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Of Guns and Us

We live in the Big Country Ranch neighborhood, south of the Austin City boundary, and five miles from a major road. It is safe to say that we live in the middle of nowhere.  The southwest side of our 15-acre property touches at least 500 acres of undamaged ("undeveloped") land that is one of the last refuges of wild life in this part of Texas.  We can hear coyotes, many coyotes, howling in the evening next to our home, and we get visits from the numerous wild turkeys, quails, armadillos, racoons, deer, lizards, tarantulas, scorpions, and snakes.  In fact, an armadillo family lives in a small cave next to our house, and a family of six or so racoons lives in the attic of a small utility house nearby. The smart racoons scoured a 7 inch round hole in the siding under the roof and adopted the attic as their family residence. We hear about sightings of mountain lions.

I own three guns: a handgun, a hunting rifle, and a pump shotgun.  I bought the handgun after my house was burglarized in Houston.  A police officer, who came to investigate, asked me if I had a gun.  When I replied no, he said: "Mister, you must be crazy."  He then told me that I could shoot anyone invading my house and if I shot a potential burglar in the backyard, I needed to drag him into the house and "the police promise not to notice."

OK, so I bought my first gun out of fear.  Having a gun, created a problem with my three small children, 2-4 years of age at the time.  I taught all of my children how to handle the gun, check if it is loaded, and never pull the trigger for fun. Then I taught my little children how to run away from a friend's house if another child gets hold of daddy's gun. By the age of 8, my son was quite a good shooter.  My powerful hunting rifle is used to hunt deer, and everybody in my family but my wife has practiced shooting it.  The shotgun has even more fear embodied in it, and we do not like to shoot it.

Cars kill a little more than twice as many American children as guns.  In 2007, 3,000 American children, ages 0-19 were killed with guns.  Also in 2007, drownings, poisoning, burning, and suffocation/ strangulation  - together - killed 3,800 children in the U.S.  (Source: National Center for Health Statistics.).  Thus, cars and guns are the two major causes of accidental deaths of children in the U.S.  I was very lucky that my children learned to avoid touching my gun and other guns on their own, and survived.

Our widely scattered neighbors are a diverse group, from avid liberal environmentalists to ultra-conservative Christians.  Guns are a big element of our lives, so we talk about them occasionally.  A recent lively exchange in the neighborhood chat-group was precipitated by shots fired on someone's property, and quickly evolved into a discussion under what circumstances it is OK to shoot a stray dog, a coyote, and so on.

Coyotes, stray dogs, snakes, and deer do not appear to me as a mortal danger to the welfare of my family. Being around these animals is what life on the Big Country Ranch is. In addition, my peaceful and safe neighborhood definitely is not a war zone, and I do not need to keep my guns on the table at the ready.

I have lived in the Big Country neighborhood for four years.  I run and walk a lot, and I work outside on the trees.  I have seen a shadow of a coyote once at dusk, and for one second.  But I hear them often not more than 50 yards from the house.  It turns out that only a few our neighbors observed a coyote.  Here are three typical stories:
I have seen a coyote twice in the last 9 months. It was moving too fast both times - didn't make it back outside with my gun fast enough.
On our far back edge of Big Country we can always hear what seems to be dozens of coyotes in the vacant land between Big Country and the Polo Club, but in 28 years I’ve never actually seen one. Seeing foxes is common, and we’ve lost at least four cats in the last 28 years to coyotes, but I never seen one on our land or in the surrounding neighborhood. “Stealth” should be part of their Latin name.
About 6:30 one morning a coyote attacked our pet cat who was sitting in our driveway. My husband saw it, grabbed a gun and shot at it as it ran into our pasture. He missed the coyote who dropped the cat, but the cat was already dead.
Obviously, coyotes are not vegetarians and do kill other small animals. We live in their country, so occasionally they kill our careless pets. My wife and I always admonish our beloved cat, Zabka, to watch out for these stealthy scoundrels.

What still eludes me is why our natural reaction is to grab a gun and attempt to kill a coyote we were lucky to see? Even if we kill one, what would it accomplish? Should we also shoot at thunder clouds or the burning Texas sun? In addition, I do not know answers to these questions:
  • Why do we need to keep guns loaded and ready to use in a second?
  • Why do we think that it is OK to shoot at anything we fear or merely do not like?
A recent incident in Canada provides an insight: A Kalamazoo, Michigan, police officer by the name of Wawra, was vacationing in Canada. He felt threatened by two unarmed Canadians, who asked him to buy tickets to a rodeo in Calgary. The officer was frightened enough to want to pull his service gun he could not have in Canada. Officer Wawra later wrote a letter to the editor of the Calgary Herald describing his view of the encounter.  He lamented the unsafe feeling of being unarmed:
“Many would say I have no need to carry (a gun) in Canada,” Wawra wrote. “Yet the police cannot protect everyone all the time. A man should be allowed to protect himself if the need arises.”
Protect himself by pulling a gun on two unarmed people asking a question?! The officer's letter caused a storm of heated replies from the disgusted Canadians, who did not share his paranoia and addiction to guns.

Fear is what drives us to buy guns.  More fear justifies buying more guns.  Guns give us a sense of security and power.  We often use this power to kill animals we do not like or fear.  Sometimes, yet all too often, we use this power to kill people we do not like or fear.  In the U.S., dozens of people are killed each year, or month, by gunmen with fuzzy grudges and semiautomatic weapons. We, the targets, feel ever more threatened, so we buy more guns and delude ourselves that we would be able to defend our lives when suddenly attacked.

Fear is an ugly feeling.  A society built on fear can only become uglier with time.  Unfortunately, in the U.S., we are becoming a more suspicious, fearful, and brutal society.  Somehow I cannot feel good about all of this, even if I buy myself a new, sexy semi-automatic AR-14 rifle, and cuddle it every day. But wouldn't I also need a thousand shiny yellow bullets to keep this particular addiction going?

P.S. On the day I published this blog, the Texas A&M Campus was locked down for a couple of hours because a shootout in the adjacent neighborhood left one constable, the shooter, and an unarmed civilian dead.  An unarmed civilian?!  Why do we use military terminology to describe a guy walking down the street in his own neighborhood? What was that man supposed to do? Wear full-body armor and a military helmet to feel safe during a morning walk?

A day earlier, three policemen in New York fired 12 shots at a man wielding a kitchen knife on a street.  Reliable sources confirm that the man dropped his knife when seven of the 12 bullets killed him.

If 3,000 children are killed with guns each year, and we value their unfulfilled lives at $10 million a pop (no pun intended), the annual cost of our love affair with guns is $3 billion per year, just for our shot-to-death children. Who's going to pay for all of this?  (As a mental exercise, please add the complete costs of shooting 70 young people in Aurora, Co, and killing 12 of them.  My answer: $400 million at the minimum for compensation and medical treatment.)  

And how many children are wounded?  How many adults are killed and wounded by gunfire? (A hint: In 2007 alone, 31,000 people died in the U.S. because of gun-related causes. Source: CDC.  In 2007, you were roughly 60 times more likely to die as a combat soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan than to be shot to death in Happy Town, U.S.A.)


    1. I was in the Brooks Atkinson Theater at 256 W. 47th (just west of Times Square) when the shooter was running between Times Square and W. 37th street. An hour later me and my boyfriend were weaving through the typical crowds just trying to get to Penn Station in time for our train. Had we gotten out just an hour earlier we would have likely witnessed the whole thing.

      I can't fathom what it must be like to be a police officer in that situation, when you've been trained to respond in a specific manner, regardless of what is probably in intuitive aversion to shooting a person at close range. And who knows what might have happened had they not approached him in the first place. Was he planning to use the knife for anything other than what he was known for, dressing up as a ninja and doing tricks on the street for tips? Would he have lashed out in aggression had he not been approached? If he was actually using Marijuana, did his paranoid state affect his reaction? Could those police officers have done anything differently? Would anyone have died if marijuana were legal, thus taking away the basis for the original confrontation? I think you have to be blind not to see than many fewer people would die at the end of a gun in this country if the illegal drug trade wasn't so profitable, but that's another matter...

      1. Dear Anonymous,

        I believe that we are referring to the same accident that occurred on Saturday on the W 37th Street near Times Square. You were there, and I was not.

        However, according to the official transcript the "shooter" as you naturally call him, had no gun. He had a kitchen knife with a 6-inch blade. The two policemen you feel so sorry for separated the man from the crowd and pumped twelve bullets into him from a distance of 3 feet. Three feet is 36 inches or six lengths of the blade. One policeman fired 9 shots and the other 3 shots. Five shots missed, but the man was alone, so no one else got hurt. So much for precision shooting.

        In civilized countries, the police are trained not to kill everyone they can. They would wait, while engaging the man and trying to calm him down. Instead of heavy weapons, the policemen would have stun guns and would have used them on the man.

        These two policemen did not have stun guns and did not wait for help.

        I googled the New Your Times archive with "Police Shooting," and got 269,000 hits. The first several pages I checked had these two words in article titles.

        Getting shot by the police seems to be the standard procedure in the U.S., rather than exception.

    2. I agree, the training should be different, and who would consent to remain a police officer when that is the protocol? That's what I meant to convey. They whole system is set up to cause this sort of confrontation (marijuana laws, they way police are trained, the way cities tend to dehumanize people), it's not just individuals being malicious.

    3. Wow, I did call him the shooter. Amazing. I am humbled.

      1. Please do not feel guilty. This the natural assumption everyone in the U.S. would make, officer Wawra included.

      2. Yes but I knew that he didn't have a gun. It wasn't an assumption as much as an overreaction. Not that a knife is really any less lethal, especially in the hands of someone who has practiced using it.

      3. OK, so the two policemen could have shot the man in one or both legs. Instead, they went on a crazy shooting rampage.

    4. Also, the officers did attempt to use pepper spray to subdue him. But why didn't they have stun guns? You'd think it would be a requirement in that part of the city, being so congested.

      1. As if though to illustrate my last reply, the New York police fired 14 shots to kill a shooter surrounded by a crowd of people near the Empire State Building. Nine people were wounded by the police bullets.


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