Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Dead, for a ducat, Dead! Part 2-The Ducats

I changed my mind. Once my butt was firmly planted on a barstool, I ordered a Barbancourt neat instead of whiskey. I noticed that I was unaccountably angry, well, maybe not unaccountably. Account. Interesting word choice. The young woman who had held up the sign in the beginning of class was there too. We commiserated over our drinks for a while until she headed home, then I started dissecting my anger. I was trying to find the core and found that the core wasn't nice and tight like a pared down apple, it was more like a seed in the applesauce.

I felt a bit like an old timey scryer. Staring into the glass, the surface became an amber colored screen for a mental slideshow. Pictures of young men, black, white and latino, in orange jumpsuits. Sometimes their eyes showed trauma or surprise or fear, sometimes anger, sometimes nothing at all. Pictures of bright young faces in their eighth grade school photos, shiny and smiling, ready for a framed place on Grandma's mantel. Pictures of young men in white tshirts, their bodies in improbable positions, framed by yellow crime tape with a pool of something shiny and dark on the ground. Pictures of bereaved relatives on the news or at the funeral. Pictures of the Instructor, the other members of the class. The round, slightly ruddy face of the Police Chief, grainy video footage of a robbery from a convenience store, more of the same from a bar. Pictures of tables full of guns: pistols, revolvers, sub-machine guns, just like in the free encyclopedia but with somber police officers standing proudly behind the stacks. Gordon Liddy behind a table full of gold coins and bullion saying that this yellow metal will save me when times get tough as they inevitably will, never actually saying but clearly intimating that “they”, however you personally define “them”, will be coming for YOU and you better be ready. You'll surely need a gun or six to protect the gold ya know. Glenn Beck in a chalkboard frenzy screaming Van Jones, Van Jones, Van Jones-he's a liberal socialist with a socialist agenda bent on taking away your civil rights, and mark (socialist) my words, people, am I the only one that sees it? This guy is out (socialist) to change your way of life, not the America I know, and it's not cuz he's black (socialist) that I'm saying this, I'm just sayin' that he's a socialist and he wants to shit on the Constitution (cue tears) and stomp on the flag and you better get some guns to protect yourself before the socialist black guy tries to take your guns away—by the way do you need a Survival Kit for your bunker? Oh goodie. Now my slide show had a soundtrack. Sketchy white guys in tall foam rubber and mesh trucker hats outside a trailer next to a pickup truck complete with loaded up gun rack, a Confederate flag bumpersticker and a macho pose, speaking a readily identifiable proud-to-be-an-ignoramus dialect: Telling us about the Second Amendment, which may be the only one that they readily recognize, while stating with firm resolve that they are something that sounds like “Mur-i-kins.” Ten guys in camo on ATV's patrolling the border with scoped rifles and sidearms and handcuffs and not a badge among them ready to “catch” some goddamned pregnant wetback carrying an anchor baby intent on taking their jobs. I guess these testosterone and fear spiked guys all work as maids at the local Holiday Inn. A tastefully dressed and coiffed woman, wearing a crucifix pendant in 18K gold in the mega-church parking lot shows off the secret zip up compartment in her purse in which she carries her “made specially for women” Lady-whatever gun. A gorgeous tall thin babe in scanty clothes and a holster blasting away in hi def glory without ever ruining her makeup or moving beyond her mark by the wind machine so her hair streams in sexy fronds across her sweaty, determined but beautiful face as men 13-80 replay the scene in slo mo. Elderly men with angry faces, prone to saying “get off my lawn” and “turn that racket down” have guns in every room and one right there on the TV tray next to dinner. Men who grew up in a very different world, where people knew their place, and they by god aren't gonna stand by and watch it all go to. . . . .go to them, go to hell, go go go go. . . .I'm tellin' ya, it's going. The suburban soccer coach sobbing on the news saying, “I told Tommy never, ever to touch that gun. I kept it way up high in the closet. Who would have thought a six year old could get up there? My family and I feel terrible about this and we hope that Johnnie's family can find it in their heart to forgive us. It was an accident. A terrible accident.” The newscaster saying, “Six year old Tommy Smith is being questioned today in the death of his friend, five year old Johnny Martin. . .” Angry young men in Matrix trenchcoats with more guns and ammo than Rambo, purchased on Dad's credit card over the internet or by phone, shooting up the affluent high school or the University as helicopters fly overhead and the burghers are stunned speechless. News photographers reduced to tears at the sight of a young girl's head cradled in her father's arms, dead.

Hey, barkeep, mind getting me a beer in a really tall glass? And a semi-automatic pistol with a side of hollow points. Something's off with this rum.

So many scenes. So many motivations. So many accidents. So many deliberate acts. So many entertainments. So many. . . bullets, erupting, projecting, flying out of so many barrels of so many guns. BOOM. I'm so sorry. BOOM. I'm not sorry. BOOM. I didn't mean it. BOOM. “Honey, I love you so much. I regret that I couldn't take better care of you. Tell the children that I tried.” BOOM.

Okay, lemme stop ya right here. I am not saying that anyone but the person who pulled that trigger, except in the case of a kid getting hold of Daddy's Glock, is responsible. So don't start. I am saying that there is something that underlies the pulling of that trigger. And you know as well as I do, if you played back your own slideshow, that mine was just the tip of the proverbial iceburg.

What I realized was that I was angry about the wholesale marketing of fear and the gun being sold as the cure for that particular malady. It's also the cure for low self-esteem, free floating anxiety, the feeling of lack (aka greed), and anger stemming from someone disrespecting you. These diseases are contagious and the cure is lethal. I was angry that anyone would consider a possession, any possession, as inherently more valuable than a life, whether they were the individuals in possession of it or the individuals trying to appropriate it. I was angry that it was so easy to get hold of a gun, for anyone: kid on tiptoes on a kitchen chair in the closet, upstanding citizen at a sporting goods store, violent criminal choosing one from the unfolded blanket in the trunk of the local underground gun guy. Hell, I learned recently from an 11 year old that a gun can be rented for a specific time period at a specific price to be determined by the renter and that it had to be returned “without a body on it.” WTF? Why on earth should any 11 year old know this or even know that term? He might have seen it on TV. I really hope that's the case.

I was really furious at the folks like the Instructor, the gun manufacturers, the gun lobby, the scared-I'll-look-soft-on-crime legislators, the gun sellers-legal or illegal-who all make a ton of money feeding and growing that fear and churning out more guns, putting them into more hands in the doing. And not a one of them seem to feel any responsibility for the free fire zones we see in this country. Following the old adage, “find a hole and fill it,” they took it literally and are filling the hole by creating a different kind of hole. (The new and improved hole, thanks to our R&D wizards, is the BULLET hole. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, just take a look at our beautiful Rachel, isn't she beautiful, she's holding up our brand new Tektonik 1078, it's a beauty too. You can't have Rachel, chuckle chuckle, but for the low price of . . . )


Lucre. Spendolas. Bucks. Greenbacks. Cheddar. Dollars. Ducats.

Fear, guns and money are a bonanza. The manufacturers make them, lobby against restrictions, are (unlike car manufacturers who have been sued when their product killed too many folks) protected from liability, export them to regimes who then use them against us in battles all over the world. Lots and lots of money there. For them it's a win-win. The retailers mark them up and fill their cash registers. Ammunition manufacturers follow suit. Ammo retailers do the same. The NRA grows their war chest becoming more and more powerful with unprecedented amounts of cash. The guy down the block selling illegal guns makes a bunch, probably selling guns stolen from citizens, so one gun can be sold over and over from the time it comes out of the factory to the retailer to the citizen to the street gun seller to the out of the trunk purchaser.

From there, the money pot widens. Private security forces for gated communities paid high prices to keep the gun carrying bad guys away from the gun carrying good guys. Security systems with passcodes and lights and cameras, all money makers. Police, lawyers, judges, ambulances, news reporters, prisons, oh yeah, prisons and sheriffs and correction officers, whole towns whose economies are based on that lockup (Plantation System 2.0 or how to make money on the backs of people of color like we did in the old days); parole officers, drug testing labs, electronic bracelet developers, after market gun accessory companies making cases, high powered scopes, gun safes, gun locks; gun show producers collecting admission fees and booth fees, and the gun sellers who pay them; bulletproof glass makers, installers; doctors, nurses, hospitals, gurney makers, body bag makers. And let's not forget the morticians, the gravediggers and the florists.

I'm guessing someone will make an impassioned argument that they are the premiere job creators.

I am not being flip. Nor am I representing that all of these businesses or individuals are pro-gun, pro-violence or that they revel in the blood rivers in our streets. I am saying that that list, and I'm certain that I left a few groups out, are indeed part of the money honey pot one gun can create, nevermind millions of guns. That, my friends, seems crazy to me.

Years of talk radio, divisive fear mongering TV show hosts, slanted news coverage have all fueled the fear machine. Reliable gun stats are hard to come by. I've buried myself for days in pro-gun and anti-gun statistics. Sometimes the numbers are really close, just framed according to each side's particular bias. I'm going to settle on the number I saw most often: 14+ million guns sold in the U.S. in 2009. (Industry projections say that we have surpassed that number since the election of Obama, and that the numbers are trending higher in 2012.) The Instructor advised not buying a cheap gun, and told the class better to buy a more expensive gun that could be depended on. He used numbers like 300-500 dollars as sort of the low end. Certainly guns can be had even cheaper than that or much more expensive than that, but let's use the high number of the low end: $500, and multiply it by 14 million. Excluding accessories or ammunition, gun manufacturers made a minimum of $7 billion dollars in the United States alone in 2009. Plenty of ducats, eh?

Now, how about those nice folks I took the class with? They were nice people. I'd say if I'd asked each one, which I didn't, why they were considering gun ownership (if they didn't already own one—see previous post) or a conceal carry permit, they would all have said self protection or protection of property. Their property. Isn't that what produced a George Zimmerman? He appears to have been a basically decent guy, based on what people who know him are saying, but for whatever reason, that night he saw a young black man in his neighborhood, felt the need to protect that neighborhood, and called the cops. Even after the dispatcher told him not to follow the young man, Mr. Zimmerman did, no doubt in an effort to be a help to his neighbors and the police. At least that's the story. Had he done all that and not had a gun, he probably would not have approached Trayvon, or perhaps the whole thing would have ended with a couple of fists thrown. (Zimmerman claims Trayvon hit him. If I had a guy following me like that, who then approached me, I might hit him too.) But Zimmerman had a gun. On his person. My guess is his defense will be that he thought he'd just hold Trayvon (at gunpoint) for the cops. That gun made him a big man. Whether he was a racist in his daily interactions with people may or may not be an issue. What is an issue is that he absolutely profiled Trayvon (young, black, in a hoodie), had a gun on his person and pulled the trigger. On his person. A gun.

I can tell you that there were at least two people in the class I took that I'd really prefer not have guns on their persons. One was terrified and I think might hurt someone in a panic and the other had the “big man” syndrome going pretty strongly.

I don't think I'm entirely stupid (except in the fields of economic theory, surgical procedures, internal combustion engines, oh wait, this could be a pretty long list come to think of it). I don't sit here thinking for one minute that a gun free world is possible. In fact, I'd have to give a whole lot of thought to my philosophical stance regarding its desirability. I do admit to lusting after the low crime stats and gun limiting laws of other countries, and I really am baffled by the American love affair with guns even in the face of monstrous costs to life and the giant bogeyman--taxpayer dollars. I don't understand why, upon seeing kids killed or locked up for killing, we aren't screaming at the top of our lungs for solutions and regulations that might change that. Even the hardest hearted out there have to know that if they don't care about urban center violence (let 'em all kill each other), they probably do care if their brother blows his head off in a low moment because a gun was there instead of a baseball bat. (Some would be criminals have been rebuked with Louisville Sluggers, but I've never heard of suicide by baseball bat. However the stats I've been steeped in appear to show that possibly as many as 50% of the gun fatalities every year are suicides.)

The moaning over the crime rate. The lock 'em up mentality. The “I'll get a gun and they can't get me” thinking. All of this is strictly reactionary. The logical conclusion would be, upon seeing the carnage in this country that is directly tied to guns, to restrict and regulate them. For chrissake, DO something, cuz clearly what we are doing isn't working. Say that out loud in a bar or a town hall meeting and see how many catcalls you get. Immediate shouting will occur replete with the tired “guns don't kill people. . .” You can fill in the rest. Or “they can have my guns when they pry them from. . .” Or “you want to gut the Cons'tooshun, second amendment sez. . .” Or my personal favorite, “if they take our guns only the criminals will have guns.” Remarkably in countries with strict handgun laws that isn't what has happened. Nor has their government come to take them all away and put them in socialist re-programming camps. We have friends who live in Australia who are flabbergasted by our complete refusal to regulate handguns. When they ask us why, I really can't answer them with anything that approaches a rational statement. As for the criminals with arsenals:

Ya know, folks, a shitload of those criminals' guns came from YOUR house, YOUR car, YOUR closet, YOUR dresser drawer. Many were driven into your state after having been bought in a state with less stringent gun laws than your own, bought legally, transported illegally. Pay some fine upstanding citizen (on paper) to go to the local sporting goods store or the one in the more lenient state, have them get the background check, and they can walk out with several guns.

I called a local sporting goods store this morning. I told them I was considering purchasing a firearm and had some questions. I asked if there was a fee in addition to the purchase price of the gun for the background check. No. I asked how long it would take. The answer was that for most people it takes a minute or two, some others might take up to three days. (She said it as though she'd been coached to tell someone who sounded overly eager, ya know, like someone who might want a gun this afternoon to kill her wayward husband with after smelling the Chanel she doesn't own, when he comes in the door tonight, that it could take up to three days.) Either way, by Saturday I could have had one on each ankle, two in shoulder holsters, one in the back of my pants (just like in the movies, man!), another in my bag and one in my pocket. All with one free background check and enough cash to flash around. As long as I'm on my own property, in my house, my office (if I have a key, which is the key in that particular location, no pun intended) or my car, all that firepower would be legal. Again, yeah, I think that's nuts.

The American love affair with guns and money, along with the mass marketing of fear of the “other”, will be a roadblock to any slowdown in the blood letting. If we really want to change this situation, we're going to have to knuckle down and change some thinking, change our cultural view, and pass some laws that a lot of people won't like.

Some people and municipalities are already trying.

Next up: Dead, for a ducat, Dead! Part 3-Gun Laws and Culture

(It may be a week or so before Part 3 is done. I will be out of town next week so will be taking a break.)

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Dead, for a ducat, Dead! Part 1-The Class

A text message from a neighbor: “Did you see your mail today?” I hadn't. Intrigued I headed for the mailbox and saw what appeared to be junk mail. I turned it over, a large postcard type item, and saw that it was an announcement for a free one hour class to be held at a local coffee shop. The class topic was how to get a conceal carry permit, and it said the first ten people to show up would get a free encyclopedia of armaments: great full color pictures of pistols, revolvers and sub-machine guns. I was surprised that this particular coffee shop would have this class there. The place is routinely full of artist types, bicycles chained up on one side in the street, nice chats held out front. A regular gathering place for locals, its denizens would probably be labelled at first glance as having a bohemian liberal bias. Definitely not the kind of place I think of when I think of guns. At first I was just surprised and I tossed it into the trash. A few minutes later I was curious and retrieved it. I decided that I wanted to see which of my neighbors would attend, would want this kind of information, would think this was a good idea.

The night for the class came and I headed over. I passed some young people, one with a guitar, another with what looked like a portable chess set, as I made my way through the vegetation that constricts the sidewalk around the entrance. As I entered I was greeted by the barrista but it looked empty, so I walked into the next room. There was a fairly large table, a public pay by the minute computer or two, a couple loose chairs scattered around the walls. One young man with a blonde not quite mohawk and tattoos was completely focused on one of the computers. No time for distraction at these prices. At the head of the table and standing slightly to the side was a large man with a friendly smile and a former football player build. Wearing a casual shirt and camo cargo shorts, he looked to be in his late 40's or early 50's. He asked if I was there for the class. I said yes and he gave me the book and a CD of his local band, which he explained, he'd been told he couldn't sell on eBay because of an injunction filed by the Who Dat trademark owners. We talked about how silly that was and a black man, probably in his sixties who was already seated at the table with his book and CD, agreed. The large man straightened his glasses and said we'd give it a few minutes to see if more people would show up. His graying hair was well cut, his manners perfect, his personality outgoing. He was not the gung ho upcountry redneck I had expected and I was ashamed of myself for that assumption.

Just then a young woman walked in. I had already taken a seat at the foot of the large table and put a stenopad in front of me. I had also put my phone prominently on the table next to the pad. The young woman took a seat in a chair by the window behind me and said nothing. The young man at the computer finished what he was doing, looked at us and left. As we waited we chatted easily: he was a New Orleans native, grew up Uptown, went to Brother Martin. I asked how he made his living, he said he was a musician, a sometime real estate salesman (we bemoaned the economy), does some standby work for a local radio station if there's an emergency like a storm, and he said, he made his living doing this: Instructing and training people about guns, the laws involved in their ownership, and safety. I asked how he chose this neighborhood and he told me that he planned on doing this in other neighborhoods in weeks to come, and that this was just the first because the date worked.

As we chit chatted, others filtered in. First a 30-40 year old white man, dressed impeccably with a long white silk scarf, a Rolex, and beneath that, a collection of small beaded bracelets. He sat at the head of the table next to the Instructor. He was waiting for his partner he said. Next a woman in her 50's, fit, comfortably dressed, long neat gray hair, very interested and a bit nervous sat down to my right. These two were followed by a 50-ish professional man of mixed race, who said he was a professor at UNO; a 50-ish white guy with a graying well trimmed beard who sat in the back near the windows unobtrusively and looked like he was probably middle to upper middle class; a 60-ish white guy, probably blue collar with a Dogs and Generals tshirt; a late 30's white guy, upper middle class with what looked like a $200 haircut and pricy casual clothes who headed to a chair near the wall by the computer. Finally the owner of a local business and the owner of the coffee shop joined the group and we were a group of eleven excluding the Instructor.

Most of the people had come in looking around the room. They all looked vaguely uncomfortable, almost as though they wanted to be sure, extra sure, that no one thought they were gun nuts or militia types. It was interesting to watch them all size each other up, trying to divine the others' motives for being there. The Instructor retained his charming, chatty, smiling demeanor, welcoming each one as they came in and finally he introduced himself and explained what we were there to learn.

At that moment, the young woman who had come in early and had sat by the windows, unfurled a Day Glo orange posterboard. She looked solidly at all of us, held it up over her head to be sure we saw it. It read: “If you're afraid of your black neighbors, don't buy a gun. Move to Metairie.” The Instructor said he respected her point of view. A few respectful words were exchanged, with her explaining that she definitely saw all of this as a racial issue (she was white) and then she left. The Instructor didn't miss a beat, although some of the other attendees looked uncomfortable, the close-to-elderly black man was unfazed.

As he started the class I reached over to my phone, making sure that he saw me hit the audio record button. He had seen me scribbling on the stenopad, so it didn't seem to bother him. He started by asking if we already owned a gun. All but the last three to come in and myself said yes. The woman said her husband had a .45 but it was too big for her and she wanted advice on what gun to buy.

Over the next hour he explained various kinds of guns, recommending a .380 to the woman and quickly condemning the idea of a shotgun for home protection as being misguided. He explained that a revolver would pretty much never jam, bringing a self satisfied smile to the face of the man who said he owned a .38. He talked about gun safety, stressing training. He cited statistics of gun incidents in which a citizen had pulled a gun and no harm had come to either the “perpetrator or the carrier.” He talked a lot about defense of one's own life, quietly and expertly ramping up the level of fear without ever saying the hordes were at the gate. It was subtle and understated and smart. Someone asked where a gun could be kept without a conceal carry permit, where in a car can a gun be carried, what about open carry? The Instructor laughed his infectious hail-fellow-well-met laugh and said open carry was legal but you'd have to decide how often you wanted to be stopped by the police after someone called them saying they saw you walking down the street with a gun.

Then he suddenly stopped, took his watch off and seemed to fumble good naturedly with it, saying he was trying to find the stopwatch function. Then, almost as an aside he said, “They tell me that the response time in Orleans Parish to a 911 call is 9 minutes.” He then continued dispensing information and fielding questions. Does he recommend keeping it loaded? How about trigger locks? How about keeping the ammunition separate from the weapon? He confidently answered with only a tinge of machismo scented swagger. Steady and responsible, training training training. Firm confident voice. No Elmer Gantry of guns here. No histrionics, no NRA militantism. He was more like a master poker player, continuing to build the fear by increments, looking at his cards without making a move while the whole table waited to see if he was going to call, fold or go all in, forcing the players in the direction he wanted them to go with the psyche factor alone. It was impressive manipulation.

He talked about carrying a gun from state to state. He said that most states have a conceal carry law and will respect one from another state, but you'd have to check that out on your own. He did get the states that do not have conceal carry on their books wrong. (After looking it up, it would appear that the seven states he cited mostly have conceal carry and reciprocity, although some of the laws in some states are so byzantine that it would be hard to know precisely what is allowed and what isn't. From what I can tell, pretty much only Illinois doesn't have it, but that's a story for later.)

People started asking about the paperwork, how long will it take and what's needed. He started to explain, then BEEP BEEP BEEP. He picked up his watch and grinned. “That's nine minutes. A lot can happen in nine minutes, huh?,” he said with a laugh. There were audible gasps as the fear continued to climb. “Bring your divorce papers,” he laughed. “They'll want to see those along with all your other documents.” Now people were asking questions rapid fire. How much? Mail or go to the place? How long is it good for? Fingerprints?

Now came the pitch: He can help. He can help you choose and purchase a weapon. He'll come to your house and train you. He'll take you to the shooting range. One on one will cost $175, two people, for instance you (he looked at the woman) and your husband $150. He can help you with all the paperwork, he has copies of all the forms and affidavits. Of course you'll need to get them notarized, but how fortuitous, one of his relatives is a notary and will do it cheaply. The fingerprinting and background check will have be done, he can't do that but he will tell you where to go. He explained the fees and said he offers group classes, but it was clear that most of these folks would probably opt for the private ones. He can also offer home security advice.

Sadly, he saw no irony in the fact that the money for gun permits goes to the Department of Safety and Corrections.

People started asking where to buy a gun. There was some discussion about Brady Laws and gun purchasing, and an explanation once more about where you can keep a gun without a conceal carry permit. I asked about the complete lack of regulation at gun shows (he said, “They're supposed to do a background check on the spot.” “Yeah, but they don't for the most part,” I said. He nodded.) and in one to one sales. He conceded that both gun shows and one to one sales are virtually unregulated with little to no oversight and even less enforcement of laws that may be on the books.

The attendees talked to him and each other. Their tone was a little bit bravado, a whole lot fear. Mention was made of the middle school kids who had been shot a couple days before. Everyone measured their words. Careful. Careful. The quiet ones remained quiet. The white silk scarf looked for his partner, then at his Rolex, then at the door again, clearly perturbed. Dogs and Generals guy had that gleam that affirmation of one's already deeply held beliefs brings to the eyes, lighting up his slightly rough face. The Instructor exhorted, “Training, training training! We learned in Florida recently what a lack of training can do.” He followed that remark with a slight, tight chuckle. The Professor asked me if I was going to do it: get a conceal carry permit, or for that matter, a gun.

Everyone looked at me. “No, sir. Definitely not,” I said. The Instructor looked at me like a priest patiently forgiving a recalcitrant sinner. “I didn't think so,” he said quietly. I waited a second, steeling my courage, took a deep breath and said, “Many years ago I was raped. A gun at my temple, a pillow over my head. In my own bedroom on the fourth floor of an apartment building. My window was open and the fire escape was right there.” The group stared in disbelief, some squirming, the woman to my right horrified. I continued, “Short of having a gun strapped to my naked hip, I can't see how a gun would have helped me do anything but get killed. And even then his trigger finger would have been faster than any movement I could have made to retrieve the weapon.”

The whole place went silent and everyone stared uncomfortably. The Instructor, regaining his poise, said “I'm sorry that happened to you.” Then turning his face to the group he said, “But that's not how things usually happen, and don't you want to give yourself a chance?”

It was a bravura performance. When he closed out the class, the silent guy by the window applauded. The others looked confused, but a couple of them half heartedly clapped their hands a few times, then each looking at the other, they converged on him to ask a private question or two. The Instructor smiled patiently and took them one by one, a stack of business cards sat on the table in front of the empty space where the free gun encyclopedia copies had been, a couple of CD's left for the taking.

I headed out the door toward whiskey.

Dead, for a ducat, Dead! Part 2: What did I take from all this?