Blacksburg, violence, and America

I have been on the sidelines of quite a number of handgun deaths in my life. Thank God, I haven’t really been in the crossfire, nor has any member of my family. But gun violence has come close enough to me to be very unsettling.

In the late 1980s, when I was a graduate student in German at Vanderbilt, a German exchange student, Thomas Weser, was gunned down in a parking lot on campus in the very early morning hours. The murder seemed to be a robbery gone wrong. It became a murder because the mugger had a handgun.

On Christmas Eve 1991, I was living in the Belmont Heights section of Nashville, a cozy suburban neighborhood near several university campuses. My kids were very young. We got along well with our neighbors. There were families all around us.

Diagonally across the street from us lived two brothers. They got into an argument in the middle of the night after much alcohol had been drunk. One brother fetched a loaded handgun and killed the other. Without the loaded handgun in the house, this argument would probably have remained a drunken fistfight, maybe a stabbing.

In February of 1997, our family accompanied my wife on a weekend trip to New York City. My wife had to attend an arts conference, and I was left to explore the city with the kids. On Sunday afternoon we wanted to go to the observation deck of the Empire State Building, but we weren’t sure whether we should wait until Mom got finished with her afternoon meeting. We decided that I would go ahead and take the kids up to the top while Barbara was in her session.

After we returned home to Northern Virginia, we learned that a man had opened fire with a handgun on the Empire State Building’s observation deck later that afternoon. Seven people were shot; one was killed, in addition to the gunman, who committed suicide. If we had waited for Barbara, we might well have been there to experience the shooting firsthand. Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani blamed weak gun laws for the rampage.

America’s latest adventure in easily available firearms is, of course, the massacre at Virginia Tech. As I have mentioned, my wife and daughter, who had visited Blacksburg the day before, missed this one by about 18 hours.

The world press paid close attention to this shooting for a long time. It was front-page news in just about all the newspapers of the world for four or five days. As I write this, nine days after the attack, major papers in Germany, Austria, France, and other countries are still reporting the aftermath.

The one thing the world press has emphasized, without exception, is their absolute bafflement at the U.S. gun laws–or lack thereof. We are the laughingstock of the world in this department. People from civilized countries around the world look at the apparent American fascination with guns and cluck in disapproving astonishment. The unifying theme is something like this: how can a great country such as the U.S., the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, continue to allow this to happen?

After all these years and decades, I cannot come up with an answer. The National Rifle Association seems to have our congressional legislators in a deathgrip. One mass murder happens after another, all carried out with handguns or assault rifles, and yet nothing changes.

The morning after the Virginia Tech shootings, I heard Washington Post sports reporter John Feinstein on WTWP. I wish I could find a transcript of his remarks. Essentially what he said was this: when gun owners and gun fans complain about the inconvenience or unfairness of having to register these deadly weapons, he is sick of hearing about it. Since 9/11 we have been subject to a series of ever more humiliating and inconvenient searches of our persons and property at airports. Nobody really complains, because that’s just the way the world is.

Well, the world is also selling deadly handguns on the Internet to psychotic young men, who then commit mass murder. Couldn’t we endure just a little inconvenience to combat such madness?

I am very angry now at our American stupidity. I am angry at the weak will of the majority of Americans who want stronger gun controls, yet who will not raise hell with their congressmen or senators about it. I am embarrassed to have to try to explain to my European friends and colleagues why Americans are still allowed to buy and carry handguns.

The cartoonist Pat Oliphant has captured my sense of befuddlement and rage.

5 Responses to “Blacksburg, violence, and America”


  • Totally! This is a great essay. I don’t understand the need or desire for guns. If someone wants to shoot something, let them buy a bow and arrow and set up a target in their backyard. Beyond that, why does someone need a gun??

  • I have been so frustrated with this business for so long now. I have never understood what “right” Americans have to own personal weaponry.

    When I hear comparisons, for example, with Switzerland, where all able-bodied adult male citizens are issued an army rifle, I am reminded that those people are in the army reserves. These rifles stay locked up. They are not carried on the street. Culturally, the Swiss don’t see themselves as street fighters with guns.

    Americans, however, do. Enough already. It’s time to join the civilized modern world.

  • Amen!

    Any real student of American History knows that the basis behind the 2nd Amendment does not exist. I am eager to live in a land where the ownership and use of guns is sharply regulated, if not banned (which would take a constitutional amendment, yes, I know, but how I wish we could do it!

    Julie

  • This interests me because I grew up around guns. Well, they were locked away from me until my parents decided I was “old enough.” My parents both are active shooters in a club called the Single Action Shooting Society. They don’t re-enact gunfights — rather, they shoot at metal targets while standing in facades of saloon fronts, etc.

    They’ve been hunters ever since I can remember, but as kids we were taught to never point a gun at a person. Later, of course, this morphed into “except in self-defense.” You may have visions of pistol-packing mommas running through your heard. Neither of them has a conceal and carry permit and does not keep a gun on their person.

    I personally don’t own any guns and don’t have much desire to shoot one. Hitting a target from a distance is satisfying, just as doing well at anything gives satisfaction, but I’m not drawn to it.

    I think the world would be a fine place without guns, but I don’t complain or worry that my parents enjoy theirs.

    How’s that for “on the fence?”

    I also wondered whether you are blogging somewhere else now, or have stopped completely. I found your blog while searching for the term “I know, right?” I’ve heard a co-worker up here use it a couple times and it drives me nuts.

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