“Battleground America” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 22)

2012 has been a horrifying year for guns: after the shooting of unarmed Trayvon Martin, the massacre at the cineplex in Aurora, Colorado, and the kindergarden shootings in Newtown Connecticut, Americans have refocused on the issue of gun violence.

Travon Martin

Travon Martin, family photo

Battleground America by Jill Lepore in the April 23 New Yorker takes a close look at the issue, underscoring the history and culture surrounding guns and the Second Amendment, as well as exploring the depth of the problem.

What makes Lepore’s story so strong is that it is viscerally close up in parts, but steps back and looks at the matter from a macro and historical level. It shifts between the personal and the policy sides of the story.

And the backbone of the story is the narrative of a single incident of a school shooting at an Ohio High School. As Lepore unravels the history and state of guns and gun violence in America, she dribbles out what happened before, during, and after one of too many gun massacres in America in recent years. With this, the bloody, personal toll of the issue is never lost on the reader, it feels urgent and horrifying:

At Chardon High School, kids ran through the halls screaming “Lockdown!” Some of them hid in the teachers’ lounge; they barricaded the door with a piano. Someone got on the school’s public-address system and gave instructions, but everyone knew what to do. Students ran into classrooms and dived under desks; teachers locked the doors and shut off the lights. Joseph Ricci, a math teacher, heard Walczak, who was still crawling, groaning in the hallway. Ricci opened the door and pulled the boy inside. No one knew if the shooter had more guns, or more rounds. Huddled under desks, students called 911 and texted their parents. One tapped out, “Prayforus.”

Almost as scary as the retelling of some of these incidents is the sheer numbers. She makes clear that this isn’t the problem of a few crazed loners, but a culture of guns and the deep proliferation of firepower across the nation. She lays out the facts about guns in America, putting the evidence on the table like a prosecutor:

There are nearly three hundred million privately owned firearms in the United States: a hundred and six million handguns, a hundred and five million rifles, and eighty-three million shotguns. That works out to about one gun for every American. The gun that T. J. Lane brought to Chardon High School belonged to his uncle, who had bought it in 2010, at a gun shop. Both of Lane’s parents had been arrested on charges of domestic violence over the years. Lane found the gun in his grandfather’s barn.

The United States is the country with the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world. (The second highest is Yemen, where the rate is nevertheless only half that of the U.S.) No civilian population is more powerfully armed.

As she delves into the history of the Second Amendment and the National Rifle Association, she, like Adam Winkler in “A Secret History of Guns,” (which I reviewed a week or so ago) she reveals that the notion that every American in entitled to own and carry as many firearms as they’d like is a relatively new idea. Far from the recent arguments from the N.R.A. that the Constitution has made gun ownership sacrosanct since the the founding of the nation, she shows that American mania for personal gun ownership has really been much more of a recent development, rising most dramatically in the 1970s.

Lepore even goes to a gun education class and takes some shoots at a shooting range herself, to get a sense of how it feels to fire a gun.

But the story keeps coming back to the human cost of guns. The story never veers too far away from the personal nature of the issue. And she does it with writing that is very personal and haunting. She never lets the reader forget how many innocent men and women have been murdered with guns, and that they all had names and lives that ended prematurely:

Here she grimly details one such group of victims:

They had come from all over the world. Ping, twenty-four, was born in the Philippines. She was working at the school to support her parents, her brother, two younger sisters, and her four-year-old son, Kayzzer. Her husband was hoping to move to the United States. Tshering Rinzing Bhutia, thirty-eight, was born in Gyalshing, India, in the foothills of the Himalayas. He took classes during the day; at night, he worked as a janitor at San Francisco International Airport. Lydia Sim, twenty-one, was born in San Francisco, to Korean parents; she wanted to become a pediatrician. Sonam Choedon, thirty-three, belonged to a family living in exile from Tibet. A Buddhist, she came to the United States from Dharamsala, India. She was studying to become a nurse. Grace Eunhea Kim, twenty-three, was putting herself through school by working as a waitress. Judith Seymour was fifty-three. Her parents had moved back to their native Guyana; her two children were grown. She was about to graduate. Doris Chibuko, forty, was born in Enugu, in eastern Nigeria, where she practiced law. She immigrated in 2002. Her husband, Efanye, works as a technician for A.T. & T. They had three children, ages eight, five, and three. She was two months short of completing a degree in nursing.

Ping, Bhutia, Sim, Choedon, Kim, Seymour, and Chibuko: Goh shot and killed them all. Then he went from one classroom to another, shooting, before stealing a car and driving away. He threw his gun into a tributary of San Leandro Bay. Shortly afterward, he walked into a grocery store and said, “I just shot some people.”

This won’t be the last lengthly examination of guns we’ll see, especially in the light of the Newtown tragedies, but it will still be one of the most comprehensive and well-written stories on the issue.

Read Battleground America →

“The Secret History of Guns” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 13)

As a big fan of authors like Adam Hochschild and Laura Hillenbrand, I’m always impressed with writers who can write about history in a riveting, colorful way. So many of the history books I read in high school and college were lifeless, tedious marches through events, places, and dates. But the best modern nonfiction writers like Hillenbrand and Hochschild make history feel fresh, vibrant, and relevant.

Adam Winkler’s The Secret History of Guns” from the September 2011 issue of The Atlantic is another fine example of a longform article that reveals history in a fresh, engaging way.

A gun with the barrel bent backwards

Artwork by Joseph Durning/Durning 3D

The politics of guns and gun control have been debated endlessly in newspapers and magazines over the years, but there has been much less written about the history of the issue. Winkler’s story is a surprising bit of history that shows how much the ideology behind guns and regulations have reversed dramatically over the years. And he tells that history with a keen sense of narrative.

For starters he opens with a scene that seem almost inconceivable today:

THE EIGHTH-GRADE STUDENTS gathering on the west lawn of the state capitol in Sacramento were planning to lunch on fried chicken with California’s new governor, Ronald Reagan, and then tour the granite building constructed a century earlier to resemble the nation’s Capitol. But the festivities were interrupted by the arrival of 30 young black men and women carrying .357 Magnums, 12-gauge shotguns, and .45-caliber pistols.

The 24 men and six women climbed the capitol steps, and one man, Bobby Seale, began to read from a prepared statement. “The American people in general and the black people in particular,” he announced, must “take careful note of the racist California legislature aimed at keeping the black people disarmed and powerless Black people have begged, prayed, petitioned, demonstrated, and everything else to get the racist power structure of America to right the wrongs which have historically been perpetuated against black people The time has come for black people to arm themselves against this terror before it is too late.”

Seale then turned to the others. “All right, brothers, come on. We’re going inside.” He opened the door, and the radicals walked straight into the state’s most important government building, loaded guns in hand. No metal detectors stood in their way.

Not only is this a gripping bit of history, framed with some nice details (the kids getting ready to eat with Governor Reagan, the specific firearms the Panthers arrived with, and the fact that there was no metal detector at the entrance of the state capitol in 1967), but it’s written with a cinematic appreciation for the symbolic importance of a moment. It doesn’t hurt that Bobby Seale was a great character with a talent for the dramatic.

Winkler also leave the reader stunned, dying to know what happened next. It’s a fine use of dramatic tension.

This scene serves as a launching point to explore the constitutional issues that have shaped gun rights and regulations since the birth of the nation, and why, until more modern times, the left was often the side pushing for guns rights, while the right often fought to restrict them.

To illustrate this, Winkler recreates another scene in which Huey Newton, one of the Black Panther leaders, has an armed confrontation with a police officer:

“Who in the hell do you think you are?” an officer responded.

“Who in the hell do you think you are?,” Newton replied indignantly. He told the officer that he and his friends had a legal right to have their firearms.

Newton got out of the car, still holding his rifle.

“What are you going to do with that gun?” asked one of the stunned policemen.

“What are you going to do with your gun?,” Newton replied.

By this time, the scene had drawn a crowd of onlookers. An officer told the bystanders to move on, but Newton shouted at them to stay. California law, he yelled, gave civilians a right to observe a police officer making an arrest, so long as they didn’t interfere. Newton played it up for the crowd. In a loud voice, he told the police officers, “If you try to shoot at me or if you try to take this gun, I’m going to shoot back at you, swine.”

This scene isn’t just for the sake of drama. Winkler goes on to demonstrate how the arguments and the ideology of the Black Panthers will later be embraced and appropriated by the modern gun rights lobby. What was the rhetoric of the radical left in the 1960s becomes the arguments of mainstream conservatives today.

The story isn’t all dramatic moments like this; in fact, the majority of the piece is a methodical look at the history of gun laws in America from colonial times to present day. It challenges readers to drop their assumptions as to who stood on which side of gun laws. White Southerners sought to restrict gun rights in the reconstruction-era South, while freed slaves argued for Second Amendment rights. The National Rifle Association — yes, the N-fucking-R-A — supported gun registration and restrictions in the 1930s. Ronald Reagan fought for gun control at a time when the Black Panthers opposed it.

Start-to-finish, this is a great read and a surprising look at the history of gun control in America.

Read The Secret History of Guns →

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