“Please explain the specific situation you would need to kill so many people in one minute like you can with a military grade assault weapon,” my niece questioned her grandmother under the photo my mother had posted of a woman holding an AR-15 style gun shortly after the shootings in El Paso and Dayton. “An armed citizenry is the best way to deter an oppressive government,” my mother defended her stance.
As I watched them go back and forth, my niece being dismissed over and over agin, I could only think: None of this makes sense. I grew up in an anti-gun household.
A child of the 80’s, in the height of the Super-Soaker and Nerf gun era, I was not allowed to touch either one. I was not allowed to play with the little colored water pistols that seemed omnipresent at the time. I was not allowed to play paintball. I was not allowed to be like other children. We were an anti-gun household.
Somewhere along the line, the worship of guns had become a fundamental doctrine of the political religion my parents practice. It was now a necessary shibboleth of this religion where joking about shooting people on 5th Avenue and still getting elected desensitizes one to the fears of the children among us.
It was not always this way.
In the fall, once hunting season began, I was not allowed to play outside as a child. One close call too many had made my parents decide that it seemed better to keep the kids inside for months on end, than risk another close encounter with the hunters who resented the boundaries we tried to assert when we moved to my grandfather’s house in the woods outside Philadelphia and invaded “their” territory.
From October through Christmas, once bow-hunting season ended and gun-hunting season began, I was terrified to leave my house. Our property was a favorite spot for killing deer, and the hunters did not care how many signs we put up or how many calls we made to the County or the State Police. Nothing we did seemed to matter. They would walk right up to the border of our yard if they wanted. They would shoot bullets through the “No Hunting” signs until the tattered metal was no longer legible. They felt entitled to kill things on our property, and their constant intimidation limited the carefree nature of my childhood. I was always looking for orange clothes, bright clothes, something that would keep me safe.
I was a sophomore in High School, more concerned with AP classes than with playing outside, when heavily armed teenagers walked into Columbine High School and changed reality for my generation and those that have followed. I was the same age as the kids they killed in 1999, and the same age that my niece is now in 2019.
All these 20 years later, when the shooting in Parkland happened, my niece was one of the many brave students around the country who led walk-outs at their schools to demand action. Watching her fearlessness and compassion, I felt overwhelmed with pride for who she is, but I also felt remorse.
It hurt so much to know that she has to feel the fear that I felt at her age. I wished that my generation had been able to stop this. I wished that we had the capacity to do more.
As I watched the alacrity and eloquence with which her generation responded, I reflected back on the shock that we felt at her age. What a different childhood they must have had from us – a childhood that required of them this capacity for maturity and leadership. We were still children in a way that they are not. We were still given the space to recover in our bubble of shock in a way that they have never been permitted. These shootings do not come as a surprise to them, and what a tragedy that is.
They have been watching the adults and politicians and people with power in their lives allow kids their age to be murdered their whole lives long. My niece was a couple years older than the kids that were murdered at Sandy Hook, and she grew up watching the majority of people in this nation do absolutely nothing to stop more of her generation from being invaded in the places where they ought to be safe. I could have done more. I should have done more. I wish I had done more.
I remember seeing the black revolver that the nice retired couple from my home church liked to leave out on their kitchen table when I came over, in order to make a statement. The way that I had grown up made this torture for me, I was terrified to be around the guns that they casually left in front of me in order to make a political statement. It grated against everything that my parents’ had raised me to believe, and like a cat being pet the wrong way, I fought the urge to react. I wish I had. I wish I had raised holy hell. I wish I had spoken up and confronted the leadership of my home congregation, back in another era, back when they listened to me. I wish I had told my pastor how much it broke my heart that he permitted a radicalizing environment to flourish in the congregation. I wish I had told him how confused I was that he seemed so kind, but permitted so much unkindness to grow around him.
I could have done more. I could have said more.
Instead I’ve spent my life trying to prove quite a different point. Rather than fighting the power of guns, I have fought to disprove the power of guns. I have fought to show that truth and kindness and courage is more powerful than fear and racism and control. I have put my body in front of guns again and again to disprove their power. I have fought fear with every inch of my being. I have faced death in order to break its power.
I faced those guns unarmed in order to reveal that the power I serve and the power I fear is the power of God. I faced them unarmed to show that “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” I did it to reveal the heresies of racism and the hypocrisy of those who sit in pews on Sunday and serve the god of violence on Monday.
I spent the first half of my life terrified to be around guns, and the second half of my life trying to show that there are things that are more powerful than artillery. I fought guns with faith, with hope, with love, with perseverance. I refused to let them control me anymore.
Somehow, while I was looking one way, the guns were advancing in another direction. I never thought that I would have to worry about them coming into my parents’ home. When hunters’ guns surrounded my house and killers’ guns came into our schools, my parents’ house had been the one place in the world where I could trust I would never find them.
Yet, now, the same parents who forbid me to touch brightly colored pink transparent water pistols as a little girl, now own guns themselves. Now defend guns themselves. Now glorify guns themselves.
My niece closed one of her arguments with this plea, “I’d like to think the people who love me want me to be safe.”
We need to do better. My generation did not have the preparation to be the ones that could stop what is happening to kids in classrooms and Walmarts and concerts now, but we get it. We know what this fear feels like, we know what this fear tastes like. We know what it is to know where the exits are and not want to go to school the next morning after a shooting. We know that this is a different fear than the one felt during the Cold War, because those bombs never dropped on the desks our parents hid under – but these bombs, these bullets, are falling on their grandchildren constantly. Our kids are not in a training exercise, they are in the trenches.
I am so sorry. This burden does not belong to you, but you have taken it up. We must do a better job of showing that we stand behind you. You are loved, deeper than words, which is why the only thing sufficient to show you how much you are loved is action.