Our VoiceCulture

Gun Violence and American Identity


Rev. David L. Ostendorf • Apr 08, 2009

Fifty-three people are dead in 25 days of mass shootings in the U.S, from March 1 through April 5.

While reasons for the shootings are and will be argued endlessly by the commentariat, the Binghamton, New York massacre at the American Civic Association goes to the heart of the American gun culture that fed and led even a struggling, gun-licensed immigrant to rectify his grievances via mass murder. The levels of tragic irony in the Binghamton shootings are virtually incomprehensible. Among Jiverly Wong’s victims was Layla Khalil, who had survived three bombings in her native, war-torn Iraq. Other victims were from China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Haiti, and Pakistan, living and working their way into the proverbial American dream. Instead, they died in the violent nightmare of American identity.

Jiverly Wong was an American citizen who had apparently been in the country long enough to learn that at the heart of the nation’s identity is its gun culture and an incipient inclination to settle wrongs, slights, grievances, and territories with deadly force. From the founding to the frontier to the future, American identity is wrapped up in gun violence, shrouded in the endlessly argued Second Amendment, and defended to the death by true believers, fearful and fearsome in their zealotry.

In short, the right to bear arms, the “right to carry,” the “right to concealed weapons,” the “right to defend oneself,” the “right to automatic weapons”—all such “rights” abrogate and override the fundamental human right to live peacefully, free from the fear that some gun-bearer is going to vent his anger in a death-to-all massacre. The response, ever-circular, is that if only the victims had been armed, the shooter would have been stopped. Short-lived is the career of the pundit, the preacher, the politician, the police officer who goes against the grain of the gun.

The U.S. is the most gun-violent nation on earth. Regardless of reason or motivation—be it job loss, family dispute, criminal behavior, or the infinite listing of “other” reasons people pick up the weapon—easy access to guns and the cultural acceptance of gun violence and gun-deaths is so deeply imbued in the American psyche as to be impenetrable. We’ve known for years that the sheer number of television shows heralding this grim reality contributes to its generational spread. We know that the reign of gun violence across the southern border is largely American-generated. We know that our own indifference notably marks the violent deaths that occur regularly in communities of color—in Chicago alone twenty-nine students have been killed this school year. And we know that every time another gun massacre takes place, we either join the “we never thought it could happen here” chorus or carry on with our lives, thankful that it happened “there.”

This is an utterly senseless reality of American life, of American identity. Our children are dying. Our neighbors are dying. Old residents and newcomers are dying.

But this is America. It is our right to be well-armed. Jiverly Wong was an American who took that right to heart as he went on his murderous spree in Binghamton, and as he wrote in the letter he mailed just before he started firing—the ubiquitous American message, “Have a nice day.”

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