Gun violence and the death of joy: We're losing the places where we once felt safe

The more we allow gun violence to go unchecked in America, the more we all lose — including lives and happiness

Published June 25, 2016 1:29PM (EDT)

A vigil in Orlando, Florida. June 19, 2016.   (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)
A vigil in Orlando, Florida. June 19, 2016. (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

I used to love going to the movies. It didn’t even really matter what was playing. Through my teenage years and early twenties whenever I was stressed, I liked to go to the local movie theater. I liked it when the lights went down and everybody got really quiet. I liked how hopeful and expectant that moment was. I liked the feeling that everyone in the theater was experiencing something together. We didn’t have to talk. We were united just because we’d paid our $14 to go someplace and escape our daily worries. I know movie theaters aren’t really sacred, and I don’t want to blow their importance out of proportion – I can’t say anything beyond the fact that I really, really liked them. They were a place where I felt safe and happy.   

Everyone probably has some place like that. For some people it’s church. For some people it’s school. For some people it’s a nightclub.

Or, more and more, people used to have places like that.  

I don’t especially like going to the movies anymore. After Aurora, I suddenly found that I was skittish in theaters. If somebody entered too boisterously after the movie had started, I no longer thought, “They must have gotten here late.” I immediately thought, “Oh, God, do they have a gun?” And, once I’d convinced myself that was surely an isolated event, it happened again in Lafayette. When I go to the movies now, at the end, I think, “well, that was a nice movie” and I also think, “I’m glad I did not die in the course of it.” There are a lot of people who feel similarly, perhaps, about flying on a plane. And I do still go to movies. But the unfettered pleasure of it, the joy, that is gone.

To which some people reply, “Well, the world was always a dangerous place!” It was, that’s true. However, America was not historically this dangerous. There were 32 gunfights and shootouts in the Wild West from 1840 to 1918. There have been 173 mass shootings in America this year. That may have had a great deal to do with the fact that – despite the NRA’s attempts to glorify it is a period where manly vigilantes were free to be men – gun control was stricter in the Wild West than it is today.

Besides. There used to be places and activities that were understood to be dangerous. You could avoid those places. Not so much anymore. I’m not planning to play chicken on the railway tracks. I just want to go see "The Lobster."

I know that not being able to enjoy going to the movies anymore is a minor loss. Being sad about that loss seems like such a trifling concern compared to the pain of families who have lost their loved ones in Orlando, or Sandy Hook, or Santa Barbara, or Colorado Springs, or San Bernadino or… the list is too long.  

Losing places and peace of mind is nothing like losing people.

But it is still a loss.

And the more we allow gun violence to go on unchecked in America, the more we all lose. We lose the places where we felt safe. We lose the places where we felt unafraid to connect with each other. We lose the places that brought us joy.

It’s not a loss I would mind so much, if it seemed to be a sacrifice I was making for something good. But giving up something for nothing always feels like a bad trade, and I’ve yet to see an instance where modern-day assault weapons have brought about anything marvelous.

To which some people will say, “They brought us America.”

Those people are thinking of muskets.

A Brown Bess musket, such as was used during the American Revolution, can fire around four bullets a minute. That is if it’s operated by a very well trained soldier. A modern AR-15 (the weapon used at Aurora and Sandy Hook) fires 15 bullets per second. That’s 900 bullets a minute. In some states, like Florida, there’s no waiting time to purchase it. George Washington would not have been able to conceive of every individual citizen having access to a weapon as effectively murderous as an AR-15. Interpreting the Constitution to that extreme is like saying that the right to a pursuit of happiness insured in the Declaration of Independence should allow everyone to shoot heroin directly into their eyeballs.

Society’s perception of a great many things has changed since Washington, because society itself has changed. You will notice that we are not all inoculated for smallpox these days, and we don’t get our teeth pulled by our barbers. That is because we live in a world the founders of America would have found all but unrecognizable. If the founders were transported to the modern day, it seems likely they would declare, “I did not mean to sign off on the 15-bullets-a-second sticks.” They would then say, “Where are all my slaves? The constitution clearly states they are 3/5ths of a person.”

Those slaves are not around because the Constitution has undergone changes since the founders wrote it. But then, the founders expected that. The Constitution was a document intended to evolve. That is why the writers included The Elastic Clause, which allows Congress to alter laws as is “necessary and proper.” That is a provision that insures the people of the future will be able to exercise their common sense.  

However, many people still share constitutional founder George Mason’s fear that “once a standing army is established, in any country, the people lose their liberty. When against a regular and disciplined army, yeomanry are the only defence — yeomanry, unskillful & unarmed, what chance is there for preserving freedom?... to disarm the people [is] the best and most effectual way to enslave them.”  

That’s the notion people who feel a need to keep their guns so they can one day fight the government cling to, albeit a notion they express rather less eloquently.

Here’s the bad news for those people: You have already been effectively disarmed. Mason is presupposing a world where the government has arms that are comparable to the citizenry. That is not the world we live in. A man with a house full of AK-47s will not be able to stand up against the 101st Airborne. He certainly won’t be able to stand up against a nuclear threat from a corrupt government. This is not speculation, because people have tried. The siege at Waco in 1993 against the FBI did not end victoriously for the heavily armed Branch Davidians (82 of them died, nine survived). Earlier, the standoff at Ruby Ridge in 1992 ended with a man’s wife and child getting shot. The occupation at Burns, Oregon, this year, ended with a civilian dead. These stories never end with one well-armed man becoming the new King of Texas. They only end with dead civilians. And those are cases where the government is trying not to kill people.

The people who exclaim that the government “is coming to take away our guns!” think that we are naïve about the corruptibility of government. We’re not. Because, dude, they don’t need to come to take away your guns. If they want to, they can just drone bomb your house. If they’re not doing so, it’s because they don’t feel a need to.

Those weapons that people cherish the right to are not very good when it comes to standing up against the government. They are, however, excellent at killing people sitting in movie theaters or dancing at nightclubs.

But then, if people want to find a way to kill people, they can always find some way to do it, right? Well, not as easily. It’s pretty obvious that someone armed with a knife would have a more difficult time killing 50 people in rapid succession than he might have with a gun. At the very least, he would have to get very close to them. That said, we shouldn’t be dismissive of the idea of knife violence. There are countries like China where knife violence is a huge problem. The year 2010 saw a horrific number of knife attacks at schools in China: 27 people died from them. That sounds terrible, but 30 people are murdered by guns in the U.S. per day.

And the proportion of people who survive knife attacks tends to be higher. Compare the survival statistics from the stabbing at Zhongxin Kindergarten in Beijing in 2010 to those at Sandy Hook in 2012. Both crimes are horrific. However, at the Zhongxin Kindergarten, when a man stabbed 29 children and three adults, no one was killed, although five children ended up in the hospital in critical condition. At Sandy Hook, when a man shot 20 children and eight adults, everyone but two adults died.

Both outcomes are very bad, but one is worse.

If your aim is to kill people, knives don’t work as well as guns. That’s probably why 70 percent of homicides in America employ guns. Studies indicate that attacks carried out with any weapon other than a gun result in less harm to the victims.

But honestly, anyone who has watched "Indiana Jones" should have already figured that out.

Bombs certainly grab the public’s attention, and they’re better at killing a great number of people than knives. But then you have to figure out how to build a bomb. You can’t just buy one, load it up with bullets, and start killing people. If you wanted to create a fertilizer truck bomb, like the one Timothy McVeigh used in the Oklahoma City bombings, you’d find that the materials required to create one are now tracked by authorities. Wired explains that:

The FBI and affiliated law enforcement agencies have spent countless hours convincing manufacturers, distributors and retailers to alert the authorities when suspicious or anomalously large purchases of chemical fertilizer or other potential explosives occur. “You would know a lot more about people who buy chemical fertilizer than people who buy firearms,” says Aki Peritz, a former National Counterterrorism Center analyst.

In that case, since guns are relatively easy to get and so good at killing people, would I be better able to enjoy "Finding Dory" with my own gun gently cradled in my lap? Would that make me safer? Again, there are people who believe it would. After the shooting at Pulse, Donald Trump claimed, “If you had guns in that room, if you had — even if you had a number of people having them strapped to their ankle or strapped to their waist where bullets could have flown in the other direction right at him, you wouldn’t have had that tragedy.”

We can take a moment to ponder at how anyone thinks the world would be a safer place if drunk people dancing in a nightclub were all waving around firearms.

Now that we’ve done that, it’s worth addressing the myth of a “good guy with a gun.” While guns are good at killing unarmed people, they haven’t proven terribly effective at saving other people from the killers. In 2012, there were 259 justifiable homicides where someone killed someone else – a bad guy – with a gun. Meanwhile, there were 8,342 criminal homicides in which a gun was used. That means you are 32 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than saving yourself or someone else with one. Those are terrible odds.

You’re even less likely to be able to save yourself or others in a crowded situation like the one at Pulse nightclub. Senior Chief Petty Officer James Hatch (USN, Ret.) explains:

I’ve been in dark rooms with “good guys and bad guys” going at it with guns, and let me tell you something:

Gunfights are crazy.

Gunfights are hard.

On my final combat mission, I was shot in the leg with an AK-47 from about 30 feet away and it blew my femur in half… In some cases, can a “good guy” with a gun neutralize the threat and help save lives? Absolutely. But it doesn’t happen very often. It is, for the most part, a myth perpetuated by people who’ve never been shot at.

That’s one reason the armed security guards – the good guys with guns! – at Pulse were not able to take out Omar Mateen. Because “gunfights are crazy” and overwhelming even for people who are trained for them.

Besides. The notion that I ought to arm myself always seems to overlook the simple fact that I do not want to have to kill anyone. I do not have Rambo-like fantasies of mowing down a deeply mentally ill young man who is shooting other people. Many people seem to have that fantasy. However, that does not strike me as a good outcome. It strikes me as heartbreaking and unnatural. Telling people they should carry around a gun because there’s always a chance they’ll need to shoot one of their fellow Americans is not a notion that makes people feel safer and brings them together. A country where everyone is constantly armed to the teeth and ready to shoot one another does not strike me as a happy place to live. It strikes me as a terrifying dystopia.

“But if we outlaw guns, then only bad guys will have the guns!” The bad guys already have them. At least with a few regulations we’d be able to clearly identify them as bad guys instead of pretending they are freedom-loving patriots. The FBI had twice investigated Omar Mateen. He had been on a terrorist watch list. The owner of the gun store would be required to report Mateen’s purchases to the FBI so they could run his name against the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. However, a U.S. official claimed, “It's unlikely it would have raised any red flags… Even if it had, Mateen still could have purchased the weapons legally. The U.S. official says that, at most, the FBI would be alerted that he was trying to buy the weapons and perhaps agents would have watched Mateen more closely.”

Because God forbid anyone not be able to get a gun for any reason.

Mateen was an outspoken homophobe who abused his wife and held her hostage. He was described by his co-workers as “unhinged and unstable.” He’s someone we’d probably look at with a wary eye in every aspect of life – unless, of course, we’re selling him guns. Then apparently we should just all assume he’s a really good guy.

The only really good argument, as Jim Jeffries states, for wanting to have unchecked access to guns is “Fuck off! I like guns!”

Well, that’s fair. But a great many Americans are sacrificing an awful lot of joy and peace of mind so that some people can keep weapons they think are cool.

As for people who, perhaps most honestly, just want to keep assault rifles around because they just plain really, really like them, well, hell, I used to really, really like movie theaters. If they’re harder to get, you’ll be able to get over your emotional loss without anyone getting murdered.

By Jennifer Wright

Jennifer Wright is the author of "It Ended Badly: Thirteen of The Worst Break-Ups In History" and the upcoming "Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues And The Heroes That Fought Them" (MacMillan). You can follow her on Twitter @JenAshleyWright.

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