My family knows about guns. I am a man of African descent, who lives in North America and speaks English. That is only possible because of one tool. The Gun. The gun didn’t force my ancestors into the hull of a ship on the coast of West Africa. The gun didn’t push my native ancestors off of the land we now call South Carolina (I have native American in my family, but I get my good hair from the African side). The gun is only a tool. Men did those horrible things, using guns. The gun is the most important tool in the creation of this country. We are now in a national discussion, trying to figure out how to keep this tool out of the hands of people we deem mentally ill. My family has a history with the mentally ill as well.
Both of my grandmothers spent time in mental institutions. By all accounts, my grandmothers were some of the greatest humans to ever walk the earth. My maternal grandmother spent a significant amount of time in St. Elizabeth, and gave birth to my two youngest uncles while there. Both women were beautiful, smart, and engaging. They loved their families. But, like millions of Americans, they had mental and emotional issues. I don’t know the details about my grandmothers’ respective mental illnesses. They grew up in a time when it was impolite to discuss these things. From what we know now about mental health, there is probably someone from each generation of our family who has dealt with it, going back as far as my family’s existence as slaves on South Carolina plantations.
Over the past decade, we’ve had to deal with the mental illness that has shown up in my generation. I only have theories on what causes things like schizophrenia (and I am not diagnosing the perpetrator of last weeks madness). I know that many people suffering from it rant and rave about god, and judgment, and death, and sexual purity while in their mid to late twenties. So much so that when I described these things to my mental health professional friends, they diagnosed it immediately. I have theories, about how living in a society that teaches about a vengeful god who watches and punishes even thought crimes, is part of the mental issues some people are not capable to deal with. But they are just theories, that I am opened to learning more about, and discussing with anyone ready to have a grown up and real conversation. What I do know for certain is that amongst all the ranting and ravings from this family member, their detachment, their inappropriate conversations and downright creepy and disturbing habits, we realized as a family that this person had at least 4 firearms. Weapons that this person was proud of, knew how to use, and kept in their residence. This family member learned how to use them before the mental illness set in, and had shown no signs of being violent at any point in their lives. I’ll come back to that story…
So here we are in America, having two conversations at once. Mental illnesses and guns. I am sad about what happened at that elementary school, but I am honestly excited that these topics are in the forefront of the media. They don’t only arise when 6 year olds are shot down, and they won’t go away when the 24/7 news media finally pull their news vans from in front of the school. But to frame the conversation, debate, and inevitable argument, let’s put some things in perspective:
First, we are not descending to a depth of depravity never seen before in America. America is always, always, always killing massive amounts of innocent women and children. Iraq, Vietnam, Black Wall Street, Native Americans and even Mormons in the old west. Most times we considered the women and children “others” instead of “us”, so we feel less outrage. But crazed men with guns walk into schoolyards, private residences, and churches, and try to kill everyone all the time in our history. We have not reached a new low in our society. Just recently in Afghanistan a marine took out a family in the middle of the night with his machine gun. Just snapped. This is not new. This is what America has always done. Guns don’t cause this. Insane, senseless, genocidal type violence is the asili (“asili” is the word Professor Marimba Ani uses to describe the seed of European cultural thought) of our country’s founding. We need to address that directly, and stop being shocked when it plays itself out in our streets and other “it’s not suppose to happen here” places. That sense of perspective is necessary to make rational decisions on what to do next.
Second, do not trust a government that is claiming to disarm you for your own safety. Gun violence is the sand that the American house is built on. The 2nd amendment isn’t about defending against home invaders, or for hunting deer in season. It’s specifically about shooting at a tyrannical government (first), pushing out Indian “savages” (second) and squashing African slave revolts (third). The three most important developments in this countries greatness (defeating the British, acquiring an entire continent full of land, and free labor to work that land) are direct results of the gun. Our modern gun laws aren’t made to stop school shootings. They were designed by Governor Ronald Reagan and the California legislators to disarm the Black Panther Party. The Black Panthers were African Americans bent on black people not being victims of government sanctioned police violence by using guns. So they brandished guns themselves. I don’t want to live in a militarized society. It just happens to be the case. I don’t want to be violent, but when most people say they “don’t believe in violence”, what they really mean is that they are unprepared when violence occurs. Violence doesn’t need ones belief in it for it to be true. It’s not like Jesus or Santa Claus. It just is. And when violence goes down, it’s best to be prepared for it.
I do not expect to be able to defend myself against Seal Team 6. I know I can’t even face off with the county sheriff. But I don’t want some government to decide to initiate marshal law, and successful use a small, well armed military to hold down millions of dissenters. Many people argue that it’s foolish to think that civilian weapons can stand against the U.S. military. The fact that the military possess weapons that we think we have no chance against; means the 2nd amendment has already been eroded. That thinking also misses a vital point. The U.S. military is still figuring out how to counteract guerrilla war. Ask the Vietnamese, or the Afghans. An American guerrilla insurgency would eventually include both the already well-armed civilians, but also military defectors who have sided with them and brought their weapons. Of all the guerrilla insurgencies that have occurred over the last 3 centuries, an American one would be the most formidable. (No, I am not planning an armed revolt, but I am an American, and it’s my patriotic duty to have thought this through).
The founders would literally laugh at that idea of giving up their arms. You might think it’s crazy; to think there would come a time when Americans might need to defend themselves against other Americans, or the government itself. I honestly don’t think we are anywhere near that. Our government seems to change hands between one corporate sponsored political party to another with little more than a fuss every four years. But everything in history is cyclical, and thinking that a time of relative peace will always remain, is what ambushed the people of Warsaw when the Nazi’s came to exterminate them. It’s foolish not to be prepared, especially in a country founded by shooting people.
So we are faced with two irreconcilable truths. Guns are essential and patriotic, and mental illness is real and more prevalent than anyone cares to admit. Now back to my story about my family member…
Our family was confronted with a choice. To keep the uncomfortable silence that we have kept for our entire family history, or be direct and honest with a member of our family we love dearly. We chose to be direct, and even though we are still in the midst of getting our loved one the mental help they need and deserve, we have educated ourselves about the condition, and most importantly, confiscated all of our family members weapons. We have discussed it as a family, and even informed the police about our concerns. The truth is IT’S ALREADY ILLEGAL FOR THE MENTALLY ILL TO OWN WEAPONS. The problem isn’t making that law, it has been federal law for a long time. The problem is, we haven’t discussed what mental illness looks like. Now that this family member has been officially diagnosed, there isn’t a legal gun dealership in America allowed to sell this person a gun after running a background check. Once again, this person has never hurt anyone. But if you’ve ever looked into the eye’s of someone you love, who has been overtaken with mental illness, you realize you do not know them any more, and are not in a position to predict what you think they would do. We have learned as a family, to not blame this person for their illness. We have gone to counseling sessions, and read books. We have prayed and cried. We are fighting together.
I am not revealing that persons identify. Not because of personal shame, but because I don’t have everyone’s permission to be specific with the details. But I feel absolutely free telling this story, because I know anything I’m going through, there are virtually thousands more going through the same experience. Many families have their Uncle Pete, as portrayed in the classic 90’s film “Soul Food”. The relative with a mental illness we stash somewhere and forget . Sometimes you need someone else to speak up about it. I have been criticized and vilified for many things in my life, but being silent in the face of impending disaster will never be one of them.
So let’s talk. Let’s be real about what really has made this country “great”. Let’s be real about all of our social ills and mental pitfalls. Let’s not dismiss whatever we find out about this latest shooter as “just some crazy person”, because they have a mental illness. Let’s find ways to deal with the real issues that have caused this society to be so violent, and not limit it to a discussion of banning the tool in carrying out this violence. This will not get swept under the rug. This is not some new development that America has never faced. It’s only something we’ve never talked about.