December 21, 2012
A couple of Sundays ago, I was standing in my office at Blazing Wisdom Institute in the Catskills, balancing on my Cam Walker boot, metal cane in left hand, still recovering from surgery on a broken bone in my right foot.
Facing me inside the door were three officers of the law in sharp, starched uniforms, shiny boots and the hats and badges of their offices: our Delaware County roving Department of Environmental Conservation agent, and two Sheriff's deputies from the town of Delhi.
I had been calling their offices and cell phones politely but relentlessly for weeks. Right across the road, in an unkempt field just 300 feet from where we stood, our neighbor's son and his friend visiting from New Jersey had been amusing themselves day after day by firing hundreds of rounds of live ammunition, from at least five different kinds of weapons, at all hours of the day and night.
I learned from my three official visitors that as long as weapons are licensed in New York (the visible ones, anyway; pistols somehow disappeared whenever the officers arrived on the scene to investigate), they can be fired when drunk, in the dark, or even blindly out of your own kitchen window, if you like. Semi-automatic assault rifles, bear shotguns; whatever.
"Shooting is a sport!" DEC officer Bauer exclaimed, his military training on display in his bark and his bearing. It doesn't matter, apparently, whether the booming and startling noise of guns firing disturbs others' peaceful right of occupancy of their own dwellings. That law (disturbing the peace), as our officers of the law tend to interpret it, relates to loud parties, or dogs barking at night.
It doesn't matter whether the sound of gunfire makes small children (and many adults) feel terror in their own homes, or make the roads feel unsafe to walk, as shots are fired just behind a bordering line of trees. Shooting licensed firearms, by law in New York, typically becomes a problem only after someone actually gets shot.
In fact, the only applicable law controlling the use of firearms in our situation is an environmental statute forbidding their discharge within 500 feet of occupied dwellings, schools or places of worship. But that law won't be prosecuted in our case, Bauer explained, unless I can come up with video evidence, on my own initiative, that this has taken place. The shooters will be taken at their word unless caught on video in the act.
To capture that footage, of course, I would have had to approach to within shooting distance and along a clear sight line, without stumbling over my own walking boot or cane, as snowflakes fell steadily that Sunday and cast a white slick over our steep driveway and the road below. No matter that the shooter already once before had threatened to “take me down” when I had tried to talk to him about his unleashed dogs terrorizing our pets and visitors.
Why is this the law of our land? Can citizens now protect themselves from a tyrannical government with small firearms, as the second amendment to the federal constitution arguably intended in 1791? How many of us need to keep our targeting skills sharp, or else starve, as compared with those living in the era of that amendment? What kind of liberty and personal freedoms are being protected by a right that takes little to no account of the rights of others not to be shot by guns?
I read an op-ed piece in the New York Times a few months ago written by a nurse that cited a statistic that 200 people are shot in the United States every day by guns, of which on average 80 die from their gunshot wounds. That's a pro football stadium full of shooting victims in this country every month.
How many of those were shot by citizens lawfully protecting their homes and persons from assailants and intruders? Very, very few. The numbers do not afford a rationale for us all keeping guns under our beds at night, not even when deterrence is factored in.
Why do we allow this daily rampage to go on and on? Changing the law, by itself, won't entirely solve the problem. But praying for peace and wishing for all others to renounce their violent habits and tendencies also will not soon solve the problem.
This problem is not solely within our minds, nor is it solely environmental, cultural, or legal. It is the interplay of all of these: it is our collective karma to live in a society that glorifies the ability to violently defeat others. And karma, as they say, is a bitch. A rabid bitch that follows close behind, and bites you in the ass when you least expect it.
I wish I had thought to ask the law enforcement triumvirate, "Do you go to church with your families? Would you have no problem with a couple of dudes in camo gear firing hundreds of rounds of ammunition right across the road from your church, all through the service, and when you are walking your small children out to your car after it ends?"
I doubt it. But then, the right to worship is also sacred to most gun-toting Americans, at least when it is their own form of worship. Which constitutional freedom trumps, the first amendment's right to worship, or the second's right to bear arms? Shall every small town sheriff and prosecutor decide this for himself or herself? I imagine that few carry weapons with them into their own halls of worship.
Modifying the law to require screening of the mental health of gun registrants, as some are now suggesting, is a fool's errand. Adam Lanza took his mother's guns, shot her, and then used her guns to kill twenty schoolchildren and six adults trying to protect them. No one ever doubted that she was of sound mental health. No one can doubt, either, that if guns are available, disturbed people will find access to them.
For that matter, we can design no test with which to predict accurately the stressful circumstances any person, now deemed sane and responsible enough to own and operate firearms, will face going forward, and how that person will respond to those conditions, gun at the ready. We can only strive to measure competence currently and retrospectively, but all crimes of violence by licensed gun users, or by others who obtain access to their guns, will occur prospectively.
Why are we so afraid not to trust ourselves to make the right decision on the use of dangerous firearms in any and all situations? What greater fear, truly, are we protecting ourselves from, by arming ourselves this way?
One problem we must face is that our history as a nation is one of conditioning ourselves to believe that the skillful use of powerful weapons affords us liberty and security; and to act on that belief.
The entire history of humanity, however, is proof to the contrary. The law of karma is to the contrary. You don't secure reliable and lasting peace by defeating your enemies, real or perceived, through violent force. We who have studied our own thought processes and emotions through intensive meditation practice, we who have carefully analyzed, logically and empirically, the truth of interdependence of the entire phenomenal world, know this to be true. It is not a debate position. It is the truth.
The question of whether we have movies that glorify violence because of our violent propensities, or vice versa, is therefore a foolish one. The external phenomena and behaviors, as well as the internal beliefs, habits, and emotions, are interdependent and mutually reinforcing.
Who will speak for this truth? It is undeniable that other societies that ban private ownership of guns and do not share our ideology about the right to bear arms have fewer shootings and murders per capita than we do. They have tens and hundreds of times fewer shootings and murders than we do, in many or most cases.
I feel it is my duty and responsibility, as a human being, as a citizen of this nation, as a parent and a child, and of course as a Buddhist practitioner, to speak out, with compassionate resolve, not only against violence and the glorification of violence as a means to end conflict, but against legal access to any and all firearms that facilitate the perpetration of violent acts.
I do not find arguments that there is no way to give practical and well-bounded content to this dictum to be convincing, or even plausible. And if the argument based on unenforceability were sound (i.e., that a black market for unlicensed weapons will replace the legal market and make it harder to control weapons distribution), then recreational drugs would have been legally sanctioned decades ago.
If some people must still provisionally own long-barreled rifles with which to kill their dinner, in order for all of us to be safer from deadly assault with firearms, I will accept that compromise in practice, as a step forward, though never in principle.
I hope you will join me in speaking out on this important issue. After all, we all reap, and weep over, the karma that we continue to sow together.
Tulku Sherdor is the executive director of the Blazing Wisdom Institute.