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A new kind of gun-toting American

Three incidents of gun violence in as many days last week have left the people of Seattle shaken. The spate of shootings cast an eerie pall over the Memorial Day weekend in the Emerald City, a city unaccustomed to thinking of itself as either a violent or a dangerous place.

The appalling string of shootings began Thursday with the death of Justin Ferrari, a 43-year-old father of five and seven-year-old children who was preparing for a weekend get-away with his wife and running errands in the Central Area of Seattle.

On Saturday at Seattle Center the peace and harmony of the annual Folklife Festival was shattered by gunfire which hit another bystander, wounding him in the leg. The police pursued the shooter into the crowed Seattle Center House.

Then early Sunday morning there was a series of drive-by shootings in South Seattle. With sixty bullets fired in four drive-bys, its a miracle that no one was killed or wounded. 

When such terrible and deeply disquieting things happen, we want an explanation. We want to know, “What’s going on?” We ask, “What does this mean?” And we want to know, “What can be done to stop it?”

So far, it doesn’t seem that there is any clear or simple explanation, other than the fact that we live in a violent society where 100,000 people a year are killed or wounded by gun violence.

As a nation we are not, sadly, strangers to horrific events of gun violence or mass murder. Columbine, Colorado; Blackburg, Virginia; Oakland, California and a dozen other locations come to mind. But Seattle? Land of lattes, joggers, and people so polite it may be hard to decide who should go at a four-way stop?

Perhaps that’s one meaning of the week’s terrible violence, that we in Seattle are not exempt. This is not something that happens elsewhere and to other people. It happens — is happening — here.

In an April 23 New Yorker article “Battleground America,” Jill Lepore explores America's high rate of gun ownership (There are 300 million privately owned firearms in the U.S.; enough to give one to every American).

"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. Most Americans do not, however, own guns, because three-quarters of people with guns own two or more. According to the General Social Survey, conducted by the National Policy Opinion Center at the University of Chicago, the prevalence of gun ownership has declined steadily in the past few decades. In 1973, there were guns in roughly one in two households in the United States; in 2010, one in three. In 1980, nearly one in three Americans owned a gun; in 2010, that figure had dropped to one in five."

Beneath all the numbers there has also been a deeper change in American culture. Where many Americans once owned guns as part of a rural or small town lifestyle that including hunting, a nationwide shift toward more urban and suburban lifestyles has changed that. Now gun ownership for other reasons — as an expression of a person’s political commitments and rights — has increased. It’s less about a way of life that includes duck hunting and more about a way of life in which, at least for many, being a citizen means being armed.

This did not come about by accident.

“Between 1968 and 2012," Lepore writes, "the idea that owning and carrying a gun is both a fundamental American freedom and an act of citizenship gained wide acceptance and, along with it, the principle that this right is absolute and cannot be compromised; gun-control legislation was diluted, defeated, overturned, or allowed to expire; the right to carry a concealed handgun became nearly ubiquitous.”

There has been a change in our culture. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, a concerted effort, led by the re-styled and newly politicized National Rifle Association, convinced Americans of a new interpretation of the Second Amendment, an interpretation which the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Warren Burger, termed a fraud on the American people in an interview with Lepore.

The ambiguous language of the second amendment about “a well-regulated milita” morphed into the idea that gun ownership and possession is “both a fundamental American freedom and an act of citizenship.” For a growing number, being an American meant packing heat. The NRA and political conservatives found this to be an issue that delivered both money and votes.

The result is the most heavily armed civilian population in the world. When guns are a part of the mix, what might, without them, have been a fist fight and a bloody nose becomes a shooting and a fatality.

Lepore sums up the implications of this politicized re-interpretation of the Second Amendment and the consequent erosion of most efforts to regulate either gun ownership or the carrying of concealed weapons.

“When carrying a concealed weapon for self-defense is understood not as a failure of civil society, to be mourned, but as an act of citizenship, to be vaunted, there is little civilian life left.”

Even in Seattle, where we pride ourselves on a civil society, its institutions and behaviors, this shift is now evident. Increasingly, it seems that citizenship is defined not by the community we are and which together we build, but by our right to own and carry a gun. To call this an impoverished notion of citizenship is an understatement. It is an outrage.

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