I recently traveled to the gulf coast and had bookends to my trip I couldn’t have imagined. Saturday night, before we drove south, we attended the wonderful Knoxville Gay Men’s Chorus concert at the civic auditorium. The show was excellent for its beauty and musicianship, but that wasn’t what stood out the most. It was the hopefulness, the joy and the uplifting nature of the songs and those offering them. It was a special evening and we set out Sunday morning with a song in our hearts.
Sadly, a week later we began our return home just as news broke about the Orlando shootings. “Twenty killed,” said the first reports and that seemed horrific. As we combed the internet and surfed radio stations to get more news, it only got worse. By then end, as we all now know, forty-nine victims and the shooter were killed in the worst mass shooting in American history. Another fifty-three were injured and a night of fun turned into yet another American tragedy.
Before we finished our drive back to Knoxville the predictable politics had come into play. Calls for banning Muslims and arming more citizens mingled with mild calls for slightly more restrictive gun laws. Conspiracy theories emerged: It was all a plot to be used as a pretext to take our guns away. Virtually every angle seemed to be covered by the political spectrum: It was Obama’s fault for being weak (or, Trump implied, maybe he wanted it this way) and it was Trump’s fault for his extreme rhetoric which seems to resonate with some of the most extreme among us. If elected, Donald would either save us because America would be strong again or the world would blow up because he would get us into a war with the Muslim faith. Take your pick.
Sadly, it’s the same every time and, even more sadly, it happens again and again. I had a friend assure me that when the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School took the lives of twenty children and eight adults, that the United States would finally do something to at least attempt to stop the killings. I was doubtful and, unfortunately, I was right. Even the mildest restrictions are stopped by the NRA and their personal assistants in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
Surely, reasonable people could agree that military-style semi-automatic assault weapons like the one that killed so many in Orlando – and Newtown – and Aurora, should be banned, right? Well, yes, they were banned in 1994 and due to pressure from the NRA, the ban was allowed to expire in 2004. Reason no longer controls decisions related to guns in our country. But, certainly, we could agree that suspected terrorists should be prevented from buying guns, right? Wrong. Just seven months ago NRA-backed Republican Senators prevented just such a law. A law that possibly would have prevented this mass murder.
It is true that murders will happen in a country this large. But why do they happen so frequently here? We rank twelfth in the world in death-rate by guns. At least we aren’t the worst, you say? True, Honduras is number one and they are joined above us by countries like Panama, El Salvador and Swaziland. Is that a list of countries to which we’d like to compare ourselves? No, that should be other more developed countries with whom we share ties, right? Our death-by-gun rate is 10.54 per 100K. In the UK the rate is less than 3% of our rate at .23 per 100K. It is less than 1 per 100K in Japan, South Korea, India, the Netherlands, Spain and Austrailia. Why?
The story here isn’t just about guns. It is also about religion. While most mass shooters are white males, this shooter was Muslim and of Afghani descent, though born here. It must be that Islam is a religion of violence, right? This shooter’s father said religion had nothing to do with the assault, rather it was his anger at seeing gay men kiss. What made that so repulsive to him? Did his religion teach him that some people – perhaps especially gay people – are inferior? An “abomination,” anyone? It’s important to remember that Judaism, Islam and Christianity all hold the Jewish Bible to be sacred and that’s where you’ll find that language.
So, what should we do? I don’t have the answers more than anyone else, but I don’t understand why we need assault rifles to protect ourselves and I don’t understand why someone suspected of ties to terrorism should be able to purchase guns and explosives legally. Will we do anything about either of these? No. We will continue to send “thoughts and prayers.” We will continue to do the NRA’s bidding and suspend common sense related to gun laws. We will continue to brag that our country is the best in the world in every respect despite evidence to the contrary.
By the time we arrived in Knoxville the vigil was underway in Krutch Park. Somewhere around two hundred people had gathered by the time I arrived. People came and went through the evening. Chalk inscriptions lined the sidewalk around the park with pleas for love and statements that Knoxville supports Orlando and that good will win. A circle formed and songs were sung before the crowd broke into clusters, some holding candles.
The night could not simply be a solemn expression of support, however. A group, well known to everyone who frequents downtown, wearing robes and preaching their form of Christianity, assailed the group, haranguing all gathered for their decadence and evil and pronouncing their tickets punched for hell. The crowd sang louder. The same group disrupted the moment of silence for Michael Brown, not surprisingly, condemning the group assembled that night to hell, as well. You have to wonder how much more over the edge a member of such a group would have to be to pick up a gun and use it on people they consider decadent. We would certainly sell them an assault rifle, hardly a question asked.
So, this is Pride Week. It’s quite a contrast to the jubilation in the air last year as the Supreme Court readied their ruling allowing gay marriage. This year the celebrations may be more muted. I’ll see you Saturday at the parade and at Pridefest. It would be a good time to show support to a community among us who has just been reminded they are not accepted by many, they are reviled by some and they are not safe in their own country.
In the longer term, I will see you on Krutch Park for the next memorial after the next mass shooting. We’ll all send our thoughts and prayers.