Because of our love for and obsession with guns, we should expect gun violence. These lethal weapons are part of our identity, our national character.
To put it bluntly: Guns are us.
I recall the first time guns entered my life. It was in 1949 in Groveland, Fla., when I was 4. Norma Padgett, a 17-year-old white woman, had accused four black men of raping her. After a failed attempt to storm the jail where the alleged rapists were being held, a mob of hundreds of white men shot up the houses of blacks in Groveland and burned a home to the ground.
One of the shot-up houses was my uncle’s, and I was visiting. I vividly recall the terror in the black community. That night was my baptism of gun violence in America, the end of my childhood innocence.
Since then — perhaps because I am acutely aware of them, perhaps because of my family’s socioeconomic status and perhaps because of where I have resided — guns have been a constant presence in my life.
I was 8 years old when I witnessed a shooting death. My father and I were living in a labor camp on a potato farm in Riverhead, N.Y. As several men played dice in our compound, an argument broke out between two of them. I stood nearby talking with another boy when one man pulled a switchblade, and the other whipped out a .38 Special, shooting the knife-wielder through his throat. Blood and flesh gushed from the wound as the man fell.
My friend and I ran to our bunkhouse to hide. Apparently inured to such violence, the men, including the shooter, stood around condemning the dead man for being a cheat. Later that night, the police and the grower arrived. The corpse was taken to the morgue, the killer to jail. He was back in camp two weeks later, a free man.
That is when I began to notice guns everywhere. My father, I soon learned, packed a .32 automatic. He never used it — at least to my knowledge.
Two years after the Riverhead shooting, I witnessed another in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. An adult cousin and I were walking from a grocery store when a would-be robber shot my uncle after he refused to give up his wallet. He survived. I witnessed more shootings: two in New York’s Harlem and one on Chicago’s South Side. I saw more people shot during my time in the military than I can count. As a police reporter, I wrote about the aftermath of shootings, viewed bodies in various states of degradation, took photographs, interviewed grieving spouses, relatives, lovers and friends and, of course, asked stoic cops for details.
During my more than 20 years as a college professor, I lost two students to gun violence, one in Chicago, the other in Fort Lauderdale. Most recently, Renardo Jackson, one of my former students at Stillman College, was a victim of the shooting rampage July 17 at the Copper Top bar in Tuscaloosa, Ala. He was one of 18 people shot. He survived and is recuperating at home in Mobile, where he teaches high school English and coaches football.
I am not naive about guns and gun ownership.
I have memorized the Second Amendment, and I am aware of the surreal influence of the National Rifle Association and politicians’ fear of the gun lobby. I am a gun owner and have been since 1953, when my grandfather gave me a .22 rifle for Christmas. He called it a “squirrel gun.” Over the years, I have owned six long guns. I currently own a .12 gauge shotgun, which I keep loaded with slugs, for protection when I’m in the mountains of southwest Montana. In the Marine Corps, I learned to shoot the M1 carbine, the M16, the M60 machine gun and the .45 caliber handgun. I have never owned a handgun and never will.
Like my fellow Americans, I live in a gun culture. But unlike many other Americans, I am not a slave to guns. I am one who believes that our nation needs tough gun laws. To get tough gun laws, we need to start electing lawmakers who do not fear the NRA. Otherwise, we can expect more massacres with more frequency.
Bill Maxwell is a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times.