(Still) Out of Control

The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.  (Julia Ward Howe)


In my salad days, I wrote news stories and theater reviews for The Lansing Star, an alternative indie rag. Eventually, I had a weekly column. A little soapbox all mine own of social/political commentary. From all that ink, I clipped and saved a few of the pieces that meant the most to me. After the recent carnage on the Vegas Strip, I took down my dusty box of tear sheets, and pulled this one, penned in January 1983. I believe you will recognize much from it.

Following the piece is a brief but telling update.

Out of Control (1983)

Two years ago, on December 8, 1980, John Lennon was murdered in front of his apartment house in Manhattan—shot five times in the chest and shoulder. He lost over 80% of his blood volume within seven minutes and was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital, just one mile away from his home.

John Lennon was killed by a .38 Charter Arms revolver, a fairly common type of handgun, especially favored for its rapid-fire capability. He never had a chance—before he could even turn to face the man who had called his name, all five bullets had been fired.

The media reacted to his murder as if on cue, pointing to all the assassinations over the last two decades. Camera operators zoomed in on tearful faces in the crowd outside the Dakota Apartments where Lennon had lived with his wife and son. Famous personalities were rounded up to explain, conjecture, expound upon the moment.

Time and Newsweek ran special sections on Lennon’s life and death, alongside articles calling for tougher gun laws.

“This will be the turning point,” prophesized singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson, a close friend of Lennon. “I think John’s death will do more for the cause of gun control than all the combined efforts of the past decade.”

The media had its week—tributes, memorials, rhetoric—and then we woke up one morning to find the newspapers had returned to Iran, the network news teams were once again consumed  with the economy. All the fiery speeches and inspired visions of a better world had been clipped, taped, and safely stored away by the historians.

Two years have passed and we are still on the dark side of that turning point Harry Nilsson and so many others spoke of. Around 20,000 more people have died since that night in December 1980—murdered by handguns on the streets of Detroit, New York, Chicago, and Lansing. The National Rifle Association (NRA) still runs one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, DC. Nothing has changed.

We’ve been busy with other things since that time—tightening up on welfare, trying to stop Japanese imports, deregulating business, and building nuclear weapons. The seeming urgency for stricter gun control which inflamed the passions of so many in recent times is almost passé. Last month, the gun control proposal in California went down to a quiet defeat. Yet the long list of handgun victims continues to grow, untouched by a generation of assassinations and murders.

In Michigan, a state in which the NRA has seldom been pressed into any serious action to defend the faith, gun control and the prevailing attitude toward tougher legislation is summed up on the bumper stickers of many pickup trucks: You’ll take away my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

There is no notable movement dedicated to gun control in Michigan. The NRA and the Michigan United Conservation Club have succeeded with steamroller precision in flattening the few attempts Michigan legislators have proposed: a requirement that all gun owners pass a competency test, a call for a mandatory two-year minimum sentence for anyone having a handgun in their possession while committing a crime. Both proposals were conservative in scope—benign in terms of gun control legislation that would prohibit the manufacture, sales, and possession of all handguns.

Current handgun registration practices and requirements vary from state to state. “Registration” may mean nothing more than being able to sign your name in one state, while another state demands that you have a record clear of felonies for x-number of years. But variations aside, it is still frighteningly easy to purchase a handgun almost anywhere in this country. America is the land of cowboys, gunslingers, and the Marlboro Man.

The NRA expends great energy (and dollars) to convince people that the constitutional right to bear arms means private citizens have a right to carry handguns. They prey on the uneasy paranoia of people frightened by the rising rate of violent crime (paradoxically, of course, handguns are the major factor in these crimes)—people who feel unsafe and uncertain. Just a “small” gun in the house for protection—just in case. There are now over 50 million “small” handguns in circulation.

As for protection, the number of incidents in which Mr. Upstanding Citizen has successfully fended off the “bad guy” by wielding his .38 are so rare as to not be worthy of statistical count. The “little gun in the nightstand drawer” or “the little surprise under the cash register counter,” however, kills thousands of people each year, either through accidents or during heated family quarrels. These homeowners and shopkeepers whose thinking has been paralyzed by anxiety for their safety and the protection of their property, wittingly or unwittingly aid and abet the rampant violence in America. Violence begets violence. Fear and paranoia breed violence.   

There is only one solution that will stop the killing: A total ban on the manufacture, sale, and possession of handguns in the United States. Anything less is empty rhetoric. New Yorkers pointed out, after John Lennon’s death, that Mark Chapman could never have purchased his Charter Arms .38 in their state. The fact remains, however, that a gifted composer, poet, father, and husband died because Chapman could purchase a gun in Hawaii and bring it into New York.

The NRA is fond of saying that if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns, but who are these outlaws? Chapman was not a criminal until he pulled the trigger. By the time the smoke has cleared, and a person has legitimately been branded an “outlaw,” there is another body in the morgue.

Murder may be in the heart but opportunity is in the weapon—the gun is the great equalizer. It cannot be turned away by physical strength or ingenuity as can a knife or lead pipe. The gun makes no distinction, shows no deference, nor does it need to. Anyone can shoot anybody at any time and, with the advent of exploding bullets, be fairly certain of firing a fatal shot.

In the week following Lennon’s death, there were pages upon pages written in favor of stricter gun control legislation in moving, eloquent, thoughtful prose. But I am reminded of Dallas, November 1963, of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.—and how we’re still eclipsed in darkness waiting for the turning point.

The View From 2017

1) In the almost 35 years since I wrote “Out of Control,” around 450,000 more Americans have been murdered by guns. This number does not include suicides involving firearms, which is closer to a million for the same time period.

2) Not only has the frequency of mass shootings taken an uptick in the last 10 years, four of the six deadliest shootings (as measured by number of fatalities) since 1983 have occurred in that same decade:

Virginia Tech 2007 (32 dead)

Sandy Hook victims

Sandy Hook 2012 (27 dead)

Orlando 2016 (49 dead)

Las Vegas 2017 (58+ dead)

Nine months into 2017, we have already tied the record—seven—for highest number of mass shootings in any given year. There were 51 mass shootings for 2007 to 2017, a 60% increase over the total number from the 25 years prior to that.

3) The gun that killed John Lennon was a five-round, rapid firing handgun. Five rounds. Today’s semi-automatic weapons put that number in the shade. One gun aficionado estimated the possible firepower of a semi-automatic weapon (where the shooter has to actually squeeze the trigger for each shot) as 120 bullets a minute including the five-second pause to reload every 30 rounds.

Twelve of the semiautomatic rifles, including an AR-15, the Las Vegas gunman had in his hotel room were outfitted with “bump stocks,” an accessory that gives a semi-automatic gun the firepower of an automatic weapon—400 to 800 rounds per minute.

4) The NRA is one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, DC. In 2015, alone, it took in $336.7 million. The following year, it spent almost $32 million to elect Trump through its Institute for Legislative Action, a lobbying arm that spends BIG on political campaigns.

The NRA is currently pushing two bills in Congress. The first would make it easier to purchase silencers. The NRA argues that silencers cut down on hearing damage in hunters, but opponents point out that silencers make the location of a gunman difficult to detect by both those in the vicinity of the shooter, and police officers attempting to isolate and stop the perpetrator.

The second bill on the NRA wishlist would override state laws that forbid concealed carry, allowing gun owners in concealed carry states to bring their guns (concealed, of course) anywhere in the country.

5) Who’s got the guns? According to a recent survey, half of America’s firearms are owned by just 3% of its citizens (an average of 17 guns per person). Who are these people, and why do they feel the need for so much firepower?

6)  Forty-two states require a state-issued permit to carry concealed weapons in public. Eight states, however, require no such permit. In Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming, anyone you meet may be carrying a concealed weapon and no one needs a permit to do so. All but five states allow open carry of firearms, and 31 of those states do not require a license or permit to do so.

7)  Florida was the first state to enact a Stand Your Ground law in 2005—the law that allowed George Zimmerman to fatally shoot Trayvon Martin, a black 17-year-old student, and walk away free. Florida’s Stand Your Ground law says homicide is justifiable if the shooter feels “threatened” in some way.

Since 2005, 33 more states have adopted some version of Stand Your Ground.  A study found that homicides have risen by an average of 8% in these states.

The Trajectory of Violence

It’s late November, 1963. The week before Thanksgiving, and the onset of holiday hoopla. I’m in elementary school and I come home for lunch to find my mother kneeling on the family room rug, the local daily paper spread out around her. She’s clipping articles about the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas, an event that happened just yesterday. She looks up at me. “You’ll want these,” she says. “To remember this moment.” My mother, a lifelong Republican, voted for Nixon, not Kennedy. She can’t stand JFK and his wife Jackie, but she understands: This is a historic tragedy. Nothing like this has happened in my lifetime, or hers.

What we both fail to grasp on that day, is that this is just the beginning. In less than five years, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy will be dead, felled by gunmen. Kent State will see four college students shot dead by their own state’s National Guard for protesting the Vietnam War.

On that day in 1963, there are roughly 84 million guns in America. Fifty years later, there will be four times that number of firearms.

We are still eclipsed in darkness. Still waiting for the turning point.