them?
It’s not the money. It’s not the NRA. It’s us. We’re the people who vote for those cowards in Congress. And we’re the people who can vote them out. Polls say at least 70% of us want universal background checks. But I’d be surprised if even 10% take the trouble to get off their couches and do anything about it. Why? Maybe because it’s uncomfortable to think, to really think, about those dead kindergarten kids, buried way down deep in their compartmentalized boxes inside us.
It’s not the NRA. It’s us. And this hopeful. All we need to do is get that 70% of sensible people off their couches. Of course, first WE need to get off our couches.
And here’s something else that encourages me. What is the one demographic consistently in favor of stronger gun laws? Not gay people, or ghetto dwellers, or disabled vets. It’s women. Something like 65% of women favor stronger gun laws, across the board, regardless of political affiliation or gun ownership.
Think of the success of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. And Gabby Gifford’s Americans for Responsible Solutions. Or the power of the Million Mom marches to draw attention to the problem of gun violence. Or the transformative members of Moms Demand Action.
Honestly, I’m beginning to think this gun problem might be just another in a long series of critically important things – I mean, going back to the beginning of history – that men have screwed up. Somehow we’ve gotten it to a point where it’s Iron Mike Bloomberg of Everytown for Gun Safety versus Wayne “the Weasel” LaPierre of the NRA. Ten rounds. Winner take all. Charlton Heston and his “cold, dead hands” clutching that assault rifle. A complete mess.
And then I think of Lysistrada. Remember Lysistrada? (Don’t worry; you won’t be tested on this.) It’s a play, an ancient Greek comedy. And it’s about these Athenian women who get so sick, so fed up with the destruction and waste of the interminable Peloponesian Wars that they decide to stop sleeping with their husbands and boyfriends. No more sex until you men stop your stupid fighting! Well, you can guess where this one ends up. And this play, circa 400 BC, might have been the origin of what I always thought was a Sixties expression, “Make Love, Not War.”
So I’m throwing this example out to you, ladies, as a sort of modest proposal…
But also, very seriously, as a vision of where this gun violence movement might be headed; because what could be more antithetical to gun violence than family, than nurturing, than love? And, not to be sexist about it, or to be quite sexist about it, I see this as a more feminine territory, and I see us trending in that direction, and I see us needing to trend there pretty damned soon.
Let me close by telling you about a Mom I know. Her name is Clementina Chery, and her son, Louis, was killed shortly after Galen – not on a leafy college campus, but on the streets of Dorchester. Tina dealt with her grief by starting a non-profit community-based organization called the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute. But I could never quite get what Tina was up to. I mean, she didn’t seem as politically engaged as she had been back in the 1990s. So after I signed on with Everytown I went down to Dorchester to talk with her, and she told me something very important, something I’d overlooked. This is what she said:
There is the moment of violence, and this moment is what the national gun debate is focused on. All the political battles, all the shouting matches, all the hand wringing… But that’s not what we’re about. Because there is all this time before that moment of violence, and all the time after it. How did it get to murder? How can we heal this community? And that’s what we pay attention to, that’s where we work – all the time before and all the time after.
Perhaps they seems obvious to you, but I can’t tell you what a profound effect those simple words had on me. I realized that, as an activist, I’d been stuck in that moment of violence ever since my son’s murder.
So I’ll keep reaching out on behalf of Moms Demand Action and Everytown, because I still believe in the political struggle. But my attention has shifted. Now it also seems that tending to the “before” and the “after” might be possible on a personal as well as an institutional level. What if each of us became a walking Peace Institute?
Now I get what grassroots organizations like Tina’s, and hundreds of others are doing. Now I see them as a source of nutrients vital to the health of our society. I’m talking about outreach, education, support, sense of community. And what were those so-called “feminine” virtues? Family, nurturing, love? Those very things made my wife and kids and me healthy and strong before our moment of violence, and helped us survive the terrible after.
It’s quieter, subtler, and differently difficult than political activism. I can’t help thinking that maybe if Galen’s killer had gotten more of those nutrients himself, he’d never have done what he did.