Gunning for Answers

Here we go again … another mass shooting by a “crazed young kid”, spreading senseless death in a previously quiet community. This time it struck a nerve, however, that previous mass shootings haven’t been able to reach, irrespective of their horrendous impact on the lives of the affected, witnesses, survivors, and bereaved families. But seriously, who shoots sweet little six year olds? Why would or could anyone be able to do such a thing? Watching Robbie Parker, the bereaved father of one of the victims, six year old Emily Parker, remember the life of his daughter was one of the most heart wrenching yet beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I sincerely hope he finds a way to preserve the love he’s demonstrated in his speech. He and his appear to be a beautiful family.

Finally, there is a drive for action in response to the events in Newtown. The NRA kept smartly quiet, until they came out today and announced a press conference … for Friday Dec 21st, three days before Christmas, and the day the world, if the hype about the Mayan calendar is to be believed, will supposedly come to an end. The powerful gun lobby is on the back foot, however. Even Rupert Murdoch, the epicenter of the right-wing echo chamber, has been tweeting about needing more gun control, and his New York tabloid, the Daily News, ran a picture of Congress covered in blood on its front page today, loudly demanding action. Legislation to ban assault weapons is bound to be introduced in both houses of Congress shortly, which is a good thing, as I don’t believe that guns designed for battle fields have a place in civil society. Still, I’m not certain that that will suffice in preventing a repeat of the killings in Newton, Aurora, and other places.

I grew up surrounded by guns. My father was an arms dealer, owning a small gun shop in Zurich, Switzerland. We had them at home, often out in the open: revolvers, rifles, shotguns, machine guns, and even a fully functioning decommissioned Swiss Army anti-aircraft canon out front greeting our visitors, it’s 500 caliber barrel reaching for the sky from between the bushes my mother had planted to hide its presence even a little. We went to arms fairs twice a year, when my father went there to sell some of his wares to the visiting public. My first job was acting as a translator between English, French, and German to a British arms dealer who needed help interacting with the local townsfolk, often not fluent in English, which got particularly interesting since at the beginning I couldn’t tell the difference between a Colt and a Winchester, let alone did I know all the technical terminology in any of the three languages … I remember watching countless arguments, often spanning the entire night over a bottle or more of brandy, about the merits of a .45 caliber over a .22 caliber, different firing pins or even whether the color of the blueing impacted a gun’s performance. One of my father’s closest friends rented a hangar at a nearby airport to store his collection of army tanks. He was also the head of Zurich’s state police … Other characters I encountered in those years ranged from the droll to the bizzarre, but none of them ever seemed inclined to commit mass homicide. Neither did I ever feel it incited me to any violence. To this day I’ve never shot a gun in my life, and I’ll quite happily keep it that way. I’ve never felt any desire to possess my own gun.

One big factor in that last part is probably due to the fact that I was exposed to the devastating effect a gun in the wrong hands can have upon a life and a family at a very young age. When I was eight, my father was shot in his store by a young kid, all of 18 years old and never in trouble with the law before, who wanted to know what it felt like to murder somebody. That kid didn’t own a gun, but he brought some ammunition to my father’s store, asked to see a gun that matched it and while my father was distracted on the phone, loaded the gun and aimed at my father’s head. My father, hearing the tell-tale sound of a clip being slapped into place, turned around and threw himself behind the counter. Yet, the kid fired two rounds, one hitting the wall behind my dad, the other entering his body about one inch below his heart.

We weren’t at the store when the shooting happened, but when we arrived my father had just been taken out in an ambulance. When we entered the store’s showing room, a big pool of blood and a hole in the wall were still visible. I knew that blood belonged to my father. I’ll never forget starring at it.

My father survived the shooting, by the skin of his teeth, but never recovered from it. The bullet had gotten lodged in the spine between several nerves running from the legs up his back. At first, the doctors tried to leave the bullet in, fearful they might paralyze my father by removing it. But then the tissue surrounding the bullet got infected, and it had to come out, lest my father would die from the infection. The doctors were confronted with a very difficult choice: Either to paralyze my father and confine him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, or let him die from the infection. We, the family, were grateful they chose the former. I know my father sometimes wished they had done the latter.

The shooter was apprehended and brought to trial, but him being only 18, a minor according to Swiss law at the time, the maximum sentence he could receive was nine years of imprisonment, which he also received. However, that meant that with good behavior the Swiss prison system would start resocializing him after half the time served, letting him out on occasional furloughs. One one such furlough the kid, now a grown man, got hold of another gun and shot a young postman, father to a two and a four year old, carrying out letters in his parents’ neighborhood. This time he accomplished his mission. The poor postman died, and two children were orphaned, before the shooter got reapprehended and this time locked up in a mental institution for life, without the possibility of parole. My father had warned the police about the crazed look he saw on the kid’s face when he was shot, pleading with them to give this kid some mental care. However, in custody the shooter was a perfectly behaved young kid, so he didn’t get the treatment that may have saved the postman’s life.

Gun laws in Switzerland at that time were fairly restrictive. While every adult male who served in the army had a machine gun at home along with a sealed pack of 200 rounds of live ammunition, the purchase of hand guns and semi-automatic rifles required obtaining a licence, which was only issued to citizens who were at least 20 years old, without a criminal record, and passed a thorough background check. Each new purchase required a new license, and a new background check, and the police was allowed to come visit gun-owners’ homes to ensure proper storage and handling of licensed weapons.

I’m telling this story, because I believe it shows that gun laws alone will not prevent gun violence, let alone mass shootings. A determined mind, such as my father’s shooter who was unable to legally purchase a handgun due to his age, will find a way to get his hands on a weapon. What will be required is diligent enforcement of gun regulations, which begins with those who sell the weapons to the public. I’ve witnessed several occasions where my father refused the sale of a weapon, because he felt uncomfortable with the person wanting to buy, even if the paperwork was in order, and the proper licenses were presented. Assault weapons and semi-automatics should not be for sale at the supermarket, or at all in my opinion. Any weapons should be sold by highly trained personnel, who can, in addition to conducting thorough background checks, screen for troubled personalities. Yet, even that wouldn’t have stopped Adam Lanza, since his mother was the one purchasing the guns.

More importantly, however, I think we need to rethink how we as a society handle conflict with each other, and how we administer mental care to the most vulnerable amongst us. I don’t believe that having Aspergers’ Syndrom alone triggered the violence in Newtown and I find any reporting insinuating that highly irresponsible. I know several Autistic children, and have run arts education programs servicing that population for several years. Yet, I have never experienced outright violence in any of these children. If anything, any violent behavior I saw seemed inward-oriented, as two of the Autistic children I knew have committed suicide in their teens, once they began to realize how different they were from their peers.

What troubles me about the shooter of Newtown is how he disappeared from the community in the few years before his actions. What led to that we may never know, but I ¬†believe that with better integration, maybe some clues could have been picked up, or such actions been prevented. We can’t segregate those we find troublesome from our communities, simply because they are demanding or difficult. Any community is only as strong as its weakest link. It takes a village to raise a child, and I think it’ll also take each and every village to prevent such violence from ever happening again.

One good thing I found on twitter after the Newtown shooting was the #20acts campaign, calling upon people to do one good deed for every child murdered last Friday. If we instilled this in our society, I think we’d come a long way in preventing further violence. Go talk to your neighbor, hug a friend, help an old lady cross the street or carry home her groceries. Robbie Parker preached love in response to the violent death of his beloved daughter. I think he is right.

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