People Kill People (Guns Just Make it Easier)

Yesterday was D-Day, the day on which we celebrate the heroism and bravery of those who participated in the Normandy Landings during WWII. This massive invasion from the sea was a turning point in the war, a major part of the Allied victory.

Meanwhile in Seattle, the day before saw yet another mass shooting on a college campus, just blocks from where I live. I was biking past Seattle Pacific University on the Ship Canal Trail when I heard the sirens. Scores of them. When I tried to drive my normal route to work, the street was blocked off. I assumed that there had been a bad wreck. Then I heard on the radio that there had been a shooting. Another one. (Two men were murdered at a Seattle park in broad daylight just last week.) As I took an alternate route to work, SWAT vehicles passed me, lights flashing. I wept as I drove, filled with grief and impotent rage.

Of course, violent death is a tragedy wherever it occurs. But there’s a reason the phrase “close to home” has so much salience: When something like this happens right in front of you, it’s impossible to ignore, and resonates on a deeper level. Humans are deeply tribal creatures, and something that happens where you live has a greater pull on your emotional attention.

That night, I posted a cris de coeur on Facebook to the tune of, “Can we please just ban guns?” For the record, I don’t think this is a realistic solution. As several friends pointed out, there are too many guns already in circulation. And yes, people will find a way to kill without guns – although guns are an exceptionally efficient way to kill. Frankly, I don’t have much hope in the efficacy of sound policy or political will. Because human beings are violent. Evil is a part of the world’s spiritual fabric, and it finds expression though human vessels. The old adage that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” really is true.

We celebrate the military heroes who helped insure an Allied victory, because the Allies were the “good guys.” And yet – their victory came at the expense of real human lives. The Germans and other Axis fighters were the “bad guys,” the Other. But they were also human beings with families, feelings, souls. The civilians who died were (are) “collateral damage.” Their blood is the price of victory.

There’s a continuum of human violence, from a schoolyard punch to genocide. I believe it all originates in the same place, in the shadows of the human psyche where fear festers and whispers the insidious mantra that “might equals right.” I respect military folks; I don’t think they’re any worse than I am just because killing is part of their job description. I have sinned, and it’s not for me to judge which sins are worse than others. Life is a series of impossible ethical conundrums, and war is often a messy combination of avarice, nihilism, and noble intentions: Hitler did, after all, have to be stopped.

As I feel the heaviness and grief of what happened at SPU, I see the irony of mourning these losses while celebrating D-Day (or any military victory, for that matter: victory, after all, always entails a corresponding loss). I abhor guns and feel that they are a manifestation of pure evil; it’s easy for me to become outraged over American gun policy because I see it as glaringly, egregiously wrongheaded. But, when I take a step back and look at the bigger picture, I recognize that what my gun-apologist friends say is fundamentally true: People kill people.

As Barbara Tuchman put it in A Distant Mirror, “For belligerent purposes, the 14th century, like the 20th, commanded a technology more sophisticated than the mental and moral capacity that guided its use.” That’s still true in the 21st century. There may come a time when we attain a posthuman form and transcend the features of our humanity that lead us to violence. For now, though, violence is an intractable part of human existence, with or without guns. As long as people want to overpower others and advance their way as “right” – whether on the level of nations, or of sick and misguided individuals – there will be blood.

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