There’s no need to debate numbers with my friend Scott Walter regarding the issue of guns. As he implies, you can make the numbers say lots of things, and as a result, the debate gets lost in arcane methodological arguments as opposed to experience and common sense.
But because Scott surprisingly decided to reference my Jewish upbringing as though it were somehow relevant to the discussion, and then challenged me to take a walk through tough neighborhoods to see what guns might mean to residents there, his piece does make me think personally about this debate, especially what he framed as “respect for the poor.”
Scott might not know this, but I grew up in poverty. I was raised in public housing, and spent most of my professional career working in desperately poor neighborhoods working on issues of housing and community development. Time in poor neighborhoods for me wasn’t a matter of a sociological excursion; it was my personal, and then professional life.
Would a gun in the house have made my family feel safer in the Orient Heights projects? It’s hard to imagine my father ever having contemplated that, even though he made his living with two full-time, underpaid jobs: selling insurance in neighborhoods where other agents wouldn’t go, and delivering mail. The closest approximation to this issue would have been when, as a youngster in the projects, I would on occasion find myself at the wrong end of fisticuffs. I recall asking my father if I should learn karate to better protect myself. His response was that karate wouldn’t help me if someone hit me on the back of the head with a brick. (Maybe he was more afraid that prepping me with karate skills wouldn’t have made me any safer from the gangs, but might have inflicted damage on my younger brother.)
Years later, I was part of a team of people running a shelter for homeless young people in Kenmore Square. By then, I was pretty much the largest person on the staff, which isn’t saying much, so I was often in charge of security, which meant disarming the shelter occupants of weapons, an unpleasant task that I most assuredly performed poorly. I recall patrolling the shelter’s sleeping area one night, where over 100 young people slept on cots, and noticed something gleaming under one sleeper’s head. It was a gun with a silencer. I’m not convinced that, had I been equally armed, I would have been in any way protected had the young man woken with a start and simply pulled the trigger.
So Scott challenged me to “walk around dangerous neighborhoods where poor people live and ask law-abiding families whether they think they’ll be safer if their guns are taken from them and whether gun ownership is taken from them.” I’ve been in and out of those neighborhoods for most of my more-than-six-decades on earth. In the face of thugs and criminals, I’ve never seen people with a gun in their pocket or their purse really feeling safer. It was like my self-defense training when running the homeless shelter in Kenmore Square. I could jump, scream, take an aggressive fighting stance, and maybe even look menacing as the more-than-200-pounder I am, but I couldn’t have deluded myself to think that had a real fight against a thug at the shelter broken out, as my colleagues and I knew, my safest place would have been anywhere other than plastered against the back wall of the facility.
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I appreciate Scott’s challenging me to talk about experience—in my case, a lifetime’s worth. When I felt protected in those poor neighborhoods and felt safe with those families, it was when I was in communities of mutual caring and concern, of families who watched out for each other and were concerned about each other’s best interests. It wasn’t because they were packing concealed weapons. “The right and duty to participate in the protection of their neighborhoods,” as Scott phrases it, is only minimally achieved, if it is achieved at all, by guns. It is achieved by social advancement, by jobs, education, and services, all of which seem to be diminishing while access to guns—based on the statistics—goes up.
I was surprised that Scott looked at my article about the North Carolina school whose officials outfitted someone with a toy gun to scare the wits out of elementary school kids and turned it into a question of “why doesn’t the Left trust the law-abiding poor to own guns?” I wasn’t aware of guns-and-the-poor as the theme of my article, though my responses above stick to Scott’s reframing.
Actually, I am always kind of struck when conservative populists, as Scott describes himself, make the defense of guns a benchmark of their thinking about the poor. Perhaps Bob Woodson’s program of Violence Free Zones depended on arming the warring camps in poor neighborhoods so that a mutual balance of terror prevented new homicides, but my reading of his work and the training that the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise does in poor neighborhoods—as consistent with core conservative values as anything I know of—doesn’t depend on handguns or semi-automatic military weapons. If Bob Woodson was able to negotiate a peace among warring gangs at the Benning Terrace project, working with the public housing director to find people jobs, that should be the kind of “respect for the poor” that conservatives ought to promote—but, so often in public discourse, few do. I can virtually recite from the Center’s website this statement about lessons from the Benning Terrace events: “Among the most important was the realization of the profound influence held by those who had formerly led the negative activities, and who had publicly chosen to promote peace.”
Just recently, a 12-year-old, widely seen as a nice kid, brought a 9mm Ruger into a middle school in Nevada and shot and killed a teacher and wounded two other classmates. A 56-year-old pharmacist in Phoenix snapped and killed four neighbors with a pump-action shotgun. An elderly resident at a senior citizens housing complex shot and killed two women he thought were responsible for his break-up with his girlfriend. Scott and I can exchange lists of people who would be the least likely killers imaginable, but somehow picked up a gun and for inexplicable reasons shot friends, neighbors, and classmates. Unlike Scott, I don’t quite see how armed encampments might have stopped these or other killings.
At an Austin, Texas high school, a 17-year-old committed suicide by gunshot in the school’s courtyard next to the school cafeteria. A woman in Florida was wounded by a bullet that passed through the head of a man as he shot himself in his own suicide. In Arizona, a woman was killed by a bullet accidentally fired by her boyfriend from a handgun tucked into the waistband of his pants. A woman in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, shot her ailing brother and her cat before committing suicide in the apartment they shared. You will find far more instances of normal people killing each other or killing themselves due to access to guns than using them to ward off armed marauders.
Scott and I can trade study after study arguing both sides of the gun protection argument, produce experts who will debunk the others’ data, and generate lists of experts who are against, or in my case, in favor of much stricter gun controls, including scores of police who have endorsed the policy stances of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. As Scott implies, ultimately, the issue is one of values. In my case, I hope these values are tempered by common sense. A gun or several guns in my little apartment won’t make me feel safe, but perhaps even more vulnerable than before.