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America, the armed and paranoid

A spate of shootings over the last week highlighted the dangerous, hair-trigger response to fear that has become a constant in our lives.

America is afraid. It is a scared country filled with scared people, all desperately wishing they weren’t so scared all the time. It is a place that was built on fear, thrives on fear, at times excels because of fear. This is a fact it would rather ignore.

Americans are taught that there is nobody coming to save them, that at all times they are on their own. The property that forms the backbone of their concept of liberty could be stripped from them at any minute. It is through this lens that property becomes equivalent with life, the protecting of one at times being seen as protecting the other.

America is an armed country. It is a country drowning in bullet casings, where guns outnumber people. There are fewer and fewer safeguards in place controlling who can own a gun, where they can carry a gun, who has the right to tell them to put their gun down.

A gun can feel like a necessity in a place like America. A gun can make a person feel invincible in a place like America.

Scared and invincible is a terrible combination. Together they form a reality in which a knock on the wrong door, approaching the wrong car, turning into the wrong driveway, can be a fatal mistake. Together they form a cycle that has left broken bodies and families strewn across the landscape as far as the eye can see.

Scared and invincible is a terrible combination.

Andrew Lester, 84, was a paranoid man, according to his grandson. Lester opened fire twice on Ralph Yarl, 16, when the Black teen mistakenly rang his doorbell last Thursday as he attempted to pick up his younger siblings from a neighbor. Klint Lundwig later told the Kansas City Star that his grandfather in the past few years had become caught up in “a 24-hour news cycle of fear and paranoia” that “further radicalized him in a lot of ways.” Black bodies are always to be feared in a place like America, no matter their age.

It is not a coincidence that gun sales have spiked in recent years based on fear that has often been packaged and sold as a product for people like Lester to consume. President Barack Obama became the first Black man elected president; gun sales climbed higher. Children shot dead at Sandy Hook Elementary sparked calls for new regulations; gun sales climbed higher still. A deadly new virus prompted governments to ask people to stay home and businesses to close down to save lives; gun sales climbed higher than ever.

Kaylin Gillis was sitting in the passenger seat of a friend’s car when they turned into a driveway they thought belonged to a friend in upstate New York. The 65-year-old who actually owned it, Kevin Monahan, fired twice. One bullet struck 20-year-old Gillis in the neck. She was pronounced dead several miles away after the group recovered cell phone service and could dial 911. Neither Monahan nor his lawyer have offered a reason for his choice to open fire, but in similar situations, fear more often than malice is the undercurrent.

Friends and family attend a candlelight vigil for Kaylin Gillis at Fort Hardy Park in Schuylerville, N.Y., on April 20, 2023. Gillis died when a homeowner fired into the car she was traveling in.
Friends and family attend a candlelight vigil for Kaylin Gillis at Fort Hardy Park in Schuylerville, N.Y., on April 20, 2023. Cindy Schultz / The New York Times / Redux

You see, owning a gun does not actually negate fear. It simply adds new ones or acts as a conduit to project those fears violently outward. Even American police, who are armed to the teeth, frequently justify lethal force based on the presence of a gun or the belief that their own weapon could be seized. It doesn’t matter if the gun is owned legally, as in the case of Philando Castle in 2016, or if the owned gun never came close to the other person’s fingers; in that moment, the illusion of invincibility is shattered. That is what matters in the moment, and the law is built to give credence to that fear for officers and property owners alike.

And yet an ongoing and deliberate project to strip down the requirements for owning a gun is dependent on the idea that in a world where everyone is well-defended, only a fool would dare attack. “An armed society is a polite society,” is a quote from science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein’s “Beyond This Horizon,” often invoked in support of this quest. The story is set in a world where gun duels over honor are common and the knowledge that a challenge could come over any slight. This is the utopia that many gun rights activists believe will be borne of their efforts. But the world Heinlein describes is a world in which the rules of such fights are strictly formalized. There is room for aggression to be relieved absent violence.

That is not this world. A cheerleader in Texas tried to open the wrong car door in the parking lot of a grocery store early Tuesday morning. She realized her mistake when she saw a man inside and retreated to her friend’s car. Pedro Tello Rodriguez Jr., 25, didn’t listen to her apology when she rolled down the window of her friend’s car to offer it. He instead opened fire, injuring two of the teenagers inside, one of them critically.

America is a scared country, and it should be.

Both sides being armed does not change the equation, either. Earlier this month, authorities in Florida filed charges against one of two fathers who exchanged fire during a road rage incident last October, each with children in their cars. The first was deemed to be acting in self-defense, despite hitting a 5-year-old girl in the leg. The second was charged with attempted murder and aggravated assault for returning fire, collapsing a 14-year-old girl’s lung. And yet Florida Republicans this month advanced bills that would allow for gun owners to carry concealed weapons without a permit. Even this is not enough for many gun activists, who insist that the right to openly carry arms is the only way to guarantee the wielders can walk down the streets fully unafraid.

This is paired with a disdain for any requirements related to training or safety before owning a gun. In North Carolina, a man was arrested on Thursday for allegedly shooting a man and his 6-year-old daughter after a ball rolled into his yard. North Carolina Republicans last month voted to repeal the state’s requirement that buying a handgun require a permit from their local sheriff’s office.

This is not the world that Heinlein envisioned. Even the Old West that Heinlein drew from had stricter gun laws than many states today.

And all of this pain, all of these deaths, taking place in neighborhoods, grocery stores, banks, churches, schools, so many schools, is taking a toll on America’s collective psyche. America is a scared country, and it should be.

The real cowards, though, are the ones shoving weapons into the hands of the masses in bulk. The ones who insist after every shooting that there is nothing to be done but offer up more guns. But there is no safety to be had in the crossfire. There is only the prayer that today is not the day that I make a wrong turn.