Misguided

I have a voice and I will raise it now.

A truncated version of this Opinion was published in the Tallahassee Democrat on July 7, 2019.

Earlier this month, the parents of the youngest woman killed at Tallahassee Hot Yoga filed a lawsuit against the owner of the studio and the property owners for failing to provide adequate safety for patrons. I cannot possibly understand the pain that this family feels; therefore, it is incredibly difficult to judge their decisions. In addition, it must be agonizing for a family to experience such a heartbreaking loss without any sense of justice (although that word feels awkward and misplaced here in any circumstance). I would imagine there could be some sense of closure that comes from a family’s day in court, especially if that family is able to see the killer sentenced. In this case the killer even took that right from this grieving family.

This lawsuit, as Betton property spokesperson, Ron Sachs stated, is misguided. However, I do not think that we should mistake that reality with the suggestion that the gunman is the only one who bears responsibility for this tragedy.

The shooter purchased the gun he used to kill two innocent women in July of 2018. He purchased the gun at Central Florida Pawn in Orange City, not in some back alley. This is after arrests in 2012, 2014 and 2016 that all involved sexual misconduct towards women and also after being discharged from the Army in 2010 for inappropriate conduct with female soldiers. His arrests lead to no real consequences even though one of the incidents when he grabbed a woman’s butt was caught on video, playing out exactly as she described.

Not only was this man able to legally purchase a gun, he was hired by Leon County Schools in 2015 and by Volusia County Schools in 2017— after the discharge and a history of arrests.

He made his hatred for women public online and also described his interest in violence as a form of revenge. In 2018, a woman reported him to the FBI for the threatening content of his website and the FBI determined the tip to be “non-actionable”.

This man was a known threat to women. The shooting at the yoga studio was more aligned with murders that stem from domestic violence than with other mass shootings. He was motivated by hatred of, and powerlessness to, women. Instead of focusing his anger towards one woman, he held an entire gender accountable. Although he did not have a connection to these particular women, he had a history of threatening all women.

The federal government will put individuals on a no-fly list, deeming them dangerous to Americans for often unspecified reasons based on previous actions, public comments, suspicious travel and arrests. American citizens have a 1 in 45,808 chance of being killed by terrorism. We are more likely to be killed by an animal attack, a heatwave, a bicycle accident. Americans have a 1 in 358 chance of death from assault with a gun.

A man can threaten women physically, verbally, and publicly and still be able to legally buy a gun. He is still able to be hired to work in our schools, alone in a classroom with our children. Our no-fly list involves a coordinated effort between the federal government and state and local agencies to oversee and protect citizens. Why are we so afraid to be proactive and standardize practices to keep citizens safe against a much more perceivable threat?

If we deny all of the ways that could actually make our country safer and suggest instead that all businesses should be required to be prepared for the event of mass murder, then we have succumbed to the “ambulance at the bottom of the cliff” mentality.

Before the filing of this civil lawsuit, I did not speak publicly about guns or violence against women regarding this case. I mourned with my community, but I have a voice and I will raise it now. I do not want to see the owner of the studio further victimized. A lack of safe exits was not what caused this tragedy. This violent crime, by a disturbed man, was aided by a culture that repeatedly misses the mark on protecting women and refuses to hinder profits from gun sales.

Anger Management: Armed with Only Words

At the end of Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom and Huck find Jim, who has been captured and held as a runaway slave, and they both propose plans to set him free. Huck suggests they simply steal the key and take Jim under the cover of darkness to the stowed raft, “Would that plan work?” asks Huck.

“Why cert’nly it would work, like rats a-fighting. But it’s too blame simple; there ain’t nothing to it,” responds Tom.

Then Huck suggests they get Jim out through the man-sized opening in the wall of the shed, and Tom suggests that instead they dig him out, “It’ll take about a week!” Then as Huck and Tom are in the room with Jim, going in and out freely, Huck notices that Jim is only chained to the bed post, which can easily be lifted up so that he can be freed. Tom suggests that instead they should saw the leg of Jim’s bed off, “You got to invent all the difficulties.”

“I wish there was a moat to this cabin. If we get time, the night of the escape, we’ll dig one,” says Tom. They steal sheets off the line so that Jim can fashion a rope ladder to escape from his single story wooden structure. Tom also suggests that Jim grow a flower and water it with his own tears.

When I teach this novel, I try to get my students to see this ridiculous scene in comparison to the opposition to end slavery. Setting people free is not all that complicated. It can be done with an announcement or the lifting of the bed post. And if you are a slave, do the details of the holdup really matter? Whether it is national division, the economy, oppression, racism, or two boys who want to have an adventure, whatever the cause, you are stuck in chains while someone else’s agenda takes precedence over your life.

And of course, Jim was already free. He was set free in Miss Watson’s will, and Tom knew it the entire time. The irony of this brings on a whole new discussion about the legacy of slavery and the nuances of freedom.

Right now, our government is Tom Sawyering the shit out of gun control. Instead of taking immediate action and working towards legislation that saves lives—doing the obvious things, like banning assault rifles, advocating for stronger background checks, longer waiting periods, increased age limits, required training, renewal processes, all things that law-abiding citizens should have no issue with and would be no real threat to their freedom, we are tying together bed sheets and digging a hole with spoons.

I have to talk about guns. Again. I already did this in Zombie Apocalypse when I tried to break down the semantics of the second amendment, but the second amendment is just a pawn being held captive, most likely at gunpoint, by a powerful lobbying group working to protect its profits and a population that lives in fear. America has a gun problem. But before we rehash this argument, the one where I metaphorically yell at the brick wall that is the NRA, I want to talk about something else.

When I was a teenager and even into my twenties, I would drink and drive. Regularly. Sometimes, I would even drink while I drove chanting, “You will have to pry my champagne flute and this steering wheel out of my cold, dead hand!” But then law enforcement started to take drunk driving more seriously, mostly because of the successful grassroots effort by MADD, so I stopped. I wanted to protect my right, because the only thing that will help drunk people get safely home is a less drunk person who can drive them. However, I did not want to get arrested. Also, a new culture emerged (eventually) post-MADD that exposed drinking and driving as shameful because it was a selfish act that put innocent people’s lives in danger.

MADD was birthed out of tragedy. Candy Lightner’s thirteen-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver in 1980, and she and close friend, Sue LeBrun-Green sought answers. They started at the DMV. Three years later, 129 anti-drunk driving laws had been passed. Their efforts focused on using testimonials. They put faces to the statistics and engaged emotional appeals—they made it personal. Before the 1980s, DUI bills were failing in congress, but in 1984 Reagan signed the National Minimum Drinking Age Bill, a measure specifically designed to discourage drunk driving, especially among young adults. According to MADD’s website, then Senator Elizabeth Dole recalls talking to the president, whose top advisors were telling him that this measure goes against his states’ rights stance, and he said, “Well, wait a minute, doesn’t this help save kids’ lives?”

Yes.

“Well then, I support it,” he said.

More than 32,000 Americans die by guns each year. Seven kids or teens are killed by guns EVERY DAY in the U.S. That is more than 2,500 kids per year (See EveryTownResearch)

Should I go on? I will because I would like to talk about regulations for residential swimming pools. Let’s look at the laws in say, Florida. According to Florida Statutes, if you have a swimming pool in your backyard, you are required by law to have a barrier that is a least four feet high, has no gaps or openings, and is at least 20 inches away from the pool. Your barrier must also have a self-latching locking gate or door that is only accessible from the inside. This is mainly to protect any random kids that could be wandering through the neighborhood, like maybe as they walk to the gas station to buy Skittles. I think the concept is that by locking the gate and thus denying access to the pool, then human lives might be saved. Basically, it is something that one household has to do on their own property to protect citizens they might not even know.

Of course, also according to Florida Statutes, if you have a loaded gun, you only have to lock it up if you “reasonably should know that a minor is likely to gain access to the firearm.” You have to keep your pool locked at all times because you never know, but guns only when you have a play date. And based on Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws, probably the best thing to do if a person does get into your pool enclosure because you have a faulty lock or left a ladder leaned up against the fence is to go ahead and shoot them for trespassing.

When something is dangerous to others, we enact laws to make that activity illegal, even if we know it is going to be impossible to completely eradicate. We make it illegal anyway. And the hope is that then people won’t commit that crime as often, like murder for example. Because jail sucks. And murder is, for most citizens, completely illegal. But we continue to sell products, over the counter, that make murder incredibly easy. Anyone can accomplish murder with a gun, even toddlers.

The inability of our country to do anything to make it even slightly more difficult to buy even the most dangerous guns is not about freedom or individualism or even the second amendment. There is an article on the website ArmedWithReason that debunks the myth that an armed citizenry prevents tyranny. Through historical analysis the article argues, “Militias are typically the gateway to tyranny, not the safeguard against it.” And the real problem for us as Americans is that as a country, we cannot agree about anything. What issue will cause us to rise up together and form a militia? When the government continues to restrict access to women’s reproductive health? When the government continues to allow Christian ideology to inform our legislation? When the government continues to actively discriminate against minority groups? I am guessing we will not agree, so if it comes down to protecting ourselves from a suddenly tyrannical government, it will be from small, disconnected, radical groups. And that sounds oddly familiar.

The real issue is that the lack of policy change about gun laws is the case of a singular group having the financial power to make their agenda more important than human lives.  If the box cutter industry had more money and better lobbyists, we would probably still be able to take those on airplanes. People would fight for their constitutional right to break down cardboard in-flight. The NRA sells fear, and fear is a wildfire. Gun sales spike after mass shootings, after terrorist attacks, after threats about gun legislation. It is a capitalist wet dream. Maybe even a capitalist centipede. Feed the fear and the people will keep taking shit. AR-15s are flying off the shelves right now after the deadliest mass shooting in modern history. Gun manufacturers are toasting their 12-ounce cans of America to the fucking profits.

And our government has their limp dicks in their hands. But they aren’t protecting the majority of constituents. Majority of Americans believe we need stricter gun laws, and we are most united in our opinion about the importance of stronger background checks. And less than half of American households have guns, broken up regionally, 27% to 38% of American households own guns, although southern whites own proportionately more guns (47% of Southern white households own guns), but black households are only half as likely to own guns, so that decreases the South’s overall percentage of gun ownership. Majority of gun owners are white, male, and tend to vote republican (see PewResearchCenter). This is interesting for multiple reasons, for starters because when the NRA became the force that it is today back in the 1970s, under the leadership of Harlon Carter, a man who at age seventeen shot and killed a fifteen-year-old Mexican kid who was armed with only a knife, and then later served as head of the U.S. Border Patrol, they did so by transforming a group that was more dedicated to hunting and sportsmanship into a fear mongering powerhouse that promotes personal protection.

Against gangs, rioters, home invaders, car jackers, terrorists, government invasion, zombies, spouses, black teenagers, and I guess even school children, movie goers, and nightclub patrons.

In Charlton Heston’s famous “Cold Dead Hands” speech, he states that wielding a firearm is the way to “defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away.” When I watch this speech, where he uses the term freedom in almost every sentence, I question what force is threatening his freedom? To what bed post is he chained? The only thing I can think of is that the haves must protect what they already have. If the individuals who already have the most power are also the individuals who own the most guns, then who should really be the most afraid?

For the most part, the citizens that support the NRA are being used as weapons—they are fired up to speak out and spread the propaganda. They get to keep their guns, yes, and they get a false sense of security—because if they have to take the gun out of your cold dead hand, then did it really do the job it was supposed to do? But people cling to this symbol of their personal freedom and protection. They put it on a bumper sticker. Just try and take my guns, they say, as the black and white drawing of a gun barrel points at me and my kids in our car waiting at the red light behind them. When a mass shooting happens, these same citizens post comments on social media about how there are lots of ways to kill people. Cain killed Abel with a rock, they say. You can kill someone with a baseball bat, they say. Great, then why do you care if someone takes your guns? Unless you own stock in a gun company (don’t get any ideas), you are losing just like the rest of us.

So why can’t we do for gun control what two dedicated women were able to do to combat drunk driving? The number of drunk driving deaths has declined by half since 1980. The citizen movement from Sandy Hook has used testimonials and pictures of first graders, so why are the photographs of these children not enough to get people to give up on a hobby and a false sense of security? What is it about guns?

Would banning assault rifles and passing stronger gun legislation save lives?

Yes.

Well shucks, Congress, then why don’t you support it?

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