Forever nine

This is for Christopher Baker.

Chris was nine years old when a friend shot him through the head by mistake, using a gun the friend’s father kept for protection. Chris was a great kid: fun-loving, kind and athletic. In the open casket at his funeral, he wore a baseball cap that covered the fatal wound. The hole in his parents hearts would never be filled. Chris was their only child, and they never had another.

If Chris had lived, he would be forty-two years old now. Instead, for those who remember him, he’ll always be nine.

If you think I’m about to go into an argument for gun control, be disappointed, because I don’t have one. Like millions of others who know innocent victims of gunfire, I feel grief and despair, even after all these years. Unlike many or most of them, I have no answer.

As Gideon Litchfield writes in Quartz, There is nothing more to say. There is no “debate,” no “national conversation.” There are only entrenched positions that don’t influence each other at all. Specifically, the gun non-debate—

echoes another frozen conflict: the one in Israel-Palestine. Four years of covering it made me see that, in certain disputes, the opposing forces attain a sort of self-correcting stasis. Even after a particularly cruel outrage, equilibrium returns quickly, as if neither side can let go of its claim to eternal victimhood. Change does come—many decades-long conflicts have ended—but it takes its own, often mysterious path that neither words nor any single tragedy can alter.

Indeed, instead of “gun-control debate,” we should call it the “gun-control conflict.” There is no debate here, only forces locked in frozen combat.

And the number of cats out of bags are legion. Today there are more guns than people in the U.S. Given that fact alone, it is not much easier to “control” the gun market, or the use of guns, in the U.S., than it is to control the tides. Guns are abundant and loose in human nature. I fear the best we can hope for is not being among the unlucky, as Chris was.





  1. Chris Heinz’s avatar

    Well, if we all say “the problem cannot be solved”, then we are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. On so many of these problems where we are fighting the old lizard brain being controlled by fear and anger – gun control, climate change denialism, bronze-age patriachy – it is sometimes very hard not to despair. But if we give up, then the old lizards win. So we got to keep on trying.

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    So how do we try, Chris?

    The Left wants stiffer gun laws, the Right wants to keep the status quo. Meanwhile, for both legal and social reasons (we like guns here), the things have been flooding the country for many decades. I don’t see this changing any time soon. But hey, who knows?

    Yesterday The New York Times ran its first front-page editorial in a century, with the title End the Gun Epidemic in America, and this subtitle: “It is a moral outrage and national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency.”

    Like the Times, I see no moral or constitutional argument for allowing people to buy weapons designed to kill many with ease; but that’s the norm in this country, and half or more of the voting population has no problem with near-absolute permissiveness toward firearm purchases of nearly all kinds.

    There are also nuanced arguments from the Right (National Review) that at least make a case that, well, it’s complicated. Which it is.

    I’m curious to see if the Times editorial has any effect. I see this, but also this — and, sadly, this.

    It takes many years for a zeitgeist to change: for society as a whole to change its mind about what is and isn’t okay. We saw it happen with drunk driving in the 80s, smoking in the 90s and same sex marriage in just the last few years. On the other hand, we’ve also seen abortion turn into another pure-conflict issue, with okay and not-okay diverging into opposed and irreconcilable camps.

    On the whole, according to Stephen Pinker, violence in the world is going down, and has been for some time. Yet something of the homicidal persists in human nature, and of the suicidal as well. It is easy for us to rationalize killing others and ourselves, and to put ourselves in danger for causes we consider a greater good. Without that very human feature we would have many fewer heroes, and many places would be far less safe. Changes in this feature will require evolution of Darwin’s kind, and not just in social norms.

    Stats tell us we live (at least in the U.S.) in a time when gun violence is flat, overall, after going down in the ’90s (Pew). Will being appalled at constant news of gun violence change that? Will San Bernardino will be the turning point that Columbine, Sandy Hook and Charleston proved not to be? We’ll see.

  3. vanderleun’s avatar

    First thing you can do is ignore the stereotypical Chris and his pseudreligion ranting about his items of faith.

    Second thing you can do in this environment is to arm yourself. If you ever need a gun, and I sincerely hope you never do, it will be too late to shop.

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    vanderlun, do you realize that you’re being as stereotypical as Chris?

    BTW & FWIW, I grew up with guns. My father kept rifles and shotguns, and gave me one on my twelfth birthday. We had good times hunting together. (With bows and arrows too.) Guns remain a part of life on his side of the family as well, and I have huge respect for my relatives’ responsible approaches to gun ownership and use.

    Though I didn’t stick with hunting (I’d rather just hike in the woods — or ski), I have nothing against it, or guns, or gun ownership. But my near-absent appetite for owning a gun dropped to nothing when Chris Baker was killed.

    That confirmed for me what other studies (such as this one) have long said: “Guns kept in homes are more likely to be involved in a fatal or nonfatal accidental shooting, criminal assault, or suicide attempt than to be used to injure or kill in self-defense.”

    Would a stronger gun law have saved Chris Baker’s life? I doubt it. But a strong and sane restriction on the sale of weapons clearly meant to kill many people with a single pull of a trigger might save some crowd, some time in the future.

  5. Seth Finkelstein’s avatar

    I must grant points for intellectual consistency in the argument: “And the number of cats out of bags are legion. Today there are more guns than people in the U.S. It’s not much easier to “control” the gun market, or the use of guns, than it is to control the tides.”

    I’ve often thought that many of technological inevitability arguments seen in net-policy, could at least be attempted for gun-policy (i.e. without saying they are in fact true, there is a similar structure). Yet my sense was that the net-policy people would shy away from that argument in the case of gun-policy, due to just the differences in the cultural views (again, not to assert one can’t make a distinguishing argument at all). That is, among the social circles of Internet policy types, it’s much easier to say “The best we can hope for is not being among the unlucky” when it’s matter of Google or Twitter versus some powerless person’s reputation, versus after a mass shooting.

    Again, I’m not taking a stance on what is true here. But props for publicly following the logic to a locally impolitic conclusion.

  6. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Seth. Hearing that from you means a lot to me. (That also goes for when you don’t agree. Always good to have you here.)

  7. vanderleun’s avatar

    I point out what you already know: Stereotypes are called such because they are true. Pairs and groups may or may not be contradictory, but the basis of a stereotype is always true. This is especially clear when you reflect that “in general” is not the same thing as “Universally.”

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