Hearts and Minds
When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d
BY WALT WHITMAN
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
O powerful western fallen star!
O shades of night—O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear’d—O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless—O helpless soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.
A few months back, for Father’s Day, I let my Pop choose our activity. I’m usually content to get dinner and some beers and talk about religion and politics. My father and I don’t see eye to eye on every topic, but I get where he’s coming from.
I came from where he’s coming from, after all.
I am sympathetic to his worldview, though I think it’s oversimplified and steeped in the implicit—though unintentional—arrogance of privilege. I recognize that I am heir to a white, lower middle class way of seeing the world. I have leveraged his sacrifices, a stack of well-placed chromosome combinations, and an overwhelming pressure to always “do better” into upper middleness. I am sometimes appalled by the things he says; I know he sometimes feels betrayed when I call him out for his inadvertent racism or for his disgust with the institutions that have delivered so well for me and other folks I care a lot about. I know that he is sad that I will not give him a grandson; he does his best to temper his mid-century Christianity with my twenty-first century homosexuality. Sometimes we just play cribbage and talk about cars.
He asked for me to take him to the gun firing range.
From a purely philosophical perspective, I unhesitatingly agreed. As an east-coast-southern adolescent, I graduated through the normal series of gun-types: Nerf to phaser to cap to beebee to pellet. As a relatively self-realized conservative, I fully understand the value and need for the Second Amendment to ensure our First Amendment rights against tyranny. As an ardent student of history, I know that armed citizens provide a necessary tension with a government that oversteps its bounds. As a student of literature, I can imagine dystopian slippery slopes in which democratic institutions fall in the wake of evil regimes that disarm their citizens.
I have, throughout my life, been surrounded by responsible gun users. My grandfather was a WWII hero. Growing up I always knew there was, somewhere in his home, a gun that he would use to protect us if necessary. I know he used it to shoot rabid squirrels, ward off curious bears, and to humanely put down his beloved, aged dog, Babe. My father served as a policeman in Washington D.C, the most dangerous city in America in the 1970s. Growing up, long after he retired, I always knew there was, somewhere in our home, a gun that would protect us if necessary.
My in-laws are avid, world class American game hunters. Each year, our families’ and neighbors’ tables and freezers are stocked with the fresh, unpolluted, American meat that they provide for us. I know that what they do is done professionally and humanely, culling herds that may otherwise starve, making way for wildlife to prosper in an ecosystem at which humans stand on top. I know that there are, locked somewhere in their home, guns that they would use to protect us if necessary.
I know that guns serve many necessary purposes in civilized society.
I know that “necessary” means protection from attacking bears, attacking criminals, or attacking government-gone-bad. I know that this is what our forefathers meant as well. I know this as a historian, I know this as a writer, I know this as an American son and grandson and neighbor. I know this as a citizen of the United States of America in 2018, the heir to a nation bought with the blood of revolutionaries who rose up against a tyrannical government with the same guns and gumption they used to brave the world’s wild, wide frontier.
So, when my father said he wanted to go shoot guns, I said, “I can do it!”
When we arrived at the firing range, we worked through a short safety-and-use class. The instructor was knowledgeable and patient. He was professional and serious about his duty to ensure our respect for the firearms we would use. My father showed him his gun and we were given a little history lesson about that piece—a very basic gun. I had always assumed that my father would have a fancy gun like the one we see cops carry on TV. This was not that kind of sexy gun. Guns-as-a-species, suddenly, were not sexy.
We waited our turn and watched avid and highly skilled shooters fill pieces of paper with bullet holes.
As I watched holes-on-paper grow, I began to withdraw. My bravado steadily decreased as my father and step-mother’s amusement grew. When I noticed that the paper targets were shaped like human bodies and that the most celebrated shooters clustered holes where hearts and brains would be, my withdrawal turned into anxiety. My anxiety became, as our turn to enter the safe area arrived, terror. My terror became tears.
I could not do it.
I was that guy crying at the shooting range.
“But!” I thought, “I’m a brave defender of the Second Amendment.” “But!” I thought, “What would Grampa, the unequivocal hero of my life, think?” “But!” I thought, “This is neither rational nor consistent with the many reasons that this, as an activity celebrating the Constitution, should be celebrated.” “But!” I thought, “I have a responsibility to know how to defend my home, my family, and my nation should I be called.”
The next thirty minutes were a concussive blur as my father and stepmother stepped into the shooting booth and filled paper with holes. I withdrew into my heartbroken soul and thought about guns. I thought about the millions of people who died by gunshot defending this country and making it safe for me. I thought about the brave and heroic role that my grandfather assumed in World War II. I thought about the brave and heroic role my father took on as a policeman protecting strangers from danger. I thought about the role within the broader ecosystem that my in-laws assume as hunters and patriots.
Then I thought about my friend Billy’s husband who committed self-murder with a gun.
Then I thought about children who died by guns at Sandy Hook and Columbine.
Then I thought about neighbors and friends’ friends who were massacred with guns at Pulse.
Then I thought about thousands of families-of-color who, because of guns, are robbed of brothers and sisters and fathers—whole communities decimated—each year.
Then I thought about Iraqis and Afghans and Venezuelans and Syrians terrorized by the violence that guns inflict in the name of political control.
Then I thought about those American military heroes afflicted by PTSD for whom the sound of gunfire is a tragic, daily haunting.
Then I thought about the bullet-raining murder of peace-loving Chief Black Kettle by a rogue detachment of the American army in the 1860s.
Then I thought about the gun-assisted deaths of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and Philando Castile
Then I thought about Walt Whitman tending to young soldier-men as they agonizingly died from the gun injuries they endured during the Civil War. I thought about his Lilac elegy to Lincoln, the greatest American, whose legacy is as wrapped in his tragic gun murder as in the victory of his heroic life. I thought that the heart of a poet has no room for the violence for which guns are an unequivocal symbol.
With the sound of guns as a background, I resolved that I could never touch a gun again. I’d rather die at the other end of a gun than ever hold one.
Were I not aware of the bravery it takes to cry openly at a gun range, I would be embarrassed by my cowardice. Were I not aware of the bravery it takes to walk hand in hand with my husband in public, I would be embarrassed by my cowardice. Were I not aware of the bravery it takes to speak from a position of nuance on gun issues as an avowed conservative, I would be embarrassed by my cowardice. Were I not aware of the bravery it takes to offer myself as martyr—assassinated, if it happens—for causes that would advance the progress of humanity, I would be embarrassed by my cowardice.
For me, this argument is completely, selfishly, and irrationally personal. I cannot, however, demand this position of anybody else. For me to argue that nobody should own or use guns is dissonant with everything I know to be right. I refuse to demand that the Constitution for which my grandfather fought, the safety for which my father served, or the natural responsibilities which my in-laws emulate are less than my value for non-violence. I know that my privilege to be a pacifist is wholly protected by those who would carry guns. I know that my free speech and my freedom to worship my God and that my safety as I walk down the street in my neighborhood and my protection from hostility along the borders of my nation are all protected by brave people who use guns to protect me. I am thankful for them even as I know I could not do what they do.
So, when I think about the debate around guns in America, there’s a conflict between what my mind says: “The Constitution guarantees this right to just about everybody, unabridged,”
And what my sensitive, humanity-loving, violence-hating soul says: “No way, never.”
This issue, following the example set by a schizophrenic (multi-dexterous, perhaps) American character, has become victimized by having to choose where to put the bullet: head or heart. We are, both, a nation of laws and a nation of 320 million unique individuals.
Sadly, for America, two sides have dominated a discourse that would much better serve us all should we, instead of shooting at paper targets to (metaphorically) kill, shoot to slow: shoot to hobble. Politicians and activists want us to believe that the “other side” is obsessed with either a shoot-em-up culture or, alternatively, a full disarming of the people: unfettered vigilantism or rights-jettisoning. Really, both sets of rhetoric straw-man the other as a devolution into violent lawlessness. Both extreme arguments, of course, aren’t incorrect. With no guns, necessary power hierarchies disintegrate. With guns, those wishing to topple legitimate power hierarchies are unduly empowered.
When we are at war, gun-wielders shoot to kill. When those we love are in danger, gun-wielders shoot to kill. When we aim for game-for-food, gun-wielders shoot to kill with a single, painless kill-shot. When practicing on targets, gun-wielders measure their success by the precision with which they hit their marks: holes in heads and hearts.
The rhetoric on both sides of the political debate, firing into circular argument-loops, has caught the heads and hearts of the vast majority of Americans in its crossfire. As we mourn the loss of life in the wake of debilitatingly concussive recoil, useful discourse is drowned out. Politicians chasing dollars, constituents, and ultimately their own monopoly on the control of whether guns should be owned by everyone or no one, produce no results. Armed with their own statistics, they measure tragedy versus tragedy-averted. Their slippery slope arguments land in pools of blood for which they blame the other.
And yet, the real issue that needs solving is elementary. The solution requires a re-framing: a re-targeting. Instead of aiming for the head or heart of the issue, we should shoot to hobble.
In our current, shoot-to-kill paradigm, there is no room for rehabilitation. Anti-gun zealots would put a hole in the head—the philosophy— of the right of gun ownership. Pro-gun zealots would put a hole in the heart—the emotion—of human life. The great rational middle—caught in the zealous crossfire—understands that the only justifiable discussion is how to keep guns out of the hands of those who would cause harm to society. The great rational middle—caught in the zealous crossfire—understands that guns can be used by good people as well as bad people.
The great rational middle knows that, except for a tiny part of society that may be to-the-core evil, every individual failure can be traced back to a failure in society. When a mentally ill child becomes an un-treated mentally ill adult, that’s us. When a child of abuse becomes an adult abuser, that’s us. When a poor kid turns to crime because their parents were criminal, that’s us. When a marginalized, bullied, disrespected American feels so closed out from society that they would lash out with blunt force on that society, that’s us. The great rational middle knows that excuse-making for failure reaches from the mind of an individual all the way out to the heartlessness of an imperfect society.
If we are going to claim, as a society, the innumerable human successes that our body politick churns out each minute of each glorious American day, we must also own the poor, the weak, and the forgotten. We must own unequal justice as metaphorized by our prisons. We must own crumbling schools. We must own people with guns who have nothing to lose.
The great rational middle knows that shooting-to-hobble provides opportunity for rehabilitation of an individual.
The great rational middle knows that shooting-to-hobble provides opportunity for the continuing perfection of our more perfect union.
Thus, A Radical Centrist—the great rational middle—position on guns shoots to hobble: it targets rehabilitation, and rebuilds a sustainable culture that values the mind and the Constitution and the heart and non-violence.
A separate pillar of the Radical Centrist platform calls for all able, stable American men and women to serve in either the Armed Forces, an AmeriCorps, or the Peace Corps for a prescribed tour (the topic of another chapter). Each citizen, upon completion of that tour (and, implicitly training in its use) shall be provided with a firearm, ammunition, and a safe in which to keep them.
1. All able, stable citizens who have served shall own a firearm.
Pacifists may leave their gun in their safe for their entire life and never touch it. Other citizens may find a use for it throughout their lifetimes. The sale of ammunition for that class of firearm would be strictly controlled by the government. There is no need for a firearms registry because the rational assumption is that every citizen that has served owns a firearm.
Corollary 1: the United States has a well-armed militia.
Corollary 2: the United States government knows that if it oversteps its right place, a well-armed militia can rise up against it.
2. If a citizen is convicted of a crime (higher than a second degree misdemeanor), they immediately lose the right to carry a gun for five years and must relinquish their state-assigned firearm. After five years, that citizen may re-apply for their firearm and a license to carry it.
3. If a citizen is convicted of a crime (felony or higher), they immediately lose the right to carry a gun for life.
4. If a citizen is deemed “mentally unable” to carry a firearm, they immediately lose the right to carry a gun for five years and must relinquish their state-assigned firearm. After five years, the citizen may re-apply for their firearm and a license to carry it.
5. If a citizen wishes to carry a firearm outside of their home property, they must register to do so. The rules for this extended privilege and the registry is maintained by state governments.
6. Any citizen under the age of 18 who wishes to obtain a firearm for hunting or another “legitimate” reason must register and take a gun safety course. The rules for this extended privilege is maintained by state governments. The registry is federally managed, though updated based on administrators at the state level. The registry does not track the firearms owned, but rather that a citizen is registered to own guns besides their government-issued firearm. This may include semi-automatic guns. It may not include automatic weapons, bazookas, cannons, bombs, grenades, or nuclear weapons.
7. Any citizen who wishes to own a firearm other than that provided by the Federal government at the completion of their service shall complete an application and be registered. The registry is federally managed, though updated based on administrators at the state level. The registry does not track the firearms owned, but rather that a citizen is registered to own guns besides their government-issued firearm. This may include semi-automatic firearms. It may not include automatic weapons, bazookas, cannons, bombs, grenades, or nuclear weapons.
8. It is illegal for anybody to manufacture or sell any firearm accoutrement that would convert a legal firearm into one of the classes described above.
9. Any firearm sale (at any market or storefront) requires proof of registration as described above. No firearms may be sold to a purchaser who is not physically present for the sale and who cannot produce a government-issued document to prove their identity. Compliance with registration of purchasers is enforced on the seller. The seller is not required to disclose details of the sale, but is required to document the registry search and whether the sale of a legal firearm was made to a registered citizen. The seller is required, under penalty for non-compliance, to document sales which are attempted but for which the customer is ineligible.
Well-Armed Militia: Check
Responsible gun-ownership: Check
Protection of First Amendment rights: Check
Protection of Second Amendment rights: Check
Respect for Tenth Amendment: Check
Deterrent to government overreach: Check
Respect for life and rehabilitation: Check
Respect for rule of law: Check
Rational, radically centered, and sustainable approach to firearms that protects hearts and minds: Check
Validation of heroism and poetry as equals in American society: Check
This Radical Centrist’s solution provides a basis for the protection of American ideals, the American Constitution, American progress, American borders, American rule-of-law, and respect for great American patriots like Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, my Grandfather, my father, my in-laws, and my husband without sacrificing the heart and soul of what pushes America to be better for more people each day: heart and mind working in concert to constantly progress toward greater sustainability of the culture and the republic.
Passing the visions, passing the night,
Passing, unloosing the hold of my comrades’ hands,
Passing the song of the hermit bird and the tallying song of my soul,
Victorious song, death’s outlet song, yet varying ever-altering song,
As low and wailing, yet clear the notes, rising and falling, flooding the night,
Sadly sinking and fainting, as warning and warning, and yet again bursting with joy,
Covering the earth and filling the spread of the heaven,
As that powerful psalm in the night I heard from recesses,
Passing, I leave thee lilac with heart-shaped leaves,
I leave thee there in the door-yard, blooming, returning with spring.
I cease from my song for thee,
From my gaze on thee in the west, fronting the west, communing with thee,
O comrade lustrous with silver face in the night.
Yet each to keep and all, retrievements out of the night,
The song, the wondrous chant of the gray-brown bird,
And the tallying chant, the echo arous’d in my soul,
With the lustrous and drooping star with the countenance full of woe,
With the holders holding my hand nearing the call of the bird,
Comrades mine and I in the midst, and their memory ever to keep, for the dead I loved so well,
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands—and this for his dear sake,
Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.