Gun advocate suggests slavery could have been prevented had slaves been granted right to bear arms

Larry Ward, chairman of Gun Appreciation Day.
Larry Ward, chairman of Gun Appreciation Day.

Larry Ward, chairman of Gun Appreciation Day, a made-up holiday to celebrate guns and gun owners, went on CNN on Friday to defend the day’s events. He suggested that Gun Appreciation Day, which this year falls on January 19th and just two days before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, is actually in the spirit of Martin Luther King’s non-violent civil rights legacy. In fact, says Ward, slavery “might not have been a chapter in our history” had slaves been armed.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vWzXBretD0M

Let’s highlight the quote of awesomeness:

“The truth is I think Martin Luther King would agree with me if he were alive today that if African Americans had been given the right to keep and bear arms from day one of the country’s founding, perhaps slavery might not have been a chapter in our history.” — Larry Ward, gun rights advocate

He’s not wrong, actually. Slavery might not have gone so well if slavers had kidnapped Africans and stolen them from their homes and families, shipped them across the ocean in chains and deplorable conditions, and then promptly handed them a rifle the minute they were taken off the boats. Further, firearms were a means whereby slaves revolted against slavery. Slaves who gained access to arms often participated in frequent (but rarely taught) uprisings throughout the South. But, unfortunately, these uprisings were isolated incidents that rarely resulted in anything more than painful retribution against unfreed slaves and/or kin, indicating that access to firearms and resulting violence was not alone sufficient to end the -institution- of slavery.

Let’s also examine for instance the notion that Martin Luther King, Jr. in particular would support arming slaves to revolt or protest against slavery. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy was non-violent protest — the notion of returning violence with non-violence as a form of civil protest.

Famously, King was hit in the head with a rock during one of the marches he participated in, and still did not call for violence.
Famously, King was hit in the head with a rock during one of the marches he participated in, and still did not call for violence.

King once said of the non-violence movement: “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars… Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

In the end, however, the whole suggestion is absurd because we are talking about a time when slaves were bought and sold as property; when slaves were considered sub-human and incapable of complex thought by nature; when it was illegal to teach a slave to read. The hypothetical wherein slaves might have been granted the right to bear arms since this country’s founding — and in so doing “stop slavery” — is so far removed from the historical context of slavery and how it came about that it becomes patently absurdist.

If only it didn’t take gun violence to end gun violence

Former representative Gabby Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, attending the sentencing of Jared Lee Loughner.

Earlier yesterday, Jared Lee Loughner — the mentally ill Tucson shooter who killed six people and shot former Representative Gabrielle Giffords in the head — was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to 19 counts including the attempted assassination of a sitting U.S. Congressperson. Many of the surviving victims of the January 8, 2011 shooting were in attendance, including Gabby and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly. Prosecutors spoke about each of the six victims killed by Loughner on that day, and Mark Kelly gave a statement on behalf of himself and Gabby.

Jared Lee Loughner was sentenced to seven life sentences with an addition 140 years in prison. The seven life sentences represent one for each of the six lives he took and one for the attempted assassination of Representative Gabby Giffords.

In his statement (full transcript at CNN), Kelly talks about what Loughner’s crime has cost his family. Kelly remembers Gabby’s vivaciousness, her “gift for language”, and her love of the outdoors — all of which has been taken from her after the shooting. These words ring true .

Twice, I had the opportunity to listen to Gabby speak in-person while I lived in Tucson. The first time, I was in the audience when Gabby visited the Tucson chapter of Drinking Liberally and had a chance to ask her to speak about the future of federal science and technology research funding. The second time, I was in an attendance during a combative debate between Giffords and Republican opponent Jesse Kelly in the race for her re-election months before the January 2011 shooting. In this debate, Giffords was a strong and nimble speaker, defending herself ably against both Kelly and his rambunctious supporters in the audience. The cost of the January 2011 shooting at a local Meet-and Greet held by Gabby is incredibly obvious when one contrasts her current physicality and speech patterns to the spunky Congresswoman she was before the tragedy. Most of the nation only knew Gabby after the shooting; for those of us who knew her before, it’s hard to ignore how much Gabby has changed and how much of the old Congresswoman we knew was lost.

Prior to the January 2011 shooting, Gabby was well-known for being an quick-thinking, and feisty speaker who was often praised for being approachable by her constituents.

But given this opportunity to reflect on the old Gabby also gives me pause to remember the politics of the old Gabby we knew before her January 2011 shooting. In Kelly’s statement at Loughner’s sentencing, he speaks on behalf of both himself and Gabby when he urges the nation to redirect its attention towards stronger gun laws that might prevent any further loss of innocent life through gun violence:

Your decision to commit cold-blooded mass murder also begs of us to look in the mirror. This horrific act warns us to hold our leaders and ourselves responsible for coming up short when we do, for not having the courage to act when it’s hard, even for possessing the wrong values.

We are a people who can watch a young man like you spiral into murderous rampage without choosing to intervene before it is too late.

We have a political class that is afraid to do something as simple as have a meaningful debate about our gun laws and how they are being enforced. We have representatives who look at gun violence,? not as a problem to solve, but as the white elephant in the room to ignore. As a nation we have repeatedly passed up the opportunity to address this issue. After Columbine; after Virginia Tech; after Tucson and after Aurora we have done nothing.

In this state we have elected officials so feckless in their leadership that they would say, as in the case of Governor Jan Brewer, “I don’t think it has anything to do with the size of the magazine or the caliber of the gun.” She went on and said, “Even if the shooter’s weapon had held fewer bullets, he’d have another gun, maybe. He could have three guns in his pocket” – she said this just one week after a high capacity magazine allowed you to kill six and wound 19 others, before being wrestled to the ground while attempting to reload. Or a state legislature that thought it appropriate to busy itself naming an official Arizona state gun just weeks after this tragedy occurred, instead of doing the work it was elected to do: encourage economic growth, help our returning veterans and fix our education system.

The challenges we face are so great, but the leadership in place is so often lacking.

These words are compelling. They are words I agree with. But, it’s strange to me that no one has pointed out that just over two years ago, these would not have been words that Representative Gabby Giffords would have agreed with.

In the nearly two years since the Tucson shooting, media and pundits alike have been silent on Giffords’ stance on gun laws and the Second Amendment, in part in respectful deference to the fact that Giffords had become one of the nation’s most famous political victims of gun violence.

But, while I don’t want to seem insensitive, I do think that today — two years later — it’s worth examining Giffords’ record on gun lawsI don’t do this to be crass, but because I want to make a larger point: it shouldn’t take becoming the victim of gun violence to change one’s position on guns.

Put simply: they like their guns in Arizona. Prior to her shooting, Representative Gabby Giffords was no exception to this rule. Gabby is what’s known as a “Blue Dog Democrat” — a conservative Democrat who, on many social issues, resemble the Republican party; so much so that prior to her shooting, I and others have criticized Gabby as being a Democrat in-name-only. On the topic of gun control, Gabby (like most Arizona Democrats) was as ardent a supporter of the Second Amendment as any Republican.

In the House, Gabby had a few opportunities to vote on the topic of guns, and in almost all cases, she voted in support of more gun access. She voted in favour of teaching NRA-originated gun safety classes in elementary schools in the form of the Eddie Eagle’s GunSafe program. She voted to clarify a pre-existing law in D.C. that prohibited the shooting of wild birds to guarantee residents their Second Amendment rights. She voted to allow for cross-state applicability of conceal and carry permits such that non-residents of a state carrying a government photo ID and a valid CCW permit from another state could legally carry a concealed weapon in accordance with the state they are in, a measure that was supported by Republicans and only 1/4th of Democrats.

Even Hello Kitty likes her guns.

And, perhaps most tellingly, in D.C. the Supreme Court ruled to uphold the over-turning of an assault weapons ban in the District of Columbia vs. Heller case — a ban that was popular in D.C. because of the alarmingly high rates of gun violence in the area. Shortly after the Supreme Court’s decision, Gabby issued a press statement reading:

“As a gun owner, I am a strong supporter of the Second Amendment. In February, I was proud to sign the Amicus Brief in District of Columbia v. Heller asking the Supreme Court to uphold the lower court ruling that overturned the long standing DC gun ban.

This is a common sense decision that reaffirms the Constitutional right – and Arizona tradition – of owning firearms. I commend the Court for ruling in favor of restoring our right to bear arms.”

Later, in 2008, Gabby issued another statement affirming her vote supporting the Second Amendment Rights of D.C. residents. In it, she said:

“As a long-time gun owner, I believe the right to keep and bear arms should not be dependent on the city in which you live,” said Giffords. “The provisions of the U.S. Constitution apply to all Americans, regardless of geography”

[…]

“We have a long tradition of gun ownership in the United States,” Giffords said. “It is a tradition which every law-abiding citizen should be able to enjoy.”

Gabby’s record on gun rights while not lock-and-step with hard-core Republicans was sufficiently close that in 2010 she received a “C” rating from the National Rifle Association. That doesn’t sound too great until you consider that this is among the highest rating that the NRA awarded Democrats in Arizona.

Gabby’s voting record, and her 2008 statements in support of the Second Amendment, make sense for an Arizona Democrat representing a fairly conservative-leaning district. But, one can’t help but also wonder if, prior to January 2011, these also made her, as Kelly put it, one of those “representatives who look at gun violence,? not as a problem to solve, but as the white elephant in the room to ignore.”

The bottom line is that the January 2011 shooting in Tucson claimed the lives of six innocent people, and also appears to have fundamentally changed Gabby Giffords. Not just physically, but also politically. Giffords appears to have revised her stance on gun control and gun violence, and is now adamantly in favour of stronger gun laws that limit access of guns to prevent more mass killings as occurred in Virginia Tech and Columbine.

Perhaps, now that Gabby is out of office, she feels freer to speak out in favour of stronger gun control. But, for whatever reason, the  inescapable truth is that it took surviving gun violence for Giffords to change her position on gun control. And, I find that incredibly sad.

In one of the more powerful scenes in Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” documentary, Moore takes two Columbine survivors to “K-mart” headquarters to get a refund on the bullet still lodged in one of the survivors’ bodies. The shooters at Columbine legally purchased their ammunition at a local K-mart store.

Look, I am in no way condoning or defending the shooting of Gabby or anyone else that fateful morning in January 2011, or any other mass shooting that has occurred in this country. These shootings are horrible national tragedies that should not have happened. They could have been avoided. These shootings are never a good thing. No one should have to suffer the abhorrent aftermath of gun violence. And, I think it’s time to have a real, national debate on gun control.

But, if only this debate could’ve been initiated without first having the nation witness the devastation that guns can cause before we are willing to consider the merits of more gun control. If only it didn’t take bloodshed to remember that guns are deadly weapons. If only people could have the courage to stand up against the gun lobby without having to be a survivor of gun violence to do it.

If only it didn’t take gun violence to end gun violence.

Reactions to Aurora: Lessons from the Bat?

Last Friday, just after midnight, the opening of one of the most-anticipated movies of the year, The Dark Knight Rises (the final installment of the Nolan Batman trilogy), was tainted by news that a man entered a midnight showing of the film in Aurora, Colorado. The man threw gas cannisters on the floor, fired a shot in the air, and then opened fire randomly into the audience with an assault rifle, a shotgun, and a Glock (or possibly two) handgun. Seven minutes later, the alleged shooter, James Egan Holmes (a 24-year-old neuroscience graduate student at the University of Colorado, Denver), was in custody — but not before leaving 12 dead and 59 wounded.

The victims of the Aurora shooting are pictured above, courtesy of KWGN, local Colorado news. They are (left to right, top to bottom): Alex Sullivan, 27, Alex Teves, 24, A.J. Boink, 18, Gordon Cowden, 51, Jesse Childress, 29, Jessica Ghawi, 24, John Larimer, 27, Jonathan Blunk, 26, Matthew McQuinn, 27, Micayla Medek, 23, Rebecca Wingo, 32, and Veronica Moser-Sullivan, 6.

My first reaction to the news was one of shock, horror, and sadness. Not only had 12 lives been snuffed out violently and senselessly, but Holmes had chosen to commit his crime here, like this, at this: at a midnight showing of a comic book movie.

The murder of innocence

Like most fanboys and fangirls, I’m a regular at midnight showings. There’s a certain magic that comes from staying up until midnight to be one of the first people in America to see a movie on opening day. There’s a camaraderie shared as you and other moviegoers collectively embrace the insanity of waiting over two hours in line so that you can ensure that you have one of the best seats in the house. There’s an innocent joy and devious mischievousness — like children who have joined forces to stay up way past bedtime at a sleepover party. Midnight showings cater almost exclusively to my demographic: mid-to-late twenty-somethings who are escaping the reality and responsibility of adulthood, and instead are recapturing part of our youth by indulging in an almost child-like wickedness. Midnight showings are small, intimate, spontaneous comic-cons; they are gatherings where we can fly our nerd flags proud, where we can wear our vintage Batman t-shirts and collector’s edition Star Trek communicators without shame, and where cosplay is acceptable outside of San Diego. We are the comic book and video game and Saturday morning cartoon generation, and at midnight showings, all of those things we were supposed to have grown out of are, for the briefest of hours, “cool” again.

A shooting spree at a midnight showing of a comic book movie strikes home not just because of the senselessness of the violence and the death. James Holmes did not only (allegedly) murder 12 innocent lives and forever scar 59 others, but he also murdered the very innocence, wonder, and magic of the midnight showing.

I attended a 10:30pm showing of The Dark Knight Rises last Friday evening, less than 24 hours after the Aurora shooting. We were second in line, behind another couple who arrived just as we did. The four of us joked and laughed about waiting for two hours for a movie, made small-talk with the frazzled theatre manager, and jokingly cried out “earmuffs!” and collectively covered our ears as the previous showing let out so that we could avoid hearing spoilers. And yet, I couldn’t help but feel some apprehension as I waited in line. I surreptitiously scoped out the emergency exits, and confess that I experienced some relief that the Milford police department had stationed a uniformed police officer right outside the IMAX theatre for our late-night screening.

Some people just want to watch the world burn

In the wake of the shooting, there have been countless pundits who have raced to connect Holmes’ actions with his choice of the latest Batman movie. Dana Stevens of Slate asks “Why There?” and postulates that the dark, modernistic dystopia and violence of Dark Knight was a deliberate backdrop for Holmes’ actions. CNN cites unnamed sources saying that Holmes, hair dyed red, identified himself as “the Joker” moments after his arrest, a claim that seems to be at least partially corroborated by in-court images of Holmes at his hearing today.

However, I remain skeptical of those claims because anyone who follows the bat mythos would know that the Joker's hair is green; no one identifying themselves in absolute terms with the Joker would dye their hair red.

Dana Stevens quips: “James Holmes didn’t burst into a screening of Happy Feet Two.”

However, I think it’s dangerous to draw a causative relationship between the actions of a certifiable mad man (and any man would have to be insane to commit this kind of crime) and The Dark Knight Rises and the Batman mythos. Holmes didn’t burst into a screening of Happy Feet Two, but he very well might have. He didn’t choose to target a screening of The Dark Knight Rises because of the film’s violence or modernity; he targeted a screening of The Dark Knight Rises because he is insane.

There is simply no sense in trying to draw a specific a priori connection between Holmes’ actions and the movie he chose to target. That would be attempting to apply rational thought to irrational behaviour. Trying to blame Holmes’ actions on the Batman movies is about as meaningful as trying to blame Holmes’ actions on the pursuit of a doctoral degree in neuroscience, or on the use of cheap red hair dye.

That being said, I think there is value in trying to draw post hoc parallels between the Batman mythos and Holmes’ connections. Because, like it or not, the Batman story is highly relevant to the events that unfolded in Aurora Friday evening, and the months leading up to it.

For example, there is one relevant passage in the Nolan Batman mythos that I think is worth invoking here: in The Dark Knight (the second installment of the Nolan Bat Trilogy), Alfred recalls the story of a crazed bandit that he fought in his past, and whose motives cannot be fathomed. There is no rhyme or reason to men such as this. They cannot be pleaded with, negotiated with, or understood. There is no logic to their psychosis.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=efHCdKb5UWc

Without glorifying James Egan Holmes or his actions, these words nonetheless resonate: some men just want to watch the world burn. And they would be just as satisfied lighting their match at a screening of Dark Knight Rises as at a screening of Happy Feet Two.

Gun Control and the Bat

In The Dark Knight, the Joker speaks of the unique power of murder that go against a larger social “plan”; how the life of a gang-banger is not seen as equal to the life of a politician.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pfmkRi_tr9c

These words ring true. The last few years have seen mass killings that have struck a particular nerve within the mass consciousness — 9/11, Columbine, the Virginia Tech Massacre, the Tucson shooting of Gabby Giffords, the Norway shooting spree, and Aurora. In the wake of those massacres, this nation (and other nations) have been preoccupied with asking the question of why — why would anyone kill these people?

Yet, in our struggle to understand the motives of madmen, it’s hard to ignore one simple fact. These deaths all share one thing in common: the victims were people who “aren’t supposed to die” (this despite the fact that hundred, even thousands, have died in the same span of time as a result of war, poverty, disease, natural disaster, or violence in a non-First World country). Do we grieve more for their loss than for the countless killed in the genocide in Darfur over the last decade, or for those who died as part of the civil uprisings in Syria this past week, or the thousands who die of gun-related deaths in this nation’s capital of Washington D.C. every year?

The honest answer to this question is unsettling.

Both sides of the gun control debate have clamoured in the wake of the Aurora shooting to speak about how gun control, or the lack thereof, would have prevented the deaths of the 12 young moviegoers on Friday night. Advocates of the Second Amendment have been quick to defend gun rights in this country. Senator Russell Pearce of Arizona, for example, wrote a Facebook post suggesting that an armed moviegoing audience would have stopped Holmes’ shooting spree:

Had someone been prepared and armed they could have stopped this “bad” man from most of this tragedy. He was two and three feet away from folks, I understand he had to stop and reload. Where were the men of flight 93???? Someone should have stopped this man. Someone could have stopped this man. Lives were lost because of a bad man, not because he had a weapon, but because noone was prepared to stop it. Had they been prepared to save their lives or lives of others, lives could have been saved. (emphasis added)

Yet, in Pearce’s home state of Arizona (where gun laws are incredibly lax), a sitting Congresswoman was shot in the head just a year and a half ago. The six deaths and 12 wounded, including Congresswoman Gabby Giffords herself, were not prevented by armed bystanders. Indeed, Slate recounts how a bystander with a licensed CCW permit nearly shot one of the heroes of the Tucson shooting.

Early Friday morning, in Aurora, Colorado, James Egan Holmes burst into a packed movie theatre which was screening a movie about a man whose life was forever changed by gun violence. Holmes wore state-of-the-art military-style body armour, and he brandished weaponry that (as far as we can tell) were all legally purchased. He fired countless bullets into the theatre using predominantly an AR-15 assault rifle and nearly 6000 rounds of ammunition.

This is what an AR-15 looks like.

His bullets killed and wounded more than 70 moviegoers, including audience members in a neighbouring theatre. Would an armed audience have stopped Holmes? Or would an addition of more guns to an already chaotic scene of panic, assault rifles, and tear gas have only added to the bloodshed?

In the wake of this tragedy, this country has discouraged a politicizing of this massacre. But, I disagree with this point of view: how can it be respectful to the victims if we are willing to mourn them, but unwilling to face the ugliness that led to their deaths?

In our shock and grief following such tragedies, we must nonetheless strive to hold ourselves to a higher standard: to let rationality prevail over emotion and bloodlust, to respect the lives of the victims rather than glorify the acts of their killer, and to ask ourselves whether the protecting the rights of a madman to legally purchase an AR-15 — which has no purpose other than the taking of human life — is in the spirit of the Second Amendment. Perhaps, in our shock and grief, we should not shy away from the political discussion that surrounds this horrific crime, but instead face it head-long. The twelve young lives lost Friday morning didn’t just die; they were killed, coldly, brutally, and heinously by a madman wielding a legally purchased gun.

We owe the victims of Aurora the courage to face this truth.

Actor Jason Alexander wrote over the weekend as part of his plea for greater gun control:

Then I get messages from seemingly decent and intelligent people who offer things like: @BrooklynAvi: Guns should only be banned if violent crimes committed with tomatoes means we should ban tomatoes. OR@nysportsguys1: Drunk drivers kill, should we ban fast cars?

I’m hoping that right after they hit send, they take a deep breath and realize that those arguments are completely specious. I believe tomatoes and cars have purposes other than killing. What purpose does an AR-15 serve to a sportsman that a more standard hunting rifle does not serve? Let’s see – does it fire more rounds without reload? Yes. Does it fire farther and more accurately? Yes. Does it accommodate a more lethal payload? Yes. So basically, the purpose of an assault style weapon is to kill more stuff, more fully, faster and from further away. To achieve maximum lethality. Hardly the primary purpose of tomatoes and sports cars.

In our race to draw parallels between Holmes’ actions and the Batman mythos, why can we not draw a lesson or two from Batman himself? Rather than to link Holmes to the “dystopic modernity” of the Nolan Bat-verse, perhaps we can instead strive to learn from the Batman character, and his perspective on guns? Would this not be a more meaningful parallel to make, if we must make one?

Like a young Bruce Wayne, a senseless, horrific shooting robbed us of human life, but of our innocence. For the rest of his life, Bruce seeks to come to terms with the scars obtained after a mad-man uses a gun that murdered both his parents, and his childhood.

This iconic scene, where a young Bruce Wayne kneels over the bodies of his parents, killed by a gun-wielding madman in Crime Alley, fundamentally shapes the Bruce Wayne/Batman character and has been recreated in every iteration of the Batman. The story of the Batman is a story of gun violence.

In Batman Begins, Bruce succumbs briefly to a need for blood and vengeance. He arms himself with a small handgun, intent on shooting his parents’ murderer at a parole hearing. But, he soon comes to the realization that the gun he holds in his hand will not protect him from killing and death, and will not assuage the pain he feels after his parents’ murderer. He realizes that no one, not even he, should hold the destructive power of life and death in their hands. In the years following, Batman frequently underscores his abhorrence of guns.

This theme of the destructive power and responsibility of guns is a powerful undercurrent in the Batman mythos, and appears also in The Dark Knight Rises (don’t worry, no spoilers here). Batman’s story advocates powerfully for greater gun control, not only through the devastating impact that a single handgun had on the young Bruce Wayne’s life, but also through his subsequent rejection of guns in his fight to rid his city of criminals, and the crimes they commit.

The Batman/Catwoman graphic novel "Trail of the Gun" deals specifically with the destructive power of guns.

Again, I return to Dana Stevens’ emotional question: why and why there? We may never know why Holmes committed the crime he (allegedly) committed, just as we will never fully grasp the motives of the 9/11 terrorists, or why Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 12 students and a teacher at their high school one morning, or why Seung Hui-Cho barricaded himself in a college classroom and killed 30 students and professors before turning the gun on himself.

While there is no immediate answer to “why there”, Holmes’ choice of “there” necessarily invokes the anti-gun message of the Batman mythos. In my final reaction to the Aurora shooting, I can’t help but wonder: how many people have to die before this nation is willing to have the real, and difficult, debate over guns and gun control? Further, I cannot escape the simple fact: had James Holmes been armed with tomatoes on Friday morning rather than an AR-15, there are 12 young people who would likely still be alive today.