Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
Aspen CO Colorado
Well, as I write these words, it is almost New Year’s, the nation teeters on the edge of the so-called fiscal cliff, and our wise legislators in Washington are running around like – well, I was going to say, “like chickens with their heads cut off,” but I don’t want to insult headless chickens.
And in the financial frenzy, we almost seem to have forgotten that too-painful, too-recent tragedy in Connecticut: the murder of 20 elementary school children and seven adults.
How can we balance our nation’s books when we, as a nation, are criminally unbalanced? How can we control our spending when we can’t control our trigger fingers?
As a nation, we are armed and dangerous.
And more than a little crazy.
We think we’re pretty great, but when you look at it that way – armed, dangerous and crazy – who would want us moving into their neighborhood?
“Oh yes, dear. Let’s bring a nice casserole over to the lunatic with all the guns who just moved in down the block.”
When I think about our violent nature,
I remember an evening a couple of decades ago.
My wife and I were living in Spain, and we went out to dinner one night in Madrid with friends who were visiting from New York.
We took the subway, as we often did, and on the way downtown there was an ugly incident: A drunken couple began to fight. She slapped him, he smacked her, friends got involved, and there was a lot of screaming.
Our New York friends panicked. “How do we get out of here?” They wanted to flee to the next car.
My wife and I were puzzled. Sure, it was a nasty scene, but we weren’t involved.
Minutes later, we got to our stop and scurried off the train.
Our friends were still hyperventilating.
In New York, they said, a fight like that could easily and quickly lead to someone pulling out a gun – and they didn’t want to be the innocent bystanders killed by gunfire.
In Spain, we explained, that never happens. No one carries a gun.
Sure, there was crime in Spain. There were murders. There were neighborhoods where you watched your step. But we never worried about getting shot.
Spain is one of those hot-blooded countries: Gypsy passion, bloody bullfights. Their civil war, a precursor to World War II, was a truly vicious affair. They are not timid people.
But they kill one another far less frequently than we Americans do.
In 2010, there were 399 homicides in Spain – and 14,159 homicides in the U.S.
Of course, we’re a much larger country, so a more appropriate number is the homicide rate. In Spain in 2010, there were 0.9 homicides per 100,000 people. In the U.S., there were 4.6.
We kill one another five times more often than they do in Spain.
So, OK, we’re more violent. Much more violent. Five times as murderously violent.
Here’s another set of numbers: In Spain, the rate of gun homicides is 0.2 per 100,000. In the U.S., it is 2.98 per 100,000.
So we Americans kill one another five times as often – but we kill one another with guns 15 times as often.
We Americans like to kill one another – and we particularly like to shoot one another.
As I said, we are armed and dangerous.
One question that comes immediately to mind is “Why?”
Europeans (not just Spaniards) are far less violent than we are – but most of this country is from European stock. What is it about crossing the ocean that turns people into murderous maniacs?
Yes, our nation was founded in a violent revolution in relatively recent times, historically speaking.
And, yes, again, we conquered and settled our great swath of this continent not that many generations ago.
And the founding and conquest were carried out, to a large extent, by men with guns. The well-armed American hero is mythical, but he is not a myth.
So perhaps violence is embedded in our national DNA – embedded too recently to have been gentled by the passage of time.
And let us not forget (as if we could) that our nation’s Founding Fathers placed the right to bear arms in our Constitution.
We can argue whether their words and their intent have been perverted, but the necessity of the well-armed American hero was clear to those men with a Revolutionary War clear in their minds.
But something else was clear to those men: the necessity of freedom of speech. They might have wanted us to be a nation of well-armed citizens – but they also wanted us to be a nation of loudmouths.
We were founded by rabble-rousers – because the rabble needed to be roused.
We need to keep that in mind because the most stalwart defenders of the Second Amendment’s unmitigated right to own guns seem to envision the ideal American society as one in which everyone is packing heat at all times.
The National Rifle Association’s answer to gun violence is simple: Arm everyone. The answer to guns is more guns. The answer to violence is the unlimited potential for more violence.
They claim that we all need to be armed “to protect our freedom.”
But the freedom of an armed camp is no kind of freedom at all.
When everybody’s armed, no one’s really safe.
And no one is free to really say what’s on their mind – because you might upset someone with a hair-trigger temper and a hair-trigger .45.
I don’t want to see the Second Amendment repealed.
I just happen to be a First Amendment guy.
And the Founding Fathers were pretty clear about which rights came first. They put them in numerical order. 1. Free speech. Free press. Free religion. 2. Guns.
We need to grow up. We need to calm down. We need to stop scaring ourselves with stories of “jack-booted federal thugs” or “marauding hordes of Mexican drug dealers.” We need to let go of the myth of the well-armed American hero and try to live up to the myth of a peace-loving nation.
And we need to be able to shoot our mouths off – without worrying about getting our heads shot off in the process.
Ready, aim … happy new year!
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Vagneur: Today’s the big local’s day, even though the celebrating may need to be a bit different this year.