By the Rev. Amanda Hendler-Voss
My son points the stick like he’s just back from the shooting range. “Pow,” he says, a mischievous glint in his eye. He already knows the family policy his older brother rattles off ambivalently: no gun play. I know what I’ve done, ushering in the romance of taboo, leaving unsatiated that great boy-hunger to play cops and robbers. They make do with swords and wrestling. My four-year-old lowers the stick and explains with excruciating patience, “Mama, I’m just pretending.”
But I’m jumpy, having just returned from Charlottesville, where people of faith and good conscience showed up to face down the doughy faces of a new generation of white supremacists. Those boys-trying-to-be-men who marched in helmets with bats, whose lips curled with disgusting sneers, they were once small boys too. What did their mothers say, or fail to say? How did their hearts atrophy into hatred?
The guns got to me–I’d never seen so many on an American street. The militia stood, legs wide, on the slope between Emancipation Park and the road, semi-assault rifles slung over their shoulders, white supremacists at their back. The clergy, unarmed, knelt in the street, Cornell West’s mutinous hair defying the breeze as they chanted, “Love has already won!” I stood behind him, praying for safety as tensions mounted. Media and onlookers huddled in small groups against the hum of unease, a parking lot of armed police officers stood strikingly still, a helicopter droned overhead. Later, there would be a military tank and riot gear, their armor contrasted against clergy collars, flesh, and sweat. This was a New-Old America, rife with guns and ready to rumble. A clergy colleague who works in global hot spots confirmed: It was a war zone in those streets. She did not speak in metaphor.
Las Vegas, too: a war zone. Pulse Night Club. Sandy Hook. As time creeps by, too many are inaugurated into this New-Old America, incident by armed-to-the-teeth incident. My child comes home from school saying, we practiced sitting in a closet with the lights off, we pushed the desk against the door. When did the right to purchase guns without background checks, to own and openly carry assault-style weapons–when did these so-called rights trump the safety of our children? Our kids face a preventable public health crisis: seven are shot and killed daily. Americans own 42% of the world’s privately held firearms, and over half of them owned by just 3%, so-called “super owners” who average 17 guns each. Homes with guns experience more suicides, accidental shootings, and homicides than those without. States with more guns have more gun deaths. The math adds up.
Most Americans believe the second amendment affords the right to own guns. Most also support common sense gun laws: universal background checks linked to a federal database, preventing domestic abusers and suspected terrorists from purchasing guns, a ban on assault weapons and large capacity magazines. The gaping breach between broadly held gun solutions and their enactment is deepened by the giant wedged between them: the NRA. Not only has it catapulted the right to carry concealed guns into places like churches, day cares, and public parks, it also pushed stand your ground laws which protect those who shoot in fear for their lives (even if such fear is grounded in scurrilous prejudice). Currently, the NRA offers Carry Guard insurance for such incidents, emboldening gun-owners to act first and sort out the details later with the help with “clean-up costs.” They are a Goliath of our times.
And yet as I look into the eyes of my child and see also the eyes of my father, I remember: they once said Tobacco was too big to fail and Nixon was decent, Harvey Weinstein just last month reigned over the film industry like a preening king never to be crossed. Times change, especially when whistles are blown, shenanigans investigated, and voices raised. This New-Old America where armed militia roam, where boys with helmets toss nasty chants like grenades, where rashes of shootings break out in churches, schools, and country music concerts, where our children cower in dark closets and our President hurls threats toward a nuclearized North Korea–this New-Old America; when will we muster the public will to say enough? Guns don’t save lives, they don’t protect us. Only we can do that.
The Rev. Amanda Hendler-Voss is a writer and an ordained, former pastor in the United Church of Christ. She resides in northern Virginia with her family.