“It’s a Heart Problem, not a Gun Problem.” Is it, though?

Early this past Sunday morning, forty-nine people were murdered with an additional fifty-three people being injured at an Orlando, Florida night club in what is being described as the worst mass shooting in American history. This shooting is the latest in what seems to be a never-ending barrage of gun violence in the United States, and raises a plethora of questions and issues regarding sexuality, race, and religion in twenty-first century America.  The biggest question, for me, is how does our national consciousness correlate with our country’s gun laws and the rising tide of violence?

Inevitably, this shooting has sparked political debate around the topic of gun ownership, the Second Amendment, and whether or not guns are intrinsically to blame for the violence. Living in the Appalachian Mountains of rural southwest Virginia in the tiny city of Norton, stories such as the Orlando shooting and other mass murders often seem very distant from my own realm of experience as well as from that of my friends and neighbors.

Although in my personal politics, I am fairly liberal, the area I call home tends to be quite conservative. Many of my friends, neighbors, and acquaintances hold strong opinions about the Second Amendment. Now, if you are reading this and you are not from this area, your first inclination is going to be to judge these folks as gun-toting “rednecks,” “hillbillies,” or worse. I’m asking that you cast aside such judgments and understand, first and foremost, that the media representations you have been fed about Appalachian culture are mostly pure bullshit. Yes, we have our share of problems which have been well documented, and that is undeniable. But by and large, people here are peaceful, friendly, and willing to help out their neighbors in times of need, which is one of the reasons why so many people of my generation are opting to stay and try to build a better future for the region.

There is a meme going around that reads, “Cain killed Abel with a rock. It’s a heart problem, not a gun problem.” This one has been going around for awhile, and every time there is a mass shooting (one mass shooting is one far too often, but I digress), I inevitably see this meme floating around social media. I see my friends, my neighbors, good people mostly, sharing it and affirming its sentiment.

Heart not gun

I have to admit that I feel like this meme does have an ounce of truth in it. Now, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the fact that I’m currently enrolled in seminary studies, I’m not at all convinced that Cain and Abel were literal people who existed, but it isn’t hard to look at the media landscape in the United States today and see a culture that is drenched in fear, paranoia, and the glorification of brutish violence. When a man like Donald Trump is considered a serious contender for the Presidency, something has gone terrible awry with the American psyche.

We have grown fearful of one another. We deal with constant anxiety. We struggle and we suffer, often in a lonely solitude in spite of the fact that the internet has us more connected to one another than ever before. There is a foreboding sense that men must be hyper-masculine or else risk not measuring up, and I know this because as a man who has never fit the “hyper-masculine” mold, I often feel somewhat as if I am falling behind. In spite of the legislative progress we have made in terms of gay rights, as evidenced by this shooting and the recent bathroom bill controversy, it seems that homophobia and transphobia are on the rise right along with racism and the fear of members of the Muslim faith, even though it isn’t hard to see that one mass shooter no more represents the whole of Islam than one Fred Phelps represents the whole of Christianity. Yes, America, we do definitely have a heart problem.

Yet, it’s also undeniable from a place of pure common sense that it would be nearly impossible to murder forty-nine people and injure fifty-three more with a rock. To suggest otherwise is an asinine statement. According to this USA Today Article the two weapons used by the shooter were an AR-15 style Sig Sauer MCX .223-caliber rifle and a Glock 17 9 mm pistol. The weapons were legally purchased from a Florida store about a week before the tragic mass shooting. In 2016, there have been at least three mass shootings, and the United States is home to nearly a third of the world’s mass shootings annually. This article from CNN shows some of the relevant statistics. So yes, America, as much as we have a heart problem, we also definitely have a gun problem.

I’m not writing this to try to prescribe a solution.  I am not smart enough or arrogant enough to think that I have the answer to America’s ongoing struggle with violence.  I’m not a policy expert, nor am I a professional journalist.  But I am a concerned citizen.  I understand that, at least where I come from, guns are often just another aspect of life.  Many of my friends, neighbors, and family members are hunters and sportsmen.  I have enjoyed firing off a semi-automatic weapon or two in my own life with my friends.  Call me a redneck, but even though I’m not a hunter, it can be great fun and a great stress reliever to go out into the mountains and shoot at targets.

But let’s not forget that guns were designed with one purpose and one purpose only in mind:  to kill.  And too often in this country, the person pulling the trigger is not some hunter bringing home a deer for the winter or someone enjoying a round of target practice, but is instead a person full of hate and vitriol whose only goal is to take down as many of his fellow human beings as he can. Too often, the person on the receiving end of the bullet is not a target, but a living breathing human soul trying to peacefully live their life when hatred and gunfire tragically cut that life short.  This latest shooting saw that hatred unleashed on the LGBT community.  2012’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary saw the deaths of twenty-six people, many of whom were children.  Those are merely two examples of the most horrendous of American mass shootings in what seems to be a never-ending, everyday occurrence.

For the LGBTQ community of Orlando, for the victims of the shooting and their families, know that many of us here in these mountains stand in solidarity with you, and that you are in our thoughts and our prayers.  May we as a nation take whatever steps are necessary to put an end to the violence in our streets and the hatred in our hearts.  May we be unafraid to call out homophobia when we see it on display.  And may we be unafraid to speak out, using our voices to lift up those who have been marginalized and to speak truth to power whenever the opportunity presents itself.

 

We Ain’t Dead Yet, Dammit.

Last night, I went to a drag show in Whitesburg, Kentucky at the Summit City Lounge.  There, I encountered a culture as vibrant and thriving as anything I encountered when I was living in Nashville, Tennessee, perhaps even more so, as there was not an ounce of the big city pretense and putting on of airs that you are likely to find among the suburbanites and Vanderbilt college crowd.  Not that I have anything against Nashville.  It’s a beautiful city, and if I was ever going to live in a big city again, Nashville would be my number one choice.

But there is a rawness here in the rural communities of the mountains that is unlike anything you will encounter in even the most “country” of cities.  People are completely themselves, and bare their souls at every moment, warts and all.  This is especially evident among the millennial generation here.  And while you might not expect a bar in small town eastern Kentucky to be the sort of place to host a celebration of LGBT culture, for anyone in Whitesburg, Kentucky last night, it would have been hard to miss the cars lined around the block and the sound of thumping bass coming from inside the Summit City.  Harder still to miss would have been the collection of mostly twenty-somethings inside, dancing the night away as Lilly Conn, Lucy Deville, and Shelita Buffett riled the crowd and entertained with their flamboyant charisma.  (My favorite moment was when, midway through the 11 PM show, Lucy did a dive-bomb off the Summit City stage, nearly knocking my beer out of my hand.  All in good fun.)

Here you would also find the mayor of Vicco, the smallest town in the United States to pass an anti-LGBT discrimination ordinance as well as local punk rock legend Globsters; girls in pseudo-hippie fashions, local artists and musicians coming out to enjoy the fun, even a few middle aged and senior citizens getting down with their bad selves, to borrow a worn out phrase, among the crowd.  This sort of life and vitality, this sort of celebration of a segment of the population that has usually been denied rights and privileges that us straight people take for granted, does not seem to me at all to be the signs of a community, of a region, on its deathbed.

And we’ve got to quit talking about the Appalachian Region as if that is the case.

Whether we’re talking about Whitesburg or Norton or Pennington Gap or any other small Appalachian community, there is a tendency to speak of these towns as if their best days are definitely behind them.  They are in their death throes, and new life is simply not something that is going to come.  And while it is true that these communities face their struggles and uphill battles, (you can read more about my take on that in my blog from two weeks ago here: https://rancegarrison.wordpress.com/2014/05/16/appalachia-the-great-white-ghetto-why-i-am-staying/)  if we want to improve the Appalachian region and take it from being the “Great White Ghetto” as some from New York or wherever would have the rest of the nation believe we are to being a truly thriving and vibrant place again, then we need to start speaking of the region not as a dead or dying place, but as a place that is in a period of transition, both economically and culturally.  Transitions are often difficult periods, and change is almost never easy.  But make no mistake:  change is not the same thing as death.  We’ve got to stop clinging to a celebration of days gone by, and start looking ahead to days and opportunities yet to come.  And perhaps most importantly, we’ve got to empower the region’s youth with opportunities and influence rather than raising them up with the sole purpose of leaving in mind because if this region is to have a future, it lies with the youth.

And if my experience among the bright, talented, and vibrant folks at last night’s show in Whitesburg are any indication, this region’s future is a lot brighter than its detractors and nay-sayers would have you believe.