2016 was a rough year for gun-related crime in our community. It was hard to hop on the internet or turn on the radio or television without hearing something about another incident. It seemed, though, that right on the heels of every newsworthy story followed the inevitable political assault that oftentimes prevented people from being able to engage in the conversation in a meaningful way.
In the spring, I set out to do a little investigative work and track the story from a different angle: the angle of the guns themselves. I am an addictions therapist by training, and I hear this argument in that world too. It isnt the drugs or alcohol [guns] that are the problem, its the people who use them. Is it that simple though? Its not the guns? Clearly they must play a role. And that was what I set out to learn about. There had been six murders by gunshot in just 34 days in and around Madison, which seemed like a reasonable place to start. Track the guns, learn their story.
I had a boyfriend in high school who was quite a talented writer. He used to write amazing letters that provided an epistolary history of our teenage romance. One of the letters contained a brief story of how he would camp out by the mailbox in his arctic ski cap waiting for a letter from [me]. It seems that is what I am relegated to at present as I wait for word from the Madison Police Department. The investigations are incomplete, so no records are available. If the waiting period for these reports and impending Wisconsin weather are any indication, arctic ski cap recommended.
Speaking of that, have you ever had one of those moments where you say something and thenvoila!your words seem to have had some kind of otherworldly connection to events you had no idea would unfold? That is exactly the experience I had when part one of this series hit the stands. My last words: more to come. June 12, 2016. Forty-nine people were killed in an Orlando nightclub shooting. I wont go into details; it was clearly well publicized. Forty-nine people. In my head, I kept trying to visualize them. Who were they? Almost before I could ask the question, TIME Magazine had published the answer complete with their pictures. Forty-nine Latino people. Beautiful. Youthful. Gone. I dont care what your politics are or your morality. Let me emphasize this in the way the youth of todays America would: Those. Were. Somebodys. Children.
Spend even a few moments sinking into the misery of a Sandyhook or Orlando, and its difficult not to feel the weight of the urgency to understand what is happening here. Its estimated that roughly 34 percent of U.S. homes actually own some kind of gun. The most common reason? Personal protection. My friend Patrick, a coworker who lives and works out of Arkansas, agrees. I asked him about his gun ownership, and he was clear that this was for personal protection. A gun is just a longer reach than a knife or a bat or a fist. If I didnt have a gun on me, I would pick up whatever I could find. A gun would be preferred…nix that. Run away and live to fight another day would be preferred. This seems to be the prevalent argument. A gun is a safety device.
But of the 30,000 people every year who are killed by guns, two-thirds of those are self-inflicted gunshot deaths. Suicide. So it seems that the person we are really protecting ourselves from isourselves?
If you read the first article, you may recall that I am a clinical social worker. That means that suicide is an important issue for me. When our governor signed the papers to remove the waiting period on gun purchases, it was a big dealit had an impact on my work. More people kill themselves with guns than kill other people. And more people who kill themselves do so impulsively, so a waiting period is critical. Removing it greases the skids. That is meaningful to me.
Means restriction, the practice of restricting an individuals means of completing a task, is the most effective way of preventing that action. When that is taken away and people have access to means, I lose my best access to intervention. By the way, it isnt true that a person who is going to kill themselves will just find another way. Guns remain among the most impulsive, most expedient, and most deadly way to end ones life. In countries where the number of guns has been diminished, so have suicides overall.
Lets bring this back home. Literally. Its very easy to detach from tragedies when they are not in our own backyard, so lets go to our own backyard. Through October 8, 2016, there were 98 reports of shots fired in Madison, 11 more than the total reported in all of 2015. Police have also recovered more than 200 firearmsa figure that also tops the previous year with 80 days left in the calendar year. Through May 2016, homicides by guns had already tied the annual total for the same in 2007 and surpassed the total for any other year since 2004. That does not include suicides. Every time I speak to a law enforcement officer, they tell me the same thing. It didnt used to be like this. There are more thefts of guns, more unregistered guns, more shots fired, and just more guns in general.
When it comes to the cases Im following, I still have no reports and no serial numbers (the only way to actually track a gun) and am no closer to understanding anything about the guns themselves. From all of my discussions with law enforcement and all of my research, it seems that this is simply the new normal in our beloved Madison. At least for now.
So as I wait, patiently, for some information to arrive on the guns themselves, I cant help but reflect on the events in my community. I am struck by the fact that my friend Patrick and I both want the same thing. At some level I think we all want the same thing: safety and security. Patrick wants to know he can protect his family. I want to think I shouldnt have to. Who is the wiser partythe one who thinks that having a gun makes one safer or the one who believes not having guns makes everyone safer? Somewhere in the middle of all that is a gun. Ill keep working on that one, arctic ski cap at the ready.