I don't just want fewer guns, I want a country that cares for my family with all its heart and asks me to care for your family just as hard
A few thoughts on hopelessness
I told myself that I wasn’t going to write about Uvalde, Texas— not because a massacre of fourth graders doesn’t overwhelm me, but precisely because the massacre of fourth graders overwhelms me so totally and completely. So many others have already written thousands of plaintive, exasperated words and so many others will keep writing plaintive, exasperated words and it all feels very circular and Sisyphean and perhaps there is some grace in not throwing more words on the pile.
But then, I woke up this morning and packed two lunchboxes with apple slices and granola bars and then walked my five-year-old and nine-year-old to the front door of an American public school and I saw the flood of bows-in-hair and oversized Paw Patrol backpacks on very small bodies and older siblings holding younger siblings’ hands. I nodded wearily at the same parents I always nod at and tried to communicate with my eyes that I am frightened to death and I bet that they are frightened to death, too. I gave my son and daughter a hug and then forgot to give my daughter her backpack, which meant that I, mercifully, got to turn around and get a second hug. And then I went home and imagined that there is a nation of parents who did the same this morning and whom I imagine, as I am, are not able to concentrate on anything else.
And so, here I am, saying this.
I come from a state— Montana— where more people use guns to kill themselves than just about any other place in the country.
I live in a city— Milwaukee— where people have long settled petty arguments by shooting at and killing each other, but where, in the past two years, the rates of people settling arguments with guns has risen to epidemic levels.
And of course, I live in a country where, every few weeks, a massacre occurs in a community gathering place— a mall, a grocery store, a nail salon, a concert, a school.
All of this has been true for as long as I remember. And while I may be a Montanan, I was raised in a non-gun-owning household by parents with strong opinions about compost and Central American solidarity work. I came of age in a hippie-ish college town and have lived a life of curated liberal self-righteousness. Every time an Awful Gun Thing happens, I can comfort myself with the knowledge that I am on the good side, the non-gun-side, and that I want all of the bans to be passed and the guns to be taken off the street and for our country to start looking more like the hundreds of countries where this doesn’t happen. I have cycled, in my righteousness, through the prescribed list of Bowling for Columbine-style villains: the NRA, Republicans in Congress, various past and current Governors of Texas.
To be very clear, I do want Congress to pass a whole bunch of laws banning a whole lot of killing machines. But this story that I tell myself at moments like this— that we are just a few good bans away from liberation— is as much of a myth as the conservative canard about the Good Guy With The Gun.
You and I will be inundated with charts and graphs in the next few days. They will remind us that we are Deeply Divided About Guns, that there are millions of Americans— particularly those who sit in the middle of the triple Venn diagram of Whiteness, conservatism and ruralness— who not only will fight tooth and nail against gun restriction but who view the right to bear arms as the most important of all American freedoms. If you are like me, you will look at those charts and feel some combination of self-righteous liberal anger and hopelessness, because you know that, due to the electoral college and federalism and the fact that we live in a not-quite-Democracy, that is an immensely and disproportionally powerful segment of the election. You will then curse them further and wish that they didn’t exist.
But here’s the thing.
All of those people who believe that there is no right that’s more American than the right to bear arms aren’t wrong. And that’s the problem. We’re not fighting irrationality or magical thinking here.
We live in a country that was founded on a number of extremely unsustainable promises— first, that not all residents of this continent were fully human, and second, that the protection of individual property rights was more important than the assurance that, in this place, we all take care of one another. The second amendment is, in this light, arguably the most American of all amendments, in that it sits at the intersection of both of those false promises. It exists largely as one more carrot to get the Southern slave states (who were, of course, deeply committed to a particular variety of “well regulated militia,” namely the slave patrol) to sign onto the whole affair.
I bring this up not in order to sound like a seventeen year old who just read A People’s History of The United States for the first time and who thinks he’s the first person to write “Amerikkka” on his AP U.S. History notebook. I have no presuppositions that I am out here blowing minds with this new, trenchant, “Did you know that the Founding Fathers weren’t benevolent geniuses?” take. We know this already, and often it feels like the only point of reminding ourselves “how we got here” is to make any path forward feel more hopeless.
Instead, I offer it to help myself better define where the actual work lies ahead of us. It’s easy or tempting merely to say “we live in a failed state!” or “this is the end of an empire!” or “we need a revolution” but that still begs the question of what you want to build and how you build it.
When you live in a country that doesn’t help you care for your neighbors and doesn't ensure that your neighbors truly care for you, it isn’t irrational to believe in the only promises which are guaranteed, even if they’re lies. If your country doesn’t care whether or not you have access to a dignified job or can receive medical care when you’re sick or if your kids can follow their dreams, and most of all that doesn’t tell you the truth about how we are all responsible for loving one another, then it isn’t irrational to adopt a very narrow-minded worldview. If your country has always told you that other people are a threat, but that no matter what happens you will be allowed to fight that threat off yourself, then of course it’s easier to believe in yourself as The Good Guy With The Gun instead of a member of the Good Community That Takes Care Of Each Other.
It is a particularly hopeless feeling to drop your children off at the front door of a building that you want so badly to love and take care of them when you just received a reminder that it is precisely buildings like this one— with their creative writing bulletin boards and their lovingly chipped paint and their playgrounds full of laughter— where children are sometimes mowed down by automatic weapons. And I would be lying to you if I pretended that hopelessness— which I know was shared by so many others this morning— hasn’t nudged itself to the front of my brain today.
But true hopelessness only exists in situations where there is nothing that can be done. And while I have no idea what, in the short term at least, will break Congressional impasse on gun legislation, I also know that there is so much we can do right now. For, if the problem isn’t merely that we are a loving country with bad gun laws but actually that we are a country that has never known how to love and be loved, then we all have work to do. Every single political effort that stitches together communities, and that fights for universal safety nets or actual democracy or dignity for all your neighbors, is in fact an anti-massacre effort. I know that I write, in essence, the same newsletter every week— a paean to “organizing,” a call to become more rather than less connected to those around you. I do so, though, because both you and I live in a place that hasn’t made it easy to do so, and that needs it so desperately.
I am scared and sad today, but I’m not actually hopeless. I won’t actually be hopeless until the day that there is honestly nothing more to do to become more bonded, more interconnected, and more committed to loving every single person with whom I share a continent and globe.
Sure, let’s tell our legislatures to pass some better gun laws. But let us never pretend that’s the only work that needs doing.