Sexual abuse is not the stranger in the alley, Gun violence is not the stranger in the movie theater
(a work in progress)
I’m 52. I grew up in a gun-owning household in a Midwestern gun-owning environment. We all grew up learning to shoot, most men and boys hunted. We all ate animals that were hunted: deer, rabbit, squirrel, dove, the occasional wild turkey. Guns meant food. And trophies – not in my house, where we ate what was killed, but in the homes of friends, yes, animals hunted and skinned and stuffed and posed to show some man’s manliness.
Guns were also just part of an overall background of violence.
A woman up the block would regularly come hide at our house when her husband got drunk and violent. I remember being hustled to our basement because when she came he was coming after her with a gun. I was really young, I don’t remember what happened, I don’t know how he was stopped that night. I can’t imagine my father brought out a gun although he had plenty. I know she always went home again by morning. Every time.
As a child in a town of 1100 there were two gun suicides that I knew of, or that I remember.
In second grade, the day of the Homecoming parade, all the floats left the high school and went the few blocks to the town square, around it, and back to the school. “Floats” were wagons pulled behind tractors or decorated pickup trucks. The second grade float was a wagon and we were all on board – and by all I mean every child in second grade, all 32 of us.
Small town. Really really small town. We all knew each other, our parents all knew each other, the web of cousins and in-laws was thick.
Our wagon had a frame of 2 x 4s with chicken wire strung around, and “flower” wads of white tissue paper shoved in each hole of the chicken wire. Over the white puffs were large posterboard circles, each painted bright yellow and sporting the two black circles and upward pointing curve of the ubiquitous Smiley Face that shared my year of birth and by the time I was 8 decorated every possible product. On board the wagon each of us held a paint stick with a paper plate, 32 little smiley faces. I remember being excited, and thinking the smiley faces were cool.
I think I could still name at least 20 of us, but for right now only Glen Brown matters. Glen Brown, and the fact that as we headed back from the town square the entire parade stopped. And then stayed stopped. There were sirens in the distance, and worried adults telling us everything was ok. Then Glen Brown’s grandmother, a 3rd grade teacher, appeared and called him down off the float and they left. Later, what seemed like forever to wagons of squirming children, we pulled into the school yard, where a car was parked on the playground, door open. I don’t remember how we found out what happened, maybe our teacher, maybe our parents.
Glen Brown’s dad had pulled his car onto the playground, while all of the kids were safely away in the parade, stayed sitting in his car, and shot himself in the head. By Monday, when we came back to school, the car was gone and Glen was out of school for a while.
No one blamed the gun. That whole family was cursed, so the story went, with uncles dying off equally young in freak accidents involving farm equipment and a cement truck.
The other suicide I remember was a man, a father, who lived in a small white house next to my cousin’s back yard, who stuck a shotgun into his mouth and pulled the trigger. I don’t remember what the rumors were about why. Probably money, maybe wife leaving him – as a child I would have been pushed out of the room when that was discussed. I do remember the women talking about how his wife had to clean the blood and brain matter off the walls.
Because someone always has to clean the blood off the walls. Or the cars. Or the desks.
If you grew up without either of these kinds of gun violence—domestic violence and suicide by shooting—then you are oddly far-removed from the reality of gun violence in the U.S. Because gun violence is the angry assault rifle yielding stranger in the movie theater in the way that sexual assault is the angry knife-wielding stranger in the alley. Yes, both happen, but sexual assault and gun deaths happen most often in the most intimate settings – the home, the bedroom, the in-law’s house, the parking lot outside of work.
Take a breath, then take this in:
Fully 70 percent of mass shooting incidents occur in homes, but we don’t generally hear about them because these crimes are considered a matter of private, not public health.(1)
70%. And in those shootings 64% of the victims are women and children.
Take a breath, then take this in:
More than 2/3 of mass shootings happen in homes. 2/3 of the victims of those shootings are women and children.
The untold story of mass shootings in America is one of domestic violence. It is one of men (yes, mostly men) targeting and killing their wives or ex-girlfriends or families. The victims are intimately familiar to the shooters, not random strangers. This kind of violence is not indiscriminate—though friends, neighbors and bystanders are often killed alongside the intended targets.
We found that in 57 percent of mass shootings, the shooter targeted either a family member or an intimate partner. According to HuffPost’s analysis, 64 percent of mass shooting victims were women and children. That’s startling, since women typically make up only 15 percent of total gun violence homicide victims, and children only 7 percent.(2)
To paraphrase one of the more stunning bits of jingo-based gaslighting from the NRA, guns don’t kill women. Men that women know intimately use guns to kill women with alarming frequency, accuracy, and ease.
Men also use guns to kill themselves with alarming frequency, accuracy, and ease.
More than 60 percent of people in this country who die from guns die by suicide. 51% of people who commit suicide use guns. Men are 4 times more likely than women to die by suicide, even though women attempt suicide 3 times as often as men.(3) 4X more likely to die because men here use guns. White men, in particular, die by self-inflicted gunshot wounds, at a much higher rate than men in any other racial/ethnic/cultural group in the U.S. Middle-aged and older white men, in fact.
To stat that in a slightly different way, if you like being statted at:
“Suicides among white males accounted for nearly half of the [total number of] deaths from firearm violence during 2012, and suicide among white men is increasing,” Wintemute says. “The increase offsets any decline we might have seen in overall firearm-related mortality during the 21st century.” (4)
While the overall rate of gun violence in the U.S. has been dropping steadily, the percentage of those deaths that are suicide is going up. And up.
Rhetorical strategy moment – let me repeat what needs to be repeated because it goes utterly against the “reality” we soak in from the media. THE OVERALL RATE OF GUN VIOLENCE HAS BEEN GOING DOWN FOR TWO DECADES. In real life, not in tv shows or movies or the nightly news, which form what we “know” so profoundly.
The social panic level of an issue seems to be in reverse proportion to actual facts and analysis in my country. 95-ish% of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows, even though knowing the assailant becomes evidence against the victim in the legal process. The actual rate of abduction and murder of children has dropped enormously, but the fear is at such a fever pitch that parents who let their kids walk home from a park are charged with neglect. The actual sexual danger to children is rarely a stranger offering candy, is nearly every time the uncle, step-dad, older cousin, mom’s boyfriend.
I don’t have any information to know if Meghan’s Law and similar statues are ultimately helpful or ultimately used to target minority and poor people. Most high-profile post-crime laws are more the latter. What I do know is that such laws don’t address the statistical realities of what they claim to address; Amber Alerts do not do a goddamned thing to stop adults that parents invite into their homes.
Which is leading me to something complicated I’m trying to formulate inside my head about how my communities think and talk about gun violence and gun control. Which is, of course, deeply about Race. And Racism. And the terror of the “Black thug” that lurks on the edge of all of these conversations.
But first, in order to understand the nature of gun violence in our society, a detour into the history of school shootings in the U.S.
School shootings in the U.S. – that is, shootings that happen in school buildings, on school grounds, on school buses, or at school events, date back much farther than I had ever considered. In an exhaustive, well-documented list compiled on Wikipedia, the first shooting is listed as 1840, when a male student killed a male teacher in Virginia.
Yes, 1840. School shootings are part and parcel of our national history, and their death toll climbs with each new innovation in gun technology. The long gun was hard to disguise, but Samuel Colt’s revolving pistol was not. Semi-automatic pistols let shooters shoot faster, and the intro of the fully automatic handguns and smaller rifles let the blood flow fast and free.
Before we go, I invite you to take a quick quiz I’ve devised, multiple choice, on the history of shootings in schools in the U.S.
Notice how mind-numbingly repetitive and dull these stories are? How nearly none involved “crazed masked gunmen”? How nearly all the violence is ordinary U.S. violence? Accidental shootings. Jealousy. Rejected suitors showing up at the love-object’s workplace to murder her (mainly her, a few times him – women are more than capable of enacting male-pattern violence)(5). Teachers who violently assault students and are killed by family members. Students who shoot teachers. Teachers who shoot students. Gang members attacking one another.
As a society, we have an astounding ability to construct a false truth, to praise social conduct codes based on our false truths, to have public hysterics based on the violations of our false truths, all while living with the EXACT OPPOSITE of that false truth and being totally unbothered by the denial and dissociation. In this case, the false truth is that children are precious and innocent and asexual and that protecting them and guarding their innocence is a primary social value. Which everyone reading this knows is hogwash.
But the anxiety between the false truth and the lived truth makes all issues having to do with childhood potential flash points. Nearly all books that are “challenged” in the U.S. each year are books for children. Issues around the sexual abuse of a few children explodes across the national attention span and pronouncements are made and laws are passed—pronouncements and laws that in no way affect anything that would protect the vast majority of children being sexually abused. So why does it surprise us that shootings at schools also explode across our attention spans but that from the attention no real change can ever come? No one in this society is going to take away the guns in the homes that are responsible for the majority of deaths any more than they are going to take away the penises/fingers/hands/mouths in the homes that are responsible for the majority of sexual assaults.
I felt like the most awful, “nothing is ever going to change” bitter cynic when my friends and community members were so sure that after Sandy Hook surely, surely, over the bodies of first graders, something could be done. In many ways I am a deeply embittered person, as a survivor of sexual assault in my childhood—at a profound level, I can’t believe adults actually care about what happens to kids. Activists and communities of color, especially Black communities, have always known that the people in charge don’t care about their kids. Perhaps the level of disbelief among white friends was caused by a very public discovery that the deaths of white kids was also not going to change anything. The same toxic-stew-fed monster of violence, profit, and greed that has always chewed up children of color came for the white suburban kids.
And surprise surprise, those who create the monster and profit from it were not going to lose sleep or profit, even for “innocent kids” from a “good neighborhood.”
So we worked through the public scripted ritual of the wringing of hands, the wailing, the fury at the shattering of how children are supposed to be protected and innocent and safe. Then nothing changed. Because gun violence in schools is, in the land of the lived truth, absolutely no different from gun violence outside of schools. In false truth, killing kids is a kind of breaking point after which change must come. In lived truth, kids are killed every day, and we’re all consoling ourselves by eating chocolate-coated child slave labor.
(more to come)
1. “Mass Killings in the US: Masculinity, Masculinity, Masculinity” by Soraya Chemaly
2. “We’re Missing The Big Picture On Mass Shootings” by Melissa Jeltzen
3. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
4. Gun Deaths In America: Suicides Outnumber Homicides 2-to-1
5. “Male-pattern violence” is a phrase invented by Jennie Ruby in a conversation about domestic violence. The phrase helps cut through the argument “but women do it too.” Yes, women can, and do. But the pattern is connected to masculinity and how our society understands “male.” She coined it from “male-pattern baldness,” which women can also have, but which is nonetheless overwhelming connected to the male body and hormone system. Read her article.