The Myth of the Lone Gunman

One man strides boldly forward.  His weapons are at the ready.  He’s on a mission to make things right.  He swings open the door.  His eyes glint with the fiery certainty of his convictions.  His guns blaze.  People die.  Others scream and cower.  They had it coming.  The lone gunman blows the smoke off the ends of his guns and walks away.

It’s the myth of countless Westerns of yesterday, the myth of the formulaic action-hero movies of today.  It’s as American as Clint Eastwood.  It’s as American as Captain America.  And it’s proof that there is no such thing as the lone gunman.  Contrary to the statements of the police and the politicians, the man who walked into a Sikh temple and shot several people dead did not act by himself.  A nation of believers in this myth was right behind him.

Certainly some were a lot closer to the terrible deed than others, but all of us are accomplices.  He belonged to the neo-Nazi, white-supremacist movement, the most dangerous terrorist threat to America.  He was a citizen of a country where racial hatred and fear are encouraged by politicians who use code words like “welfare recipients” and “foreigners” to appeal to the basest instincts of their voter base.  He was a citizen of a land where it is okay for people to buy weapons that are useless for anything but mass murder.  He was just one of millions of voters who didn’t pressure the government to show spine and common sense about gun control.  Let’s get real about what the framers of our Constitution mean when they guaranteed “the right to bear arms” in 1787.  If the murderer had been armed with the kind of guns available at that time, he would have had to reload his flintlock rifle laboriously every time he fired.

The murderer wasn’t alone in a society that worships violence on screens of all sizes.  Hollywood was standing with him when he started shooting.  And so were most Americans, who keep sending money to Hollywood’s gore factories.  I live in Hollywood.  Every day I see huge images of the lone gunman, in his many costumes, plastered against the sides of skyscrapers.  The media industry is too greedy and lazy to create a better myth, and we’re too complacent to demand it of them.

Murder is a social phenomenon.  Yes, we bear individual responsibility for our actions.  But really, nobody acts alone.  We are social creatures.  Even what we call the “self” is socially constructed.  The US has a murder rate over 3 times higher than Canada’s.  That’s no statistical accident.  But we don’t want to believe that there is something fundamentally sick about our society.  Our politicians are afraid of offending voters by lifting up the mirror for us to look at ourselves.  But yes, we can deal with it!  It’s just another public health problem: a complex, tough one, but we are up to the task.  We eliminated polio.  We stopped smallpox.  There’s no reason we can’t dramatically reduce the murder rate, and particularly the incidence of mass mayhem, in this country.   Tougher laws helped reduce smoking, but even more effective was the change in our national culture.  Through long-term, smart media campaigns, we made cigarettes socially unacceptable.  We can do the same with guns.

Yesterday I led a group of members of my church, Mt Hollywood Congregational UCC, and students from USC, to visit the Sikh Gurdwara in the Los Feliz neighborhood of LA.  Our church is just a few blocks from the Gurdwara, but for our members it was like taking a trip halfway around the world.  The worship consists of sitting on white sheets in front of the raised platform displaying the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh’s scripture, from which a group of magnificently bearded and turbaned men sang verses accompanied by hand-pumped harmonium organs and tabla drums.  After being entranced by their plaintive, haunting praises lifted up to God, we went to the dining hall in the Gurdwara where a free “langar” meal of tasty vegetarian food was offered to us.  The members of the Sikh community were happy to see us and grateful for our show of solidarity with them.  We sat on the long strips of carpet in the “langar” hall and broke chapati bread with them.  It’s unacceptable that anybody would have reason to be afraid to come to such a heavenly place of worship and hospitality.

So together, let’s get a glint in our eyes, a fire of conviction, that we can stop the madness of gun violence in America, and replace the mythology that perpetrates it with stories that bind us together in harmony and creativity.  Let’s melt the guns to make guitar strings!

(For starters, let’s call on our Congress to re-enact the federal ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004.  Today I sent this highlighted sentence to my member of Congress and senators via their “contact” websites.)

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