Guns and Empathy

Asha, ready for Talent Round-Up day on the Mickey Mouse Club TV show

Asha, ready for Talent Round-Up day on the Mickey Mouse Club TV show

I got my first gun when I was 10 years old. It was a Daisy BB gun (not a Red Ryder, and I did not shoot my eye out). We had just moved to 76 acres in the middle of nowhere, Texas. It was nice land, maybe one-quarter plowed and the rest wild. I also got my first pair of cowboy boots, because only a fool walks through tall grass on a warm day in anything else. There were lots of snakes, and it’s far better that they bite into leather than your ankle.

When I was 11, Dad bought me a used 4-10 shotgun at a pawn shop. I think he bought his 12-gauge at the same time. Now, I know some people would think that we didn’t really need these guns, because I didn’t start deer hunting until I was 14 or so. And you don’t shoot deer with a shotgun—well, not with shot, anyway. Dad did hunt deer with 12-gauge slugs before he bought a 30/30, which is a good deer rifle. No, the shotguns were not for deer, but they were for wildlife. This is going to horrify some folks, I know. And I will be honest:  Dad shot animals he simply did not need to shoot, and he should have left alone. But there are times when you have to. For example, I woke up one morning before school and went out to Dad’s workshop on the porch in my bare feet and nightgown. We had a freezer in there, and I wanted a frozen waffle. The moment I walked into the shop, I heard a rattling noise. I froze. I looked around and could not see the source, so I high-tailed it out of there faster than you can say, “Leggo my Eggo.” My Dad got his .22 pistol (with shot bullets, which are effective against snakes at close range) and discovered that not one, but two rattlesnakes had bedded up in some old insulation he had in there. Mighty cozy. In circumstances like these, you are not going to try to catch the snakes and release them somewhere else. No, you’re going to shoot them. And he did.

Guns like these are excellent tools for hunting and protection from things like rattlesnakes and rabid animals (remember Old Yeller?). Over the years, I have eaten squirrel, rabbit, and even raccoon (which we did not like—too fatty). In general, I believe that if you kill an animal, you should eat it. I don’t have a lot of respect for killing for trophies. In my opinion, that’s something that insecure people do. And deer hunting, at this point, is probably necessary, because we’ve killed most of the big predators. Deer hunting is regulated to maintain a stable population. Hunters who follow the rules are good hunters. Unethical hunters kill out of season, poach, or don’t eat what they kill.

Right now, Americans are quite divided on the issue of guns, which is understandable. A shotgun can do a great deal of damage, but an AR-47 can cause carnage on a large scale. The liberal take is generally that we need some gun control. The conservative take is that the liberals are not going to take their guns away. And let’s be honest:  that will never happen. Constitutionally, it can’t happen, and practically, it can’t happen because you would face an uprising of some sort. Americans shooting Americans, episode 50,089. Ish.

Our nation’s founders did not envision what amounts to an arms race, however:  a man with a gun is met by a man with a cannon, who is then met by a man with a bazooka… Remember Bugs Bunny?

It’s all about who has the bigger, better weapon. In the days of single-shot muskets, they never envisioned something like the AR-47 which, let’s face it, was designed for one purpose, and one purpose only:  war and killing other people.

Some folks maintain that they need guns like the AR-47 to defend themselves from a potentially tyrannical government. Liberals scoff, but the government does have a lot of power to mess with people who don’t adhere to the status quo. They have done so, and the assumption that the government always operates in the interests of its citizens can be easily disproved (witness our current Congress, which continues to fail to advance legislation that the majority of people support). On the other hand, however, no AR-47 is going to protect someone from a drone and military-grade weaponry. The man who shot the police officers in Dallas, Texas recently was taken out by a drone. The shooter’s actions were horrific and deplorable, of course, but it is significant that an American citizen on American soil was executed by drone for the first time with no trial or jury. Even Charles Manson is still in prison…

So, what’s next? Should conservative gun-owners who fear the government start stocking up on drone warfare? I doubt they could, but you see my point. It’s escalation. Our governments have done it, and now we have a globe awash in weapons that can destroy the whole planet. And they’re working on “mini-nukes” for more tactical use. After all, what matter if an entire region is laid waste for countless generations, with God knows how much “collateral damage,” which is a nice way of saying, “dead people everywhere?” And in the middle of it all, a handful of companies profit from our desire to kill one another and be the last person standing on the wasteland that ensues. Remember Duck Dodgers?

There once was a day when, if you wanted to kill a man, you had to look him in the eyes and watch him die. You might use a knife, sword, battle axe, or rifle, but you could see what you had done. Murder, whether “unlawful” or state-sanctioned (war), is ugly. Now we can pull a trigger and spray hundreds of bullets in one go, or kill from afar with an unmanned drone. The whites of their eyes? No, targets on a screen.

Conservatives are correct when they say that guns aren’t the problem. (After Nice, no one is suggesting that we ban vans.) That being said, I don’t think that military weaponry has any place in a civilized society. I think the ban on semiautomatic and automatic weapons should be reinstated, not because it will prevent all mass shootings, but because it will lower the body count if one occurs. The real problem, as always, is our lack of compassion and empathy for one another, and our desire to solve problems using force instead of understanding.

Civilization—and I mean real Civilization, not “civilization” defined by tons of technology—is impossible without empathy and its cousin, compassion. In America today, there is a shortage of empathy. People who are diagnosed with personality disorders like narcissistic or borderline personality disorder are literally incapable of empathy. It’s part of their illness. They cannot relate to others. Likewise, people who were raised by someone like this, or were heavily influenced by someone like this, may struggle with empathy as well.

What is empathy? It is the ability to place yourself in someone else’s shoes. It is the ability to imagine life from their point of view. In our increasingly binary society (“I’m right, and you’re wrong”), we need this, desperately. Liberals, imagine for one moment that you are a white man living in rural America. Imagine that you have a high school education, because you stuck it out, and that maybe you found a good job at a nearby factory. Imagine that you had expectations:  marry, have children, buy a home, earn a pension. And then your job was outsourced to Mexico, or China, or Bangladesh. Imagine being jobless for 6 months, then a year, then maybe three. Your wife supports the family working a couple of jobs. How do you feel? Are you angry? Hopeless?

Now, conservatives, imagine for a moment that you are a black mother. You love your children. You have two teenage boys. They’re good kids, and they go to school, but it’s rough sometimes. They get called out for infractions that white kids seem to get a pass for. They’ve been called the N word a couple of times, by strangers. Your oldest has his driver’s license. You watch the news, and you are afraid. You’re afraid that he’ll get stopped, that he’ll do or say the wrong thing. You’re afraid of having to plan a funeral for your child. How do you feel? Helpless? Angry?

Here’s the thing:  if you simply cannot imagine either scenario, or similar ones, then you need to increase your empathy quotient. If the mere thought of placing yourself in the shoes of someone you think of, even unconsciously, as “other” or an ideological “enemy,” then you need this exercise badly. Everyone has a valid perspective. Everyone has feelings and fears and dreams. Everyone may act illogically or unkindly on the basis of their perceptions from time to time. But that doesn’t mean that their perspective is any less valid.

We need to be able to imagine ourselves from another person’s perspective, no matter who they are. In some cases, this may be extremely difficult. I get that. But if we don’t, then we can’t talk to one another without getting defensive. It’s the first thing that happens in an argument! A liberal says, “Your gun…” and the conservative instantly responds by feeling attacked:  “You’re not taking it!” And vice versa. If a person of color brings up race, most white people get defensive and respond, in some form with, “I’m not a racist!” And so forth.

We get defensive when we assume we know what the other person is saying, even if that is not what the other person means. It happens all the time. Our beliefs and judgments color these assumptions. For example, I have noticed that a conservative mindset reads some memes very differently than a liberal one. We can literally read the same meme and come away with two very different interpretations. And neither of them is wrong.

Getting defensive goes hand in hand with getting angry. Our anger sits right there, beneath the surface, ready to flare up at any moment. But here’s the thing:  a five-year-old may erupt into a tantrum over a perceived slight, but this is something we’re supposed to grow out of. We’re supposed to mature. Yet our political and social discourse seems to be degenerating back to a preschool state. It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to lash out at someone in anger, though. Would you give a gun to a five-year-old? I hope not. But I’ve seen a lot of emotional five-year-olds in grown-up bodies lately. Some of them kill people.

Do we want to talk to each other? Really? Then we need empathy and compassion for them before we begin. We need to listen before jumping to the pretaped conclusions and judgments that run through our heads on a regular basis. We need to be dedicated to finding mutual solutions, to compromise, to understanding. Compromise is essential:  trying to enforce our views with force has never worked, but it has created a lot of misery.

Alternatively, we can continue to scream at each other and hurt one another as though we’re in a macabre Argument Clinic sketch back in the Wild West:

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