The Gun and the Girl

When I write, I try to avoid political posts. There are thousands of people out there blogging their own politics, and I am not so self indulgent as to believe that I have a unique point of view. More than that, I find that modern media suffers from talking head syndrome. So much of today’s “news” is just “round-table discussions” in which a bunch of so-called experts sit around a table and offer their own analysis of some noteworthy situation. They report nothing. They only quibble over hypothetical situations and bravely offer up some argument that shows they have the right opinion. I do not want to be a talking head, spouting off my opinions as if they were unique.

But.

I want to share something that happened in my family that is a political issue, and that deeply troubles me. I want to put a face and a meaning behind some of the rhetoric. I want you to understand that this aspect of my life is a deeply nuanced connection between family, beliefs, security, rights and freedoms, and how we view the world. I want you to understand that an indoctrination of hate for others is harmful, and the lenses under which we view others, matters. And I want you to understand that it’s hard NOT to be political when your very existence becomes a political statement.

This is what I have to say:

Over Christmas, my wife and I went to visit family. During this time, my sister-in-law bought a handgun. She said she wanted it for protection. I am not sure why she suddenly needed a lethal weapon; she lives in a very safe place and has never, in all the years that I’ve known her, owned a gun or had reason to use one. But buying and owning was her choice. While I do not agree politically with my in-laws on any number of issues, I am very close with them and have the highest respect for them. And while I have never owned a gun myself, I do—very tentatively and conditionally—support a person’s right to own a gun.

Buying the handgun was easy. We went to a sporting goods store, talked to a clerk, and made a choice. There was a background check, but even so, we were in and out of the store in less than an hour, carrying a new handgun.

Each member of the family was looking for gifts in different sections of the store, so my sister-in-law took the gun (still in its box) out to the car. Then she went back inside to find the rest of the family. She left the gun in her purse in the car. My niece, tired and bored with shopping, wanted to stay in the car. We were gone for a matter of minutes.

When we came back, we discovered that my niece had taken the handgun—again, still in the box—out of the purse and was holding it on her lap. A little more investigation found that two men—two Mexicans­—had been talking in the parking lot near my niece. She had felt unsafe and decided to take the gun out “for protection.” My sister in-law was mad and scolded her. Then she needed a few last minute gifts in another store, so she assigned me to stay in the car with my niece while she finished the last bit of shopping. And that was it. The entire thing lasted a few minutes.

I want to break this down. I want to make it clear why I found this so scary.

Within minutes of buying a gun, a child picked it up.

I’m not under the false impression that there was a whole lot of danger in this situation. The gun remained unloaded and in its original packaging throughout the entire incident. My niece put it on her lap as a deterrent, and I am not sure she would have known how to load it, had she taken it out of the box.

And yet… My niece does not know much about gun safety or operation. She picked it up, unsupervised and out of a recreational setting. She had the good sense not to open it or point it at anyone (loaded or unloaded), but the fact is, that a child picked up the weapon within moments of owning it. That’s a scary thought.

The moment we had a gun, it became necessary.

Literally, within moments of purchasing the gun, it became necessary for protection. This took place in a pretty safe little city, where my niece has lived for her whole life. She was in a busy parking lot, in the middle of the day, during the holiday season, and inside a locked car. My sister in-law was only going in to the store for a minute. In my judgment, there was practically zero danger. Yet, my niece saw something and it became a threat that required a gun to feel safe. Her mind did not go to her cellphone, which she could have used to call her mom or 9-1-1. It went to a little box with a handgun inside.

Whether or not there was a threat, the gun made the situation more dangerous.

I’m not going to make some abstract argument about how gun statistically don’t make you safer and are more likely to injure a loved one (although that is a valid argument). I just want to look at the facts of this one situation:

If these men had any bad intentions, I don’t think the gun would have stopped them. Had it actually been necessary to use, my niece would have had to remove it from it’s box, get out the ammo, and load the weapon. That could have taken a few minutes, at least. Even if these men saw that she had a gun before attacking, they would have known that it was inaccessible and unloaded and in the hands of a teenage girl. They would only need to break the window and take it from her before she could load it. In that case, the door lock would slow them down more than the gun.

I also think seeing the gun could have, if anything, encouraged a would-be criminal. The criminal sees a brand new firearm. The firearm is already outside of the store and requires no money, no background check, and no name given to buy it. All the criminal would need to do would be to take the unloaded gun from a teenage girl.

The not-so-subtle racial bias.

My niece saw some brown people and assumed they were a threat. Where did she get that idea? What kind of values is she picking up from the world around her? What does this say about the larger political conversations surrounding refugee and immigration? Doesn’t this exactly illustrate how black and brown males are targeted disproportionally by law enforcement, often resulting in police killings?

What also bothered me is that my niece—who is a truly kind and gentle hearted soul—had no sense of an ingrained racial bias that she has absorbed. When I tried to have a conversation about it with her, I found her logic very circular and compartmentalized. The conversation went something like this:

“Why did you get the gun out?”

“There were two Mexican men talking near the car.”

“So why did you take a gun out?”

“I felt threatened.”

“Were they doing something that seemed threatening?”

“They were just talking near the car.”

“Did you feel threatened because they were Mexican?”

“Not because they were Mexican.”

“You know you should not assume a person is bad just because they are Mexican?”

“It wasn’t because they were Mexican.”

“So why did you get the gun out?”

“Because I needed protection.”

“Why did you feel that way?”

“Because there were two Mexicans talking near the car.”

The sad irony is that my niece is half-Latina. Her dad is from Mexico. If this is how she feels about Mexicans, what is her own self-perception? Although she was raised from a young age in a white household without much Hispanic influence, that culture and heritage is still a part of her.

So, I end my political post with this thought: guns are dangerous, and should be treated with respect. That may not sound like a political statement, but it is: the conversation should not just be about background checks and “gun regulations.” While I generally support the right to own a gun, I think we need to start examining why they are necessary. And before we start buying guns, we should think about who we are afraid of and why, and if a gun will really make us safer or not.

For many of us, it is impossible to avoid being political.   For those two men in the parking lot, just being Mexican was a political statement. There is so much rhetoric surrounding immigrants and refugees, and people of diverse backgrounds, especially now. And my niece, who is a good person and who has little interest in the political world, has become a political reflection of the world around her. She learned somewhere that judging someone by their skin color is wrong, but automatically assuming they are dangerous because of their skin color is also how the world works, and that a gun is the answer.

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