Will there be copycats?

Will parents let their children attend political rallies anymore? Will Congress ever come to our corner again?

We witness another impromptu festival of American violence, this one in front of a Tucson Safeway. One more place that used to be safe and ordinary, suitable for children, is suddenly, for one random moment, a free-fire zone. A 9-year-old girl who wanted to learn how government works is among the half dozen dead. Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, shot in the head, fights for her life.

What do we do now, other than shrug, shudder, grieve?

A few days later, one priority — one — remains standing in the wreckage. How in God’s name do we disarm?

How do we disarm our impulses, our fears, our fantasies, our miscalculations? How do we disarm our language, which has us going to war with virtually every problem we face?

Even Sarah Palin gets it. At least she did for an embarrassing oops of a moment, and removed the crosshairs from her map of America. Guess that doesn’t look so good right now: a bunch of Democrats in her rifle sites. Not in the wake of a disturbed young man’s assassination attempt (with collateral damage) on one of them.

The paradox of disarmament goes as deep into the American psyche, perhaps the human psyche, as anything I can imagine.

I say this remembering how much I loved guns and war games as a boy, remembering the magnetic pull of weapons and heroism, bravery and duty. I have vivid memories, for instance, of an artillery show put on by the Army at a local park in my hometown: tanks, bazookas, real weapons fired off. Afterwards, all the kids were allowed to run down there and hunt for souvenirs. I found a rifle shell casing and a flattened slug, which became sacred objects of my boyhood. I took them to church: secrets hidden in my pants pocket. When I got bored during the service, I’d take them out, stare at them.

I don’t believe in eliminating this yearning from boyhood, pronouncing it politically incorrect and pretending it will just go away. This was all about growing up: coming into our power as human beings. The furious opposition triggered by gun control efforts flows directly out of what can only be called a religious fervor for empowerment, which is resistant to all logic on the harmfulness of widespread gun availability or the ineffectiveness of violent conflict resolution.

If people in large numbers are going to embrace domestic disarmament — and demand disarmament among nations — they must believe in means of empowerment that transcend the whack-a-mole logic of gun ownership and find the courage to examine the consequences of violence-centered belief systems. This will only happen when children, yearning to be heroes, are able to transform into adults who understand that empowerment involves something more complicated than dominating others; that it requires the cultivation of compassion, empathy and a cooperative spirit.

For this to happen at a level that makes a social difference, our primary institutions must grow up: the ones that greet young people on the brink of adulthood, in particular, the media and military. Right now I think they’re going in the wrong direction. The essence of a failure to grow up is a simplistic division of reality into good and evil, and I fear we’ve stalled at this level, and have built our economy around it. We live in a world that believes in, and requires, enemies, and such a world is not going to disarm.

The belief that to be an American is to be armed runs wide and deep. For instance: “If suicide terrorists DO attack our city, ARMED CITIZENS could be the First to counter these hostilities in our individual neighborhoods.” Thus testified Dick Heller, plaintiff in the landmark 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment protects the individual, not simply the collective, right to bear arms.

And: “Our Founding Fathers understood that the guys with the guns make the rules.” These are the words of National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre, speaking last year at the 2009 Conservative Political Action Conference.

An abundance of such commentary — logically limited but deeply embedded in our psychology — can be found on the “Insurrectionism Timeline” maintained by the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence in the wake of the 2008 Supreme Court decision (to which I was alerted by Brad Friedman). The timeline also notes the instances in which such rhetoric tipped into actual violence, perpetrated by disturbed loners and anti-government fanatics. Some 20 incidents since June 2008 are listed, resulting in about 35 deaths, a large percentage of whom were police officers.

The belief that only the armed are empowered has breached the constraints of social sanity. We owe it to the victims of the Tucson tragedy, and to all the victims who preceded them, to examine our consciences and press for disarmament in thought and action. We cannot grieve if we still have enemies in our crosshairs.


Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, contributor to One World, Many Peaces and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at Email or visit his website at Common Wonders © 2010 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.