From the Director: Guns, Tools, and Talk

My closest friend keeps a gun next to the bed he shares with his wife. Their three-year-old sleeps in the next room. My friend used to wear patchouli and dreadlocks. Yesterday he attended a concealed carry training.

To me, guns are tools. Every tool is created with a purpose in mind. The purpose of guns is to maim and kill. 

My friend with the gun by his bed believes the gun makes his family safer. I believe my friend and his family are less safe on account of the gun by his bed. I have no gun by my bed. We both want safety and security. We disagree about the conditions and the tools that will make our families and our communities safer. 

It’s difficult to talk about guns. When we try, we seem to find it very hard to listen. We quickly defend our previously held position. We raise our voices, curse the other side. We doubt that they—the people we disagree with—mean what they say. Guns have come to mean more than their function and purpose: they have come to signify a set of beliefs about the world and about ourselves. 

What if, in thinking about how difficult it is to talk about guns, we were able to learn something about how and when we talk well with one another? How, in talking about guns, might we bump back from “we should have them” or “we shouldn’t have them” to what it is that we think guns can or cannot help us get?

What if, as a part of our talk about guns, we were able to talk about what safe and secure communities look like? What if instead of talking about guns we found ourselves talking forthrightly about the society we most want to live in and the conditions that would be most likely to bring it about?

I’m confused and discouraged by the gun situation in this country. I used to live in Chicago and now I live in Oregon. People in both places continue to be torn apart by gun violence. Gun deaths are not like most other deaths, deaths from age or illness or accidents. Gun deaths seem avoidable, but we in the United States seem remarkably unable to avoid them. Gun deaths cause outsized pain and anger because things could so clearly be otherwise: but for human intent, they would not happen. It is not inevitable that people shoot one another. Yet it has come to feel inevitable.

I’ve noticed while trying to write about this that I keep sliding back into my own beliefs related to guns and society, my own deeply rooted convictions. Though I tell myself I’m trying, I seem unable to get past these convictions. Instead of continuing to try to suspend them, I want to name them. Then I want to ask a question. 

Here are what I think are a few of my core beliefs in this area, from less to more controversial:

  1. Very few if any people want themselves or those close to them to die from a gun.
  2. Most people prefer themselves and those close to them to those they aren’t close to.
  3. There are far too many gun deaths in this country.
  4. Most of these gun deaths and the pain and suffering that go along with them could be avoided.
  5. There are dangerous people in the world, people who would knowingly do others harm, but most people want and try to do well by others.
  6. There are more effective, safer ways to increase our ability to live safely together than to widely disperse tools for killing and maiming.
  7. It’s possible, and possibly even relatively easy, for people to expand their sense of who they’re close to. 
  8. It’s possible for us to move fairly quickly toward a society in which significantly fewer people are killed by guns.

This is an incomplete list but it’s a start. It’s not an attempt to convince others but to understand my thinking and my feelings. I plan to send it to my friend with the gun by his bed. Before I send it, I would love to hear from Oregonians. I would love to hear what your core beliefs are where guns and society are concerned. I would love to hear why it’s so difficult to move beyond our own beliefs and understand others. And I would love to hear how you think we might live more safely and securely together.


Civic Life, Conversation, Death and Dying, Guns


2 comments have been posted.

On Christmas Eve, I sat down and read the Fall/Winter 2017 Oregon Humanities magazine. I reread portions of it today, on Christmas morning. I started and finished with your column about guns, and this letter is my response to your request to hear from OH readers about beliefs in guns. On November 22, 1949, the day I was born, my father took money my family did not have to buy me a long-barrel .22 caliber pump-action rifle. I still have it and it is my only gun. For my sixth birthday, my grandfather enrolled me in NRA classes at the local church. On my 14th birthday, while I was in Latin class, John Kennedy was shot in Dallas with a rifle. Shortly before my 20th birthday in 1969, I drew number 9 on the national draft lottery for military service. Four days later I received my notice. Because I was so in love with my fiancé, I enlisted in the Marine Corps to delay my military service by 120 days rather than go immediately into the Army. By the time I left the Marine Corps, I had spent a great deal of time with tools designed to kill. My military occupation specialty was 0844-Fire Direction Control, and my job was to plot shots for artillery rounds. And yet my basic mission as a Marine was always to be a rifleman. On my fiancé’s 22nd birthday, May 4, 1970, I was still in boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina. Four students were killed by Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State that day. With this history, I do not carry a gun, do not endorse others doing so, and believe wars should be fought by generals rather than privates. I also fear that if we live long enough our birthdays will all be eclipsed by another act of gun violence. I would claim to be high-minded in my belief systems except that I know I do not personally carry a gun because – if I had – I would have used it. Over the last 25 years, I have been robbed at gunpoint five times in five different countries in Central America, Africa, and Eastern Europe. Every time, the robber was a national police officer. I was essentially powerless in those robberies because I was unarmed and they were police officers. No matter how I reflect on those moments, I was certainly better off without a gun. Similar levels of powerlessness have been repeated other times in my life, and, for me, created the need to do something different. No one died, and I had to be forgiving or flexible or understanding. My belief system shifts left or right over time, but I hold fast to the basic belief that guns escalate violence rather than deter violence. My experiences have either created or currently reinforce that view. Thank you for your magazine.

Gary Albright | January 2018 | Rockaway Beach, OR

What strikes me is the insistence that gun ownership makes us safer, when all statistics indicate the opposite. This belief reminds me of Frost's "Good fences make good neighbors." I won't demonize the friend as an "Old stone savage," but I would ask what he really fears. Gun violence is much more likely to occur between people who know each other. I doubt, however, that he owns a gun to protect his family at holiday dinners. I'm thinking guns are mainly symbols, tools that stand for power in a world where many of us are feeling powerless. Like Frost's neighbor, it's the unexamined symbolism that we need to confront. And to be sure, this symbolic response is very real. I have no trouble understanding your friend's fear. I just hope we'd ask more often "what we are walling out, and walling in."

Tom williams | December 2017 | portland,oregon

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