Sunday, 13 January 2013

I kicked the hornet nest and the hornets had guns

About three weeks ago on Twitter, I posted a tweet that provoked a huge reaction. Even now, it is still occasionally being Re-Tweeted and has been shared nearly 500 times the last I looked. 

It was my reaction to the National Rifle Association's (the right wing group that ferociously supports gun ownership within the US) response to the horrific slaughter of Sandy Hook Elementary School children in Connecticut. Their remedy to this most dreadful of events was to suggest placing an armed guard or two in every school in that country.

Not unlike many people, the thought of this horrified me. When you're living in a land of over 11,000 gun related murders a year, the thought of trying to remedy this by introducing even more guns defies logic. Plus it's all the worse when you consider the potential consequences of having guns permanently within such close proximity to groups of children. When did fighting fire with fire solve anything?

One of the main arguments gun enthusiasts use to justify their ownership is of course the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution - the decree that the public may bear arms (despite the fact that two centuries ago, guns were more like pea shooters and incapable of inflicting mass casualties in a short period of time). It's this entrenched mindset that I really sought to question and so my tweet read thus:

"Maybe within the evolution of a peaceful society, a right that was written 225 years ago, has now been outgrown & become unnecessary"

Now, expressing something that you feel quite deeply about in just 140 characters is not always an easy task, especially for someone like me who could answer even a simple question like whether I wanted a cup of tea with a couple of sides of A4, weighing up the pros (nice taste and health benefits) and cons (making me get up in the night to wee like a race horse). And yet this forced brevity cuts out the waffley fat and compels you to choose each word carefully. 

The point I really wanted to get across was that nothing in life is permanent and set in stone. Everything changes. Even the most worthwhile beliefs and rules eventually outlive their usefulness and have to adapt and change themselves in order to remain effective. Even a constitutional right shouldn't, in my opinion, contribute to or justify the horrendous slaughter of innocent people (whether that be in a school, cinema, shopping mall or wherever).

Of course, I appreciated that this kind of stance would not be to everyone's taste. This is why I tried to frame it in a really gentle way. The 'maybe' at the start, is just an invitation to give this idea some thought. I'm not suggesting it's definitely right. All I would want is for people to consider the possibility that there are good reasons to make some changes and ponder on what the best course of action might be, rather than jumping automatically back into a mindset that has been passed onto them for generations that almost worships this type of weaponry.

It's hard to say for sure, but the feeling I got (and that's all I have to base this on, nothing more concrete) was that the vast majority of people who shared this tweet were sympathetic to the intention behind it. This really encourages me, but I wasn't looking to preach to the converted on this issue. I really wanted to sow a seed of possibility in the minds of those people who aren't usually open to considering other points of view.

And boy oh boy did my tweet reach those people! Whether it did anything to change their minds on anything by even a micron I will never know. It's entirely possible it just made them more defensive and fixed in their views than ever. Who can say? But I'm pleased to have made some kind of contribution to the debate if nothing else. 

you can’t say that, it’ll end free speech

As expected, I received many, many responses from outraged citizens of the US who were enraged by what I had suggested.

One of the main reactions was to deflect away from the debate entirely and suggest that by adjusting or removing the 2nd amendment, we may as well do away with the whole constitution altogether, especially the 1st amendment relating to free speech. 

I found this really interesting. Instead of having a debate on gun controls, which given the circumstances was desperately needed and sensible to have, many gun supporters tried to move the discussion onto a thoroughly ridiculous proposition - the removal of free speech.

Pretty much everybody would agree that free speech is a wonderful thing that should be encouraged. Of course I wasn't suggesting any change to that. But I guess it's easier to argue against someone who is proposing something absolutely ludicrous, rather than the point in hand.

peace? what peace?

Another popular comeback was based around my suggestion that society is peaceful. Many people argued that we actually live in a dreadfully violent society and therefore "we need guns now more than ever".

I appreciate that this may have been easy to misinterpret - especially given that the way most people consume information on Twitter happens very rapidly, often with little attention paid to the subtle details. The key here was to read and understand the word 'evolution' as well. 

I'm not saying that society is entirely peaceful. Obviously it varies from place to place and time to time, depending on a wide variety of circumstances. It was more a suggestion that the aspiration of any civilisation is to grow and develop into as peaceful a place as possible. All citizens benefit from this and my belief is that deep down in the hearts of us all, we desire peace and harmony. Although there is drama and trouble on the surface of our lives much of the time, stability and peace is a state we would all like to strive for.

In summary, 'evolution of a peaceful society' points to where we would like to go, not where we are right now.

why do you even care a bunch of kids got killed?

Although it went largely unnoticed by many of my correspondents, some did realise that I was British (a 'red coat' according to some). Why are you even interested in any of this, they asked. I explained that, the culture of the US is pervasive, seeping into most of the rest of the world. Not to mention that a school massacre had just taken place and maybe an impartial observer is better placed to offer some ideas on how to solve the problem. 

This met with one of the most disturbing responses I received to my tweet. The gist of it was that school massacres happen all the time, everywhere. It's only because the USA is so prominent that theirs gets world attention. Basically, the Sandy Hook incident was just an everyday occurrence across the globe. A symptom of modern society that can be brushed off like car accidents and spam emails.

was Jesus packing a piece?

A fairly common characteristic of the gun supporters who contacted me was, according to their Twitter bios, that they were Christian. 

Now, the last thing I want to do is get embroiled in a religious debate. But it did occur to me that, so far as I understand it, Jesus never carried a weapon. His teachings of forgiveness and healing, of 'turning the other cheek' seems to me to be a philosophy at odds with someone who wishes to mete out their own justice with a firearm. 

I was genuinely interested to see how people squared these two conflicting views, but unfortunately, the conversation was always terminated by them before an answer was offered.

it's just not cricket 

My communications also revealed many, what I would describe as 'misconceptions'. It worried me that that these were sincerely held views, genuinely believed by those who offered them.

For example, someone was convinced that in the UK, 'the weapon of choice is a baseball bat'. This person thought that, because every normal person would want to arm themselves, in this country where private gun ownership is minuscule, we all have a baseball bat under our beds.

When I pointed out that I know of nobody here who owns a baseball bat, they conceded that it must, in that case be a cricket bat that we all have instead (alas I’ve not owned one of these since I was 12). They then entered into a conversation with a fellow gun enthusiast about the pros and cons of a baseball bat versus a cricket bat as a weapon. For the record, it was decided that whilst the cricket bat had some sharper edges, a baseball bat had overall better balance.

Another genuinely held belief by one person was that, 'in Sweden, everyone carries a gun or two' and thus ownership was far more prevalent there than in the US. I actually felt compelled to check the statistics on this one. It transpired that the US actually has three times more guns owned per person. 

delusions of grandeur

The biggest and to me, saddest misconception of them all was that public gun ownership is needed so that people may defend themselves from a tyrannical government. I was sent posters depicting heads of state from history who enforced gun control and then killed masses of the populace. I tried to point out that these were dictators of countries where all freedoms had been removed or never existed.

Many, many of the gun supporters genuinely seem to feel that they are the only thing keeping the US government at bay by owning their weapons. If they didn't have them, that would be that, the government would start killing and using the people as they saw fit.

These people actually believe that if push came to shove, they would be able to defend themselves against the might of an organised army with gunships, tanks and goodness knows what other hardware at their disposal.

A bit like with the conversation about Jesus, I never received an answer once I put forward the idea that if the US government truly wanted to, they could become a tyrannical regime tomorrow, regardless of how many citizens have guns to hand.

The fear and paranoia displayed by the people I communicated with was alarming. Combined with ignorance (not to mention terrible grammar) the fact that these people own guns seems wrong on so many levels.

I just hope that somewhere out there is a gun owner or two who are truly brave enough to say, 'enough is enough' and lay down their weapon.