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Friday, December 28, 2012

An Issue of Guns or Grief?

One-by-one, row-after-row, the flickering candlelight illuminated the darkened sanctuary, spreading to reach me as I stood with my church family. It was late on the night of Christmas Eve. Candlelight flowed throughout the slowly brightening room like lava down a mountain. The familiar melody hung softly in the air as the congregation sang.

“Silent night, Holy night; all is calm, all is bright.” I felt my throat tighten, my lips quiver, and sensed the unlit candle in my hand tremble. Truly, for many across our nation, nothing in their life was either calm or bright. No, I did not know any of these people, personally. Still, how can we, as human beings, not be affected by such horrible suffering in the face of violent tragedies?

One Friday, such a short time ago, a gunman opened fire on school children and their teachers, having killed his own mother before leaving the house. Just this day, Monday, another man used the same model gun to kill volunteer firemen responding to a burning house. Earlier in this season of Christmas shopping, the same model weapon killed innocent shoppers in a Portland mall. But, this wasn’t the first month we had heard of this particularly popular semi-automatic weapon, it had also been used to kill unsuspecting movie-goers in Colorado.

Yes, the gunmen had more than one weapon, but all had the Bushmaster AR-15 in common. Lest you think these might be the only ones out there, statistics show that 1.5 MILLION of these particular guns have been sold in the last five years. Startling as that figure is, there is one even more frightening. Once the New Town massacre hit the politicians’ voices, people feared a ban on the guns; or, at least, a ban on their 30-round magazines. Once that news hit, gun dealers reported selling more Bushmaster AR-15’s in one, single day than the total sold in the last three years!

The Bushmaster AR-15 is advertised as semi-automatic, because it only shoots one bullet at a time, albeit very fast. However, there is a U-tube instructional flick that will show any interested party how to use a common rubber band to turn it into a fully-automatic weapon; thus rendering the civilian version the same action as the military’s M-16.

The cost of such a hand-held killing machine is around $1200, new, and $800 used. Those coveted magazines run about $350, so it isn’t cheap to keep even one of these weapons for target practice or self-defense. At least, none of their owners are trying to make us believe that they have the gun for hunting game animals for the family’s winter meat.

Last weekend, authorities in Los Angeles had a buy-back, and were amazed at the volume of weapons their citizenry turned in. More than 2500 guns left the hands of LA residents in a matter of hours. Many of the people said they did it to show their sympathy for the folks in New Town, since they couldn’t go there to offer their condolences. But, while a sincere gesture of compassion, is this really going to change what the bad guys, who kept their semi—automatic guns will do next?

I was born and raised in a State that hosts hunters of wild game every year and for various specific seasons. Having been around guns all of my life, I have no objection to a family owning a rifle…it’s the military-style weapon that I object to keeping in a civilian home. However, my opinion doesn’t really matter, does it? The guns are already out there and something needs to be done to protect the innocent.

Some politicians declare stricter gun laws will make a difference; while those opposing that say that stricter gun laws will only let the bad guys have the fire power and the innocent, good guys won’t be able to defend themselves against the bad.

One radio broadcaster pointed out that guns were not the issue at all. On the very same day an extremely disturbed young man was gunning down innocent children and their teachers in Connecticut, a man in China was slashing elementary school kids in a wild frenzy of murderous rage in China.  Even more grievous was the broadcasting of his killing actions over the internet…one tiny child throwing her bloodied arms up to cover her face as he continued his attack. The Chinese government simply declared that the man was suffering from mental illness. Goes without saying, doesn’t it?

As tears filled my eyes, I steadied my now-flaming candle but had this thought, “God, there is nothing at all we can do to protect people against such things. Laws won’t stop the rage that sends a young person into such a fit of deadly violence. Removing guns won’t keep people from building homemade bombs to blow up buildings occupied by innocent people or children at a day Care Center. The violent computer games have been out there too long; a recall won’t make a difference to the present generation. Besides, who legislates boundaries on this multi-billion dollar industry, and gets re-elected? Oh God, the geni is out of the bottle and there isn’t anything we can do to shove it back and return to more innocent days.”

I began to feel the slight warmth of my flickering candle and sensed the Lord’s response “Isn’t there anything?”

Suddenly, a story I’d read long, long ago popped back to the front of my thoughts. A young man, who lived in San Francisco, felt so lonely that he made a decision to test out the value of continued life. He said that he would walk from his apartment to the Golden Gate Bridge. If, as he walked those couple of miles, a single person smiled at him or said, “Hello,” he would turn around and come back home. If, on the other hand, there was not a single smile or greeting, he would climb up on the bridge and fall to his death. He had written a note to that affect and taped it to the mirror in his bedroom. Should he return, he would remove the note and keep it as a reminder that there was one person that counted him worthy of a greeting. Should he jump, someone would find the note. Sadly, the police found the note, following the death of the young man.

Could I not have done something to save his life? Well, I wasn’t there that day, but it did make me wonder if I found myself too busy on any day to greet the passersby on the sidewalk with a simple “Hello.” Back in those long ago days, those folks so depressed quietly took their own lives in the midst of their despair. Today, however, these troubled folks want to be remembered for an act that no one else has been able to accomplish so people will know who they are. So many innocent lose their lives before the one who finds his own life not worth living. He made the choice for them, a choice he had no right to make.

Often, we later learn that the killer had been bullied in school or just plain ignored by his peers. Can we not improve this situation? Can we not show kindness, and teach our kids to show kindness and common courtesy, to others in school, church or wherever the people who don’t fit our mold seem to be found intersecting with our own lives? How many innocent lives could be spared by simple acts of kindness shown to the boy or girl who doesn’t look like they have any friends…or are new in town so don’t know anyone at school?

If we offered a kind word, maybe the hurting individual wouldn’t take up a gun or a knife. The real solution to the crisis facing our schools and young people today, won’t be resolved by assigning people with guns to marshal the area, or, as one State has chosen to do, teach their educators to use guns. Where is the security for the little kids in that? I mean, little kids are afraid that they will get in trouble for chewing gum in class, should they worry that the teacher will turn them over to the police to put them in jail; or worse yet, that their own teacher might lose it and shoot them?

Let’s seriously consider what we can do, one smile at a time, to stop the massacre of the innocents. This doesn’t cost anything and doesn’t need a committee to vote into law; we’ll just be good citizens and respect others, showing them common courtesy. These folks you pass on the sidewalk or in the aisle of the grocery store are fellow sojourners on this earth; let’s let our smiles make them feel welcome here, shall we?

Don’t misunderstand, I do think that we should teach our kids not to talk to teenage or adult strangers, but if there is a new kid in school, we can teach our kids to help the child feel welcome in their class. Many of these disturbed individuals had their troubles begin in grade school; this is where we need to focus on prevention. Don’t allow your child to bully another and don’t ignore it if your child is being bullied.

I do believe that the real issue is not so much a gun in the hand of any individual, as it is the grief in the heart of the troubled person. We may be able to do something about this ourselves, one child/one smile at a time. While the politicians work out what laws they believe will slow the present release of deathly violence, we can be practicing caring and compassion as a means of prevention. Let’s work at teaching our children how to accept kids for their human value, regardless of their clothing or shyness. And, finally, let’s all be a little kinder to one another and smile a lot more in 2013, shall we? You just never know what a difference it may make in the life of a stranger!

****Happy New Year!

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