May 14, 2022, Buffalo, N.Y. May 24, 2022, Uvalde, Texas. June 1, 2022, Tulsa, Oklahoma. June 4, 2022, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. July 4, 2022, Highland Park Illinois. These cities and the events that took place there are horrific, yet far from being outliers.
This year, there have already been at least 330 mass shootings across America through the first half of July. More than 300 times in this great industrialized civilization, men, women, and children have been killed, shot, maimed, injured, or otherwise traumatized as a result of violence perpetrated by other people using guns as the tool of choice. Please note my reference to guns as a tool and not as a problem source or solution.
As I mark my 51st year on this planet, I have had the unfortunate opportunity to witness the debate about guns and rights of ownership rise and ebb based on whatever the most recent tragedy happens to be. As a child of a military veteran who grew up in the Cold War era, guns and violence were never foreign to me as a concept. Mix that with a heavy diet of Westerns, where a six-shooter was the “problem solver” and you may begin to get an idea of how easy it was for my young brain to rationalize a gun being an appropriate means of expression.
Once the era of crack and gangs hit Sacramento, California and met my poor decision-making skills, it was not long before I was holding my first gun, which I believed to be an extension of my person. I was thirteen the first time I saw another human lying lifeless from a gunshot wound. I was fourteen the first time I pulled a trigger myself with the intent of terminating a life. From there, it was a string of events that ended with me serving over 28 years inside of correctional settings, 24 of those as a result of a life sentence.
As a nation, we express sorrow over the loss of life and then outrage over the fact that “it happened once again.” We look to our elected leaders to provide answers that will soothe us; they pontificate and lob recriminations across the aisle at each other. We get tired that nothing of substance comes to light, and as time marches on, we forget. The flowers wilt….the candles burn out…and we move on…until the next time. And when that “next time” comes, we fall into whatever camp of thought feels correct to us. “Guns are the problem! We need stricter laws and bans!” “The Second Amendment protects my right to own and the criminal element doesn’t follow laws anyway!”
I am not here with an arrogant position of having an answer that solves any of this, but I do know that our children are being slaughtered at school. A place that should be safe. People are being slaughtered in grocery stores, on trains, in hospitals, at clubs. Places they should be safe. People want to feel safe. People want to feel their rights are protected. What stands out to me as the common denominator is “people.” I work in a sector focused on public health and it is difficult to watch us, as a people, continue to divide and be divided like this in the face of an obvious public health crisis that harms us all. We look to the courts for solace and as they strike down individual rights for women….they uplift protections for guns. They are not the solution we so desperately need.
What seems to be missing to me is the connection that we, the people, might just be both the source of the issue as well as one of many possible solutions. To be transparent, I am someone who has used guns and other “tools” in my past as a means of force over other human beings. I can speak to where I was internally as a person. In the capacity that I serve today, I have the chance to sit with a lot of people who have been close to violence—gun violence in particular—either as victims or perpetrators. There are always themes. Fear, pain, trauma. The ability or willingness to “other” another human or the experience of being “othered”.
When I was making the choices in my life to harm other people, I was not at all connected to my own humanity. I was able to rationalize my actions as justifiable because I allowed what was present or lacking within me to project outwards. That was a problem. It was not just a problem for me, it was a problem for anyone that happened to be in the “wrong place at the wrong time” and that “place” was always someplace they should have been safe. It took me quite a bit of time to learn that I was the problem, and on a deeper level to realize that, lacking a personal connection to other human beings, I was one of the contributing factors to being fine with seeing another person in pain when it did not have to be so.
What I have noticed more of since I returned to my humanity and society is that collectively, we are growing further away from our shared connections. Red vs Blue….Black vs White….Man vs Woman…Gun Rights vs Anti-Guns….Pro-Life vs Pro-Choice….all adopted titles and -isms that serve to separate and make someone “the other.” Something other than human. Something other than valuable. I can share with you from personal experience: when it is possible to view someone as other than human, it is a lot simpler to be indifferent to—or, worse: content with—their demise. Each of these positions we are resigned to considering intractable. And yet.
As with other people that many in society considered to be irredeemable, I learned how to reconnect. I learned how to have a meaningful conversation that didn’t devolve into right versus wrong. I learned how to really see the humanity in people. I learned how to appreciate the fact that, despite varied backgrounds and life experiences, at our core, we have more similarities than differences. But more importantly, I learned how to see people and let them see me. I learned the value of freedom—not physical freedom—freedom that comes from feeling the security of being able to be who I am and honoring another enough to celebrate them in their freedom as a person. Sadly, I don’t see a lot of that as a practice in our society today. That hurts my heart deeply. As an individual, I know what can be a result of that. Over 330 times this year, we have seen what can be some results of these types of “lack.”
Is it a matter of mental health? Spiritual health? The criminal mind? I am not qualified to make that call, but I am qualified to take note that our children are dying. Our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends, and neighbors are dying at an alarming rate, and it feels like we are cool with growing into apathy around this. Growing into a sense of “Oh well, this is just how it is and it won’t change”. Our children are dying! This is an “us” issue, and we will only begin to heal this together!
People are pulling the trigger on these guns: we are failing our people. In failing our people, we fail our children. I do not believe it to be as simple as saying the people who would do such a thing are going to do it no matter what. According to statistics, I was either supposed to die in prison or return there not long after my release.
What is taking place currently doesn’t seem to be working. What if, instead of resigning ourselves to our isolated suffering, we all tried to “check in” with another human and ask how they are? What if we did so and requested more than the socially acceptable, “I’m fine”? It seems to me that we are not as “fine” as we present to the world. Or perhaps we are fine with blood in the streets, followed by a moment of silence and held breath until the next tragedy.
When I consider where we are when it comes to guns, people, and death, I can’t help but take note that the majority of the incidents that occur have a male pulling the trigger. What is the source of this fact? As a facilitator with Inside Circle, I sit in circles with young men across the country and around the globe, encouraging them to share openly in a space where they will be heard. Inside Circle is a nonprofit organization with the mission of empowering system-impacted people to lead change from within. The organization’s healing circles began in New Folsom prison following a deadly racial riot in 1996 and focus on supporting the healing of deep emotional trauma, vertical emotional learning, and the development of empathy, effective communication, and conflict resolution. Sitting in these circles, a question that always comes up is: “What is it that can push you to bring harm to another person?” The usual answer is: “When I feel disrespected.”
To begin: “disrespected” is not a feeling. That is a judgment or projection about an action or circumstance. What I learned with this work in supporting these men is that there is room for tremendous misunderstanding and conflict when we mistake judgment and projection as feelings and react from that dynamic. Unfortunately in our culture, it has not always been masculine or manly to say; “that hurt my feelings” or “that makes me sad or embarrassed.” It’s much more acceptable and common to hear a man say “I am pissed off” or to speak of being “disrespected.” This speaks to a fundamental lack of emotional illiteracy.
When I was suffering from this issue myself, I was a dangerous being. It was easy and comfortable for me to “other” people, or to view and treat people as less than human. Coming from that frame of mind, hurting, maiming, or killing someone was a perfectly rational thing to do, because they were something other than human. And when it is acceptable for me to see you as less than, anything goes.
Guns are a tool. Sometimes that tool is used by people as an instrument of death towards others. A recurring theme that I come across in the circles that I sit in is that our young men have not and are not regularly nurtured in their emotional well-being, or the ability to express their internal landscapes in a healthy way. Traditionally, we cultivate our young males to embrace anger as an acceptable emotion to express. We devalue sorrow, shame, and fear as weaknesses, and joy is limited to celebrating around vanquishing our foes. This is not a healthy way of being. This is not a human way of being.
The sadness I feel when I witness the perpetual cycle of violence being used as a means of expression, mostly by males, is that there are usually warning signs that demonstrate a lack of healthy emotional self-regulation. I see it when I go into adult prisons, juvenile detention centers, community events or corporations. What I experience is that we are failing to support our little boys in being all right with sorrow. We are failing to encourage our young men to explore the comfort of being with their shame. We are not encouraging our young males to sit with fear and process it in a healthy way. These are very real emotions that, when left unchecked to fester, will manifest in ways that can be not only unhealthy, but deadly. We both support and encourage our young ladies to explore these same emotions. Where is this encouragement for our young males? When do we begin to invest in the entire being of our young men? When do we begin to recognize that this is an investment in our own safety and collective well-being?
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