Second-Hand Bullets

Pinkas-boy-gunso doctor doctor won’t you please prescribe me somethin
a day in the life of someone else
Cuz I’m a hazard to myself

– Pink

Let’s talk about cigarettes.

If you want to slowly flood your system with toxic substances and increase your chances of chronic and/or terminal illness, that is your right. In any case, I can’t really point too many fingers. We all have our poisons of choice. I’m well on my way to a Doritos-related heart attack. But, then, I’m not force-feeding you corn chips on buses and airplanes, or in hotels and restaurants, either. There’s no such thing as second-hand cholesterol.

Therein lies the difference between my poison and yours. Mine is mine; yours is everybody’s. Su carcinogen es mi carcinogen…whether I like it or not.

Guns used to be like Doritos. Outside of violent crime, gun-related deaths were restricted to the home, or at the very least involved only those who chose to own a firearm. While I find all such incidents regrettable, at least they could truly be attributed to the consequences of personal choice. But this is no longer the case (most recently in my home state of Texas). Now, guns are becoming cigarettes.

Except for one thing: in the case of cigarettes, we have moved away from public harm toward public safety. We have chosen to respect the personal choice of those who choose not to smoke. We have restricted the spaces in which smokers may partake of their habit, in order to limit the involuntary exposure of non-smokers. To a large extent, buses, airplanes, hotels, and restaurants no longer present a problem. Because, while we respect your right to poison yourself, we also respect the right of others not to be poisoned by you.

Let’s look at a similar issue: drunk driving. From the standpoint of absolute freedom of choice, an argument might be advanced that an individual ought to be free to do so if she chooses. It’s no one’s business but her own if she knowingly acts in a way that endangers her life. Except it’s not just her life that’s endangered, is it? In this case, her right to act is counterbalanced by others’ right not to be acted upon. So we legislate against drunk driving. This doesn’t by any means ensure that no one will do it, but it does put into place a legal structure whereby we might be able to mitigate a great deal of the risk. We see a danger, and we act to curb it to the best of our ability.

In the case of guns and gun safety, though, we are actually moving in the opposite direction. The Texas legislature just passed an open carry bill (HB910), and Gov. Abbott signed it into law on June 13, at a gun range, of course. This bill, which takes effect on January 1, 2016, will allow licensed carriers to carry their firearms openly in a belt or shoulder holster. OK Corral, anyone? To make matters worse, they have also passed a campus carry bill (SB11), which at its fullest strength would allow students 21 years of age and older to carry their firearms in dorms, classrooms, and campus buildings. What could possibly go wrong?

Of course, one may protest: “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” But, then, that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s people who decide whether or not to pull the trigger, and so, it’s people who make guns dangerous. And people are notoriously prone to panic-induced chaos. There’s a reason you’re not supposed to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. And, given the ridiculous amount of mass shootings that have taken place around the U.S. in the last few years, we’re all primed to hear the first shot. Which makes it unwise to equip Tom, Dick, or Harry (or me, in case you care to accuse me of elitism) to take the second.

I was recently taken to task by someone who pointed out that if 21-year-olds are responsible enough to vote, join the military, etc., etc., etc., then they are also responsible enough to carry a gun onto their college campus. Setting aside the age of last week’s Charleston shooter (which was 21, if you’re wondering), this is hardly the point. It’s not just about the people with the guns; it’s the message(s) they’re sending.

The last thing we need is for a new generation to grow up under the impression that guns are cool. Back to cigarettes: one of the constant refrains of the anti-smoking campaign has been “Don’t smoke in front of your children, because they tend to do as you do, not as you say.” And then there’s the effort to convince teenagers that smoking “ain’t cool.” But guns are a fashion accessory.

There is also the minor issue of conflict resolution strategies. Do we not understand that these laws, and their “personal safety” justifications, perpetuate the idea that the solution to potential violence is more potential violence? That the only palliative to our lack of social consciousness is less social consciousness, and more social belligerence? Forget “these are your lungs on tobacco”; your brain on bullets…is dead.

Just as there are people who choose not to smoke or be associated with tobacco in any way, there are those of us who choose to neither own nor be associated with guns. In fairness, smokers are generally fairly conscientious when it comes to following the rules: there was grumbling at first, I’m sure, when the limiting trend began, but by and large, they are a respectful lot. Baylor, for instance, joined the ranks of smoke-free campuses at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year, and the transition went largely without a hitch. Meanwhile, the gun lobby seems to be going out of its way to force the rest of us into the firing line.

Imagine the gall of suggesting that law enforcement officers be free to ask open carriers for proof of license! Since all 21-year-olds have their age pinned to their foreheads, what could be the use of so overbearing a measure? By all means, ID kids trying to buy tobacco or alcohol, but how dare you infringe upon their rights by asking for legal paperwork on the deadly weapon strapped to their hip? Now, everyone’s up in arms because of possible signage restricting open (or concealed) carry in businesses: in Texas, über-respect for the businessman apparently ends when they tell you to leave your toys outside.

If you, in your hubris, want to channel Cary Grant or John Wayne, then for the love of God, do it in the privacy of your own home and leave the rest of us out of it. If you’re going to be an ass, then at least make sure it’s only your ass that’s on the line.

‘Cause second-hand bullets are real.

The Human Me

Writers who wish to do more than bear witness to human suffering or add to the overburden of entertainment have a responsibility to advocate for justice, humility, and compassion.

– Alison Hawthorne Deming

Recently, a friend of mine slapped me upside the head. Not literally, of course, and not intentionally; figuratively only, and in a good way, a necessary way. She posted the above quote on her blog’s Facebook page. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it ever since. I went to bed thinking about it; I got up thinking about it. I’m still thinking about it.

There is so much truth in that short little statement that I have no idea how to begin to unpack it. What exactly am I up to here?

As a writer and a human being, I am under a dual obligation, both to tell the truth and to be the truth. And it’s that second one that gets me. It’s so easy to take a bird’s-eye view when I’m sitting at my keyboard, communing with a lifeless monitor; so easy to expound upon the errors of others and lay out a carefully-crafted philosophy for living as a corrective to the world’s ills. But if I put down the message along with the pen, if I follow pontification with prevarication, then my work becomes all plot and no action: my life is, to quote the Bard, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Moreover, to act in the moment as the moment demands (one of my favorite Zen teachings, and one that challenges me every time I attempt to live it) is more difficult, more threatening, than we often imagine. True spontaneity is a rare gift; it is also the essence of authentic living; it is also usually just beyond my grasp. To be truly spontaneous is to respond to the exigencies of the moment simply because they are there, thoughtlessly, not in the sense of acting carelessly, but in the sense that action follows opportunity naturally, as inhalation follows exhalation. And for me, anyway, that sort of open response to unfolding circumstance is much more easily said than done.

I want to know how to marry deed to word. I want to be that finished product, The Compleat Writer, that Alison Hawthorne Deming references in her quote. But how to do such a thing? Will Wheaties-eating do the trick? Is it enough to say what needs to be said and hope to hell someone’s listening? More importantly, am I listening? Am I the same guy, out there in real life, that I am when I’m all crammed into this blog post?

Writing humanity is a difficult task: character development, authentic dialogue, the ability to tap into the core of human emotion–all these things require great skill in the best of writers. But humanity in writing is another thing altogether: I can’t afford to be just another one of my own characters, and my dialogue can’t get by just sounding real. I have to be willing to let others tap those human emotions right out of me; I have to bleed so they can see it; the ink and the sweat must mix.

This is a responsibility I cannot ignore. It is also one I all too often pass over unthinking. So thank you, my friend, for the wake-up call. I needed that…

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