I live in a state wherein I am too young to buy a beer, but old enough to buy a shotgun.
Within a 15-minute drive from where I live is “Chuck’s Guns & Ammo.” There, I can buy an AR-15 automatic rifle, which fires 800 rounds per minute and is accurate from half a kilometer away, for just over $800. That’s roughly the same price as an expensive cell phone.
Even closer to my house is another gun shop called “Shoot Straight.” They’ve got higher prices, but I can try out any gun I’m attracted to on their shooting range for just $50 before I buy it. Women shoot for free on Mondays.
Shooting rifles is a pastime of many Floridian residents. Some of my closest friends even bond with their families over guns. My best friend in 5th grade used to wake up early every Saturday morning and embark on hunting trips with his father. My own parents, being immigrants, kept their distance from guns. But they didn’t try to keep me away from guns, either. Many times we’d attend gatherings where several shotguns and a shooting range had been set up for the kids’ enjoyment. And many times the other kids my age and I enjoyed them.
“Why do the liberals want to ban guns?” My friends would say as we got older. “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” I liked that phrase. It was a simple and short encapsulation of what my own life experience had taught me up to then: Guns, by nature, aren’t violent. Guns, by nature, bring people together. Friends bond while sport-shooting at targets. Fathers bond with their sons while hunting together. Families feel safer and happier together when keeping a gun in the household for their protection. People don’t buy guns to use them against other people – that was what I always believed. It didn’t matter how many Columbine or Newtown shooters appeared on the news; as far as I cared, those shooters were just crazy. Crazy people will be crazy with guns or without guns, I thought, and there weren’t any crazy people in my life.
Then, when I was 17, my friend was killed in what was later deemed a “mass shooting.”
My friend, Ted, was the head janitor at my high school. On the surface, Ted was a hard, impatient man. He was a little old and comically short, with a salt-and-pepper Super Mario moustache that hid his upper lip from view. We guessed that he must have had years of experience in kicking students out of classrooms because he was good at it. We also guessed that he had spent those years in utter boredom because he didn’t seem to be enjoying himself. That’s why, sometime in 10th grade, my friend James and I decided to reach out to him.
One day, after school, he came into a classroom where James and I were talking. Ted opened the door, entered the room, and, without looking up, said in a tired voice, “Alright, time’s up, get out”. James responded with, “Ted, what do you think of Funkadelic?” Ted looked up at him with fire in his eyes, as though the act of asking that question was an insult to his existence, and said “Funkadelic? I love Funkadelic. Now get the hell out.” He could even have been smiling; it was hard to see through the moustache.
From that point on, James and I made it a point to ask Ted at least one dumb question every afternoon. And Ted made it a point to dismiss every question, every afternoon. At first, I thought Ted’s casual grouchiness was endearing; something that added flavor to otherwise dull moments of the day. But as time went on, I came to understand that his grouchiness was just a façade, that he secretly enjoyed all the dumb questions.
Ted became somewhat of a cult phenomenon at the school. It started with those who were closest to James and I: Ted would go into a room where a group of us were talking, only to stop in surprise as we all shouted “Ted!” in unison. He’d let out a grunt and go about his business, pretending not to notice us but, before long, it wasn’t just our friends doing it. It was happening to him every time he opened a door.
And yet, it didn’t faze him in the slightest. That’s exactly why we enjoyed it so much. For Ted, we students were a nuisance that he was forced to tolerate. For us, Ted was an old, exhausted man, unable to summon the strength of will to continue enjoying his own life. That’s why he needed us, we’d say: The sheer momentum of our teenage years gave him something to latch on to, a sense that he could finally take part in the world again. And we were making him latch on, no matter how much he tried to push us away.
In May of 2013, my class and I graduated. In June, a janitor came to the school with a gun. And Ted finally got away from us for good.
The janitor who shot Ted was never found. He was unhappy with his job and his boss, who was Ted. He was also likely a sociopath – crazy, I told myself, just like all people who shoot other people always are. But none of that mattered anymore. Not to Ted.
Another janitor, a man named Chris, was also dead from being shot at the same time and place as Ted. Chris and his two kids had spent the previous weekend mourning the one year anniversary of the death of his wife, their mother. It’s assumed that the janitor who shot them both had no personal issue with Chris; he was only after Ted. Chris’ only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. His kids will spend the rest of their lives paying for his mistake.
The memorial service for Ted and Chris was small and brief. In attendance were a handful of school administrators and a much larger gathering of students. A local city official thought this would be the appropriate time and place for a speech about the need for gun control. It didn’t matter whether we agreed with him or not. He didn’t care about us and he didn’t care about Ted. For him, Ted and Chris were statistics. Their deaths didn’t hurt him, they helped him. Chris’ kids weren’t his concern, they were his argument. It was all a game. One more “mass shooting” in the news equals one more point for his team. His opinion was less than irrelevant. It was insulting to Ted, Chris, and all of us who were there to remember them. In fact, it occurred to me that the only people whose opinions mattered anymore were dead.
So go ahead. Blame gun laws for making the act of killing so easy. Blame the media for
sensationalizing and encouraging murderers. Blame society for producing murderers in the first place. All are causes. But they distract from what is ultimately the point of the discussion: People. All the things that made Ted a person – his joys, his frustrations, his glorious mustache – disappeared from our lives the moment he died. As far as the politicians were concerned, the only thing that mattered about him was that it was a gun that killed him.
And it’s the same narrative every time someone shoots up a school or a movie theater: “Should those people be allowed to buy guns?” Why are we so quick to dehumanize not just the shooters, but even the victims? Why doesn’t anyone ever ask questions like, “What were the victims’ last thoughts?” or, “What life and family did the victims leave behind?”
My politics on the subject don’t matter. If you asked me what my politics were, I would tell you that I support a ban on all assault weapons. I support mandatory background checks for anyone seeking to own a handgun, and yes, that would include the police. I support strict and enforceable laws delineating how the media must cover shooting incidents. I support the mental rehabilitation of shooters, instead of prison sentences. I would defend any of those points.
And then I would tell you that I don’t care whether you agree with me or not. I would tell you that the only thing that matters, and the only thing that should matter to anyone, is this: Regardless of what you think is either the cause of or the solution to these shooting events, the people involved in the events have desires, hopes, and dreams, just like any of us. And none of us would want our friends and family to be divided on what caused our deaths. We would want them to celebrate our lives and the joy that we were able to bring them while we had the chance.
The debate about gun control is one worth having. However, we must be vigilant that in our bickering we don’t turn the innocent spirits of the victims into partisan forces of discord. We must honor them, together, and as we work to prevent more tragedies, let us do so not out of fear for our own safety, or the insatiable impulse to prove a point. Let us do so out of respect for those who’ve died so far, out of compassion for one another, and out of a mutual love of the life that we all share.
This article was written by Michael Margaritoff. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Scott Wang