Conversations about Guns on a Cross Country Train

by Nicole Plyler Fisk

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My 4-year old son is obsessed with trains and always has been. We keep waiting for the next phase. After talking to other parents, we expected his obsession to move from Thomas the Train to Lighting McQueen. He watched the Cars movies, but his obsession moved from Thomas the Train to real trains on Youtube. So, when our South Carolina family received an invitation to a wedding in Vancouver, Washington, and when I realized that only Jack and I would be able to go, I knew that we had to take a cross country train.

He was on board, to say the least.

We booked a room in a sleeping car, which is the way to go, especially for such a long trip: we had two fold-out beds and all of our dining car meals were included in the price.

If you’ve ever been on such a long train trip, you’ll know that you always make friends in the dining car, if you’re a party of one or two. Since it’s a challenge for the wait staff to serve on a moving train, they group passengers into sets of four for full-table seating.

I especially enjoyed this, since it was my main opportunity on the train to have conversations with adults while Jack happily colored in his antique trains coloring book. Because of a recent string of mass shootings (Isla Vista, Seattle, and Oregon), the conversation inevitably turned to America’s epidemic of gun violence. A summary of those conversations is as follows:

Conversation #1, over breakfast, with Marissa (a gun-owning Math professor from North Dakota):

Marissa: “There is no way to stop people intent on mass murder from murdering. If they can’t get a gun, they’ll get something else.”

Me: “Of course.”

Marissa: “But, there are ways to make gun deaths less likely, and I’m all for that. We like guns, so it would be annoying. I mean: I have to take Sudafed, and it’s annoying to get it, because of the regulation. But the number of meth labs in our area decreased dramatically when pharmacies started regulating Sudafed. So it’d be worth it.”

Me: “For the sake of public safety?”

Marissa: “Yeah.”

Me: “You know there are some countries [England, Japan, Canada, and Australia] that require third party references from family and friends before allowing a person to purchase a gun.”

Marissa: “That’s a great idea.”

Me: “There is no way Elliot Rodger’s family would have ‘okay-ed’ him buying a gun. And he didn’t have any friends. Nancy Lanza probably would have been cool with Adam Lanza buying one though.”

Marissa: “Well if it had stopped even one of those, it’s worth it.”

Conversation #2, over dinner, with Gordy and Cathy (retirees from Wisconsin):

Gordy: “I can’t talk about this much, because it’s too upsetting, but: why do people get to buy hollow-point bullets — like those that were used on those poor kids in Newtown — and such high caliber guns?”

Me: “I think the NRA would argue: for self-defense. That said, the Seattle shooter was stopped with pepper spray, so there are other ways — including guns that aren’t weapons of war and such a huge public safety hazard.”

Gordy: “Right.”

Me: “You know, some people were using California’s strict gun laws as an example of how mass murders still happen. But one writer I read pointed out how much worse it would have been had Elliot Rodger easily been able to buy an assault weapon or even a high capacity magazine.”

Gordy: “Yeah — and it should be even harder, because people in states with strict gun laws can just travel to states with lax gun laws.”

Conversation #3, over breakfast, with PJ (a gun club member from Australia):

Me: “You’re from Australia! I don’t know if you watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, but he sent John Oliver, one of his correspondents, to Australia to interview your former Prime Minister, John Howard, about his gun control legislation.”

PJ: “Yeah — we had a horrible mass shooting in Port Arthur, so we passed massive gun control reform, including a ban on semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, and haven’t had any massacres since.”

Me: “Did you support the reform?”

PJ: “Absolutely. I’m a gun owner and a member of a gun club, and I’m happy with the changes. We have depressed teenagers, and we have mentally ill people, just like America does. The difference is that they don’t have guns. I don’t understand why America can’t do something similar. I suppose you’ll need to rewrite the Second Amendment?”

Me: “I don’t think we’d have to rewrite it necessarily — just acknowledge its historical context. The founders were writing about muskets, for example, not assault rifles and high capacity magazines.”

PJ: “One of the things we did that worked really well was gun buyback programs. People were getting more money for their guns than they paid for them in the first place.”

Conversation #4, over dinner, with Armando and Nancy (an engineer and an accounting professor from the Philippines):

This conversation is impossible to transcribe, because Armando and Nancy stared in blank horror when I explained one of my reasons for withdrawing Arina from the rural SC private school she was attending — b/c, only a few months after the Sandy Hook school shooting — Arina’s school thought this was a good idea:

RAFFLE

to benefit HOLLY HILL ACADEMY sponsored by: Carson’s Gun Repair

12 GUAGE CZ USA WINGSHOOTER DELUX O/U SHOTGUN with Handmade Walnut Carrying Case ($1500 Value)

Drawing to be held: April 23, 2013

at HHA Baseball Game – 7th Inning

Cost: $5.00 per ticket Presence not required to win

Armando and Nancy live in a country with restrictive firearm policies, where only 64 people died from gun violence in 2006 (the last recorded statistic on gunpolicy.org). They invited me then and there to visit them in the Philippines.

These conversations are simultaneously encouraging and frustrating: encouraging, because both gun owners and non-gun owners alike recognized the need to do something (these weren’t people of the Gun Owners of America variety, a group that boasts it is a “no-compromise national guns right organization”). Indeed, Marissa and PJ seemed to hold gun ownership as a high honor and were offended that guns so often fall into the hands of people who abuse what they see as more of a privilege than a right.

Frustrating, because after such hopeful, uplifting conversations, I log onto the Internet and find too many examples of the “no-compromise” variety, people extolling gun rights while demonizing abortion in truly stunning displays of hypocrisy — in which one is pro-life before life, in love with the potentiality, but not pro-life enough to do something about the shooting deaths of 20 school children, when that potentiality has very much become reality. These people aren’t pro-life; they’re only pro-birth.

The loudest voices against real reform are still ironically Christian ones — those who claim to follow the Prince of Peace, a pacifist, the man who disarmed his disciple and who undermined the myth of redemptive violence.

A Bible verse that pops up frequently in my Facebook newsfeed is Matthew 25:21, “Well done, my good and faithful servant,” along with the expressed hope that whoever-posted-it will hear those words “on the day of judgement.”

Whenever I see that verse, I see the faces of all those children from the Sandy Hook shooting, and I think that rather than doing well, too many of us have done and continue to do very, very poorly.

Demand reform: not one more.

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