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When Gun Crime Becomes Personal

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Pam Magee moved from the US to Canada to escape the gun laws that were responsible for the killing of her cousin and three young children. She was preparing an article for Inker on the way life had changed for her and her family north of the border when a new tragedy struck. Here she meditates on life and death after losing her partner, Jim Rossi, who shared her passion for gun control.

It was Tuesday, June 14, my friend Lisa drove my son, Jordan, and myself past Vancouver City Hall where the Canadian flag was flown at half mast. I remember asking her the reason for it and her quiet response, “For the Orlando victims.” It was only two days after the shootings, but I had forgotten.

She was driving us to Vancouver General Hospital. Earlier in the morning, I had called a friend to check on my husband, Jim, who had texted me the day before when he felt quite ill. He insisted he did not need help, only sleep. I had not heard from him after that and could not contact him in the morning. My friend arrived there by 7am and found him passed away. My son and I were now enroute to the hospital. It was the most horrible sadness we have ever felt but we had to go there to do something, so overwhelming was our shock and disbelief. We did not know yet that it was useless. When we arrived we were directed into a side room with a telephone and computer, apparently to “make arrangements”. It was too difficult to speak, and my friend had to collect numbers and make calls on our behalf. Jordan and I returned home to the coast.

We were shipwrecked beyond description and walked in the evening together in the forest saying little as we tried to control a tsunami of emotion. Returning to our house, my son asked me if it was like this when my cousin was killed. I had forgotten her in our new tragedy, but sadness superimposes. I told him it was some time ago so the pain was less now, but the abrupt end – without warning – was the same. The hole in my life was not this large but it was traumatic in the same way. My cousin, Laura Whitson, and her three daughters, Sarah (6), Rachel (3), and April (6 months), were shot by her estranged husband on September 12, 1995, in the rural town of Scotts Mills, Oregon. Although he was bound by a restraining order, he was able to purchase a firearm in Seattle in the morning and kill his entire family before late afternoon in Oregon. I remember the trips to the prosecutor’s office with her brothers, and the horror this violence imposed on our pacifist Quaker family, who balked at the suggestion of the death penalty even in this instance. Now it was apparent to us how easy it was for an unplumbed person with vengeful ambition to accomplish this kind of thing. The humiliating end of her private attempt to liberate herself from a mistake was even described in the New York Times. At that time, domestic gun violence was still novel to the public and big news. The general feeling then was that this horror would never happen again.

Two years later my own son was born, and although my cousin’s tragedy was not forgotten, life returned to normal until one year later when Kip Kinkel, an emotionally disturbed teenager, shot his parents and 27 students at Thurston High School in Eugene, Oregon. Two of the students died, and then came the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. My son was now two years old. My husband and I began to worry about how prevalent this was becoming in the United States. It is alienating to know someone close who was a victim of gun violence because you are no longer sanguine about the privilege of living in America with all of its wonderful freedoms. You have a new understanding that is more accurate. Although the statistical probability of getting shot is low, there is nothing your government will do to prevent your violent death if there is an unfortunate roll of the cosmic dice for you on any day. It made more sense to run and hide than to fight the gun rights group on anything even vaguely resembling ‘their own terms’. There was no opposing force on your side of the issue.

Due to the negligence in firearms regulation and the endless wars waged by America in the Middle East, Jim and I decided to start working on our immigration to Canada.  Things were different there, we were told. After two years and the assistance of an immigration attorney, we were in. We moved to Canada. I was curious to know how gun control worked in this country. This is a problem: not many Americans, even among gun control groups, are familiar with how other countries prevent firearm related deaths. I found a gun dealer in Canada who sold rifles and bows. (Finding a gun store in Canada is harder than you realize coming from America where it is usually as easy as buying a pair of sunglasses). Guns are only sold through licenced, regulated dealers here, not at Walmart, laundromats, pawn shops or given to you when you open a bank account in North Country Bank, Michigan. I went in and asked if I could buy a gun, and was told by the couple who owned the business that I could. I pointed to a rifle on the wall and said ‘I will take that one’. The owners chuckled and told me I could not buy a gun today. I was indeed being silly. To purchase a firearm in Canada, you have to pass a firearms training course, have a safe to store it in, be vetted by the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police), as well as family members and/or co-workers.

Some permits are required for short travel with higher caliber weapons for hunting. There are no silencers nor assault rifles available for anyone. Handguns can be purchased but are delivered to shooting ranges and are kept there. They can be checked out for target practice but can never leave the shooting range. You can’t take them home. If a person is going through a divorce, they have to surrender all personal firearms, and for a period of time afterwards. Several of these constraints would have saved my cousin’s life. People have guns in Canada, but they are for hunting, not shooting their fellow citizens. Sportsmen here feel no claustrophobia over Canadian gun laws. The current regulations have evolved over 25 years from very little restrictions to the level necessary to safeguard their citizens. I also found that, here, the most rule-oriented and safety-conscious individuals are those that own and operate firearms. Without exception, no one wants American gun liberties. These Canadian laws don’t prevent every problem, but even a few of these restrictions has the effect of changing the way any society, even America, views firearm safety, and would have given the mother of a deeply disturbed young man in Sandy Hook second thoughts before turning the family home into a major munitions depot.

There are several reasons for the differences in Canadian and American firearms regulations. There are cultural disparities; in the United States there is a corrupt electoral process which allows corporate interests to dictate policy and the absence of universal health care, but the most prominent difference is the Second Amendment’s fictitious history.

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

This informs the idea that carnage cannot be ended because it is what the framers of the Constitution wanted for the country. In many cases the qualification of a ‘well-regulated militia’ in the amendment has been dropped for the sake of propagating the misunderstanding of the ‘right to bear arms’ out of context. The framers imagined a group ready to put down insurgencies of native Americans, slaves or Europeans that might pose a threat to the republic. Whether this colonial xenophobia is acceptable or not is beside the point for this argument. These were not wild eyed Trotskyites encouraging permanent rebellion against the very government they formed with endless civil strife. The idea is a fake history. The intention was that there would be auxillary force to subdue rebellions in the name of law and order. That the framers of the Constitution, who only knew muskets, added this clause to benefit their fledgling law enforcement system was never a mandate to destroy the ‘right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness’ for an unstable individual who could go to a school or a bar armed with the killing capacity of an AR-15 and a 100 bullet magazine to slaughter his fellow citizens. This false pretense is the work of the National Rifle Association’s intentional exaggerations.

bus in Vancouver

The NRA (National Rifle Association) was founded in 1871 as a marksman club, and until the mid 1970s it was somewhat more committed to gun control laws and safety. It was about this time that the NRA really changed and a radical element took over, expelling the more reasoned leadership. It became less of a sportsman’s club and more a commercial arm of gun manufacturers and a king shit-hell defender of assault weaponry. Now less than half of the NRA revenue comes from membership fees and the bulk of its money comes from contributions, royalty income and advertising from the gun industry. As much as 52.6 million dollars comes from firearm donors and 20.9 million from advertising for gun industry members annually, to name only a few sources of corporate revenue making up 347,968,789 USD in revenue for 2013 alone.

While the NRA sells itself as protecting America’s freedom, it is actually defending the gun industry’s freedom to manufacture and sell virtually any weapon or quasi-military accessory to the public. Their commercial desperation is increased by the fact that the number of households owning guns is decreasing each year. The number of hunting licences purchased in America has been declining from 40 million in 1970 to 12.6 million last year. Clubs for rifle enthusiasts are falling out of popularity and now four times as many young people are on badminton teams than on marksmanship teams. This means there are more weapons concentrated in fewer hands in the US. Despite a few celebrated high profile trophy hunters, hunting is generally seen as an old man’s game. To stem this hemorrhaging market the maker of Bushmaster AR-15 uses machismo advertising, such as earning their “Man Card”. This is the symptom of an industry that has achieved market saturation and hopes to increase sales by selling someone their sixth or seventh gun not as a hunting tool but as something indispensable to masculine insecurity. These strategies promote the sale of the most dangerous weapons to persons who are less sophisticated than the average sportsman and often have temperamental pathologies.

On the morning after the day we discovered Jim had died, Jordan and I were sitting together still in shock. He told me that he did not wish anyone else should have to go through what we were experiencing and he showed me the photographs of the shooting victims in Orlando. He said, “We are not alone. Look at all the people who are going through this like we are. It is a sad, unwelcome consolation.”

At first it was hard to relate to the photographs of young Hispanic men who had died because I was so preoccupied with my own shock. It took a bit of time to understand what Jordan was saying. He was right, it was the same for all of us. Maybe in more ways than were initially apparent. It was every bit as intense, the sudden loss of a much-loved companion. Jim contracted a rapidly moving sepsis, most likely in the laboratory of the hospital he was working in. He went from feeling okay to death in a matter of hours. We have learned since then that this is an increasing threat to public health that often cannot be remedied even in the ICU of a hospital. Although the definition of disease does not literally describe gunshot wounds, these now constitute a public health crisis of epidemic proportions. Over 30,000 people in the US are killed each year by firearms and over 60,000 are wounded. By comparison the Ebola epidemic in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone killed 11,310 people in total. In the first 176 days of 2016, there have been 196 mass shootings of 4 or more people per incident in the US.

I have been looking back at the emails Jim sent to me, and one in April was a forwarded message he sent to someone who wrote in the local paper about his empathy with a man in the US who shot someone texting in a theatre. Jim gently reminded the author gun violence was nothing to joke about. There was real pain there. One of our last discussions before Jim went back to Vancouver was on the Orlando shooting. He was horrified at the senseless loss of life. Little did we know it would only be a matter of hours before another public health crisis took his own.

Rather than the small concessions of firearms regulators in the United States, a more expedient approach to tackle this might be as a public health crisis. Mark Rosenberg attempted just this at the CDC (Center for Disease Control) in 1996 but the US Congress, at the insistence of the NRA, restricted any funding for research into the effect of gun violence on public health for 20 years (this ban is still in effect). Rosenberg protested that the NRA engages an agenda of terrorizing science and because of the congressional restriction researchers are unable to describe what would clearly save lives in the current situation, stating “We as a country are left in a shouting match”. Rosenberg was fired from his position at the CDC for his outspoken criticism. The Orlando shooting has finally provoked the first policy statement from the American Medical Association (AMA), a powerful lobbying group in its own right which might signal a hopeful change. AMA President Steven Stack has condemned NRA backed restrictions on Federal funding for gun violence research. Stack demanded that this restriction be lifted to address the unrivaled public health crisis of gun violence. To move the argument to the public health arena might end the minute progress which comes weighted with bought political caution. Address the issue like any other menace to public health immediately, without remorse. Treat this like cigarette smoking, radiation exposure, the absence of seat belts or the prevalence of sepsis. It is not just for the victims of this sudden but preventable death, it is also the rest of us out here who suffer the profound and debilitating grief which could have been averted.

The real threat to American lives is not terrorism but this peculiar fatalism which makes it possible.

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