"Rochester, the Culture of Guns,
and the Choice to Disarm"

g-payne-1.23.13This article was originally published on Jan. 10, 2013 in The Smugtown Beacon by George Payne (CRCDS '06), Peace and Justice Educator at the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in Rochester, NY.

Until gun violence steals the life of your spouse, child, parent, or best friend there is no way to rationalize such primal suffering, especially in the form of an editorial. Consequently, it is assumed that political and spiritual reforms should not be debated during times of intense grieving. But what if this is the only time when such reform can actually happen?

In this article, I will suggest that we cannot comprehend gun violence without first talking about violence in general. Secondly, I will argue that individuals have a choice to not use guns. (Rare exceptions include child soldiers and some cult followers.) Gun violence is, therefore, the responsibility of people who choose to acquire and use guns and not abstract entities like the U.S. Government, criminals, the mentally ill, or even the National Rifle Association. My third point is related to (but qualitatively different from) the first two. The moral justification of self-defense makes possessing guns not only culturally acceptable but in some circumstances a matter of necessity. Remove the allowance for self-protection as morally permissible and the scaffold that buttresses the cultural sanction of gun violence disappears. Lastly, I intend to celebrate the harmonious truth echoed by every major religion that humans should not kill other humans. From the Mosaic commandment in the Book of Genesis to the “Golden Rule” of Confucius, the supreme code of religion is inscribed with the liberating admonition to love our enemies at all costs.

Having laid out the plan for this article, let’s establish from the onset that guns have always been enshrined with the virtue of nobility in American lore. Thomas Jefferson expressed this attitude with customary literary grandeur, when he said:
"A strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercises. I advise the gun. While this gives moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be the constant companion of your walks."

What is more, many Americans still believe that guns symbolize independence from political and domestic bondage. Patrick Henry, that remarkable champion of political sovereignty declared: “The great object is, that every man be armed…everyone who is able may have a gun.”

Guns have also come to represent an almost bestial power that characterizes a much darker version of American-styled diplomacy. In the words of Al Capone: “You can get a lot farther with a kind word and a gun than a kind word alone.”

Clearly the idea that guns serve a purpose in society is intricately woven into America’s cultural fabric. According to a recent Gallup poll, a record low 26 percent of Americans favor a ban on civilian possession of handguns, down from 60 percent when Gallup first asked the question in 1959. The Supreme Court has codified this popular opinion in landmark rulings in 2008 and 2010. In these cases the justices decided that the 2nd Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to possess a handgun at home, striking down controversial prohibitions in Chicago and Washington D.C.

However, before the ramifications of gun violence can be adequately understood, it is necessary to ask fundamental questions about the nature of violence itself. Trying to solve gun violence without examining violence is like trying to end apartheid without looking at the phenomenon of racism, or tackling the problem of homelessness while ignoring the dynamics of poverty. There are many different theories about violence. The one I wish to highlight here is the Jain tradition from India which teaches us to grasp violence as the desire to see living beings harmed verbally, physically, or even mentally. Guns, by this standard, are especially violent because they are intricately crafted to harm living beings with maximal efficiency. Assailants and other types of attackers are also living beings even if we have a proclivity to deny their right to exist. So once more, I dare say that the only way guns are morally acceptable is by making self-defense morally acceptable, and this logic applies equally to individuals and nations. The social purpose undergirding the possession of guns is rejected absolutely when individuals refuse to use them.

Understanding the nature of violence is important because it determines how we conceive our privilege as individuals to make guns a component of societal governance. Working with the Jain definition of violence is so powerful because it allows us to reclaim our own personal responsibility to disarm the world we inhabit. Research shows that personal disarmament makes communities safer. The Harvard Injury Control Research Center assessed the literature on guns and homicide and found that there’s substantial evidence that indicates more guns means more murders. This holds true whether you’re looking at different countries or different states. Richard Florida’s economic studies have found that in states that have one of three gun control restrictions in place–assault weapons’ bans, trigger locks, or safe storage requirements–firearm deaths are significantly lower. (Oregon was in the lowest tier at 5 per 100,000 compared to highly unregulated Arizona with 20 per 100,000, a striking four times as many.)

Furthermore, a recent study by James Wright (University of Massachusetts) involved interviews with men in prison who mainly agreed that controls imposed at the point of retail sale would not be effective in the acquisition of guns by felons. Since theft of guns is a predominant means by which criminals get firearms, the 30 to 50 million handguns currently possessed by licensed owners represents a potentially rich source for unlawful handgun acquisition. It takes forceful courage unmatched by any armed conflict to let go of self-defense but it is the only way to achieve a permanent abolishment of these killing devices. In other words, the personal decision to disarm establishes the only unconditional precedent for a citywide or even nationwide disarmament campaign. All other measures are founded on confusing hypocrisies.

Having surely provoked readers with this radical viewpoint on violence and human responsibility, let’s propose a more modest initiative that can be realistically accomplished in our lifetimes. The banishment of handguns is doable, so let’s start there. In fact, it would not be the first time America has experimented with such legislation. Georgia passed a law banning handguns in 1837. The Gun Control Act of 1968, the National Firearms Act and the Arms Export Control Act gives the President the authority to control imports and exports of “defense articles,” including firearms and ammunition. In October of 1998 New Orleans became the first U.S. city to file suit against gun makers, firearms trade associations, and gun dealers. With political will driven by the citizenry handguns can be severely limited through legislation alone.

The need for bold, unprecedented gun regulation is more urgent now than ever before. If Americans are still unconvinced that our nation faces a gun epidemic, they are not genuinely following the data. In the United States in 2009, United Nations statistics record 3.0 intentional homicides committed with a firearm per 100,000 inhabitants; for comparison, the figure for the UK, was 0.07, about 40 times lower. According to the National Institute of Justice, every year over 30,000 Americans die through the suicidal, homicidal, or accidental abuse of guns. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that, on average, one child died every three days in accidental incidents in the U.S. from 2000-2005. Gun related death rates in the United States are eight times higher than they are in countries that are economically and politically similar to it. Kieran Healy, a sociologist at Duke University, has reported in a recent study that the United States is a clear outlier when it comes to “death by assault” compared to other countries. America’s only real competitors in this dismal category are Mexico and Estonia.

Every neighborhood in America is impacted by gun violence. The same social mythos that has enfranchised Remington (America’s oldest company making its original product) and Colt (think Beatles’ "Revolver") as cherished brand names in rural households is the same daemon that sub-consciously influences youth on our streets to seek Versa Max shotguns and 95 Derringers. The Flower City is certainly no exception. In 2005 the Rochester homicide rate once again earned the city the embarrassing title “murder capital of New York State.” Then Assemblyman David Koon had to fight for legislation that would pass the following commonsensical bills: Ban cop-killer bullets, which can pierce bullet-proof vests; expand the ballistic identification database to cut down on illegal gun trafficking; crack down on “straw buyers,” who legally purchase firearms for resale to criminals; and remove loopholes in the law that allow violent criminals to lawfully possess guns. The fact that these activities needed to be legally condemned just within the last decade is not a hallmark of safeguarded personal liberties by a benevolent government but a collective sign of deep denial pertaining to our country’s idolatrous and fetishistic love of guns.

Eight years and hundreds of lost lives later, Rochester’s disproportionate homicide rate continues to charge anyone who honestly cares about the health and prosperity of our community to become better advocates in the movement to abolish guns. But only 60%-70% of firearms sales in the United States are transacted through federally licensed firearm dealers. All efforts to stop gun violence in Rochester must, therefore, focus on the steady availability of firearms in pawnshops, flea markets, and online sites such as Craigslist. During reporting for this article, I was prompted to visit the Rochester gun classifieds section on Craigslist, where I discovered the sale of Thompson Omegas, a Ruger GP 100, one Marlin 22 caliber rifle, a Winchester Model 94 30-30, bullet proof vests, and armor piercing bullets. I noticed in the bottom left hand corner of the page a disclaimer in miniaturized font that alerts sellers and buyers about local, state, federal, and international law. The barely visible warning also claimed that “ARMSLIST does not become involved in transactions between parties.”

Furthermore, if Rochester is truly serious about combating gun violence, the city must commit to a series of well funded intervention programs. Gun “buy-back” efforts, for instance, have serious critics; but if implemented correctly economic incentive programs can persuade individuals to relinquish their arsenals. Moreover, various aspects of programs like Operation Ceasefire in Boston, Project Exile in Richmond, Virginia, the Safe Kids/Healthy Neighborhoods Injury Prevention Program in New York City, Safe Homes and Havens in Chicago, and the national initiative Project Safe Neighborhoods, can be duplicated to meet the unique needs of Rochester. Speaking of which, the Rochester-based Pathways to Peace is financially struggling to survive as an organization. If Rochester intends to make a real difference in the fight against gun violence, then the city needs to invest in crisis intervention programs like Pathways to Peace.

One idea that city and law enforcement officials have not yet entertained involves a private-public merger that capitalizes on the reapplication of gun parts for sale on the free market. An initiative to solicit guns voluntarily from the populace with the intention of repurposing them as hardware parts (think nuts and bolts), jewelry and ornaments, home accessories, or anything else made of wood, steel, chrome, and other valuable metals, can be a lucrative enterprise with the proper marketing and distribution tactics. Products “Made in Rochester from Former Guns” can be sold all over the world. (Imagine chrome bracelets, steel car rims, and gold plated golf clubs being bought and sold by commercial benefactors.) Ideas like this one have the combined advantage of making homes and streets safer, stimulating economic opportunity, and inspiring other cities and townships to experiment with similar ventures.

Economics aside, the most compelling reason to ban guns will always be rooted in the undeniable wisdom of our spiritual ancestors. Although I am tempted to conclude with a certain New Testament verse that categorically condemns the killing of other human beings by upholding the duty to serve friend and foe alike, the words of General Eisenhower hauntingly describes the pragmatic consequence of this enduring ethical mandate. “Every gun that is made, every warship that is launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”