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Confessions of a (former) Killer and Gun Lover

Given the tension in the United States over gun rights and the prospect of tighter gun controls, I want to contribute a few thoughts on the subject myself.  I start with a confession.

I confess that I was a killer of African wildlife and I was a lover of guns (although the latter sounds a bit kinky as I write it).  Okay, so I’m not a former killer of people as my blog title might intimate at, and you’re disappointed in a sick-kind-of-way because that’s why you clicked on my blog. Please don’t disengage.  Read on.

Don't I look "tough"!:)

Yes, I thought I was quite the dude.

First, a preamble: This blog is not a diatribe against guns, gun ownership or hunting. I accept the arguable concepts of self and national protection, as well as conservation reasons for hunting or culling. Rather, I write as someone whose perspective on guns and hunting has changed, and this is my attempt to explain in part why.

I don’t recall ever choosing these twin interests.  I simply was born into a family and culture where owning guns, shooting guns, and hunting with guns was entertainment and identity.  It helped that once or twice a year guns and hunting resulted in a freezer filled with venison of wildebeest, impala, eland, hartebeest, warthog, yes, even the occasional zebra or cape buffalo. I admit I enjoyed going on several day “hunting safaris” in Kenya, Tanzania, and once in Botswana.

There’s something magical about camping out under the canopy of an African night sky, as Hemingway did, while nursing a cup of coffee, chai, or hot chocolate around a warm, crackling campfire – my family were teetotalers, therefore, regrettably I never knew the greater joy of nursing a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon until much later in life – listening to the nearby sounds of hyenas and jackals, and occasionally, a distant rhythmic chorus of lions (hear at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iC5vrt7eGG4), all while gazing up at the ga-trillion stars that mesmerized and enthralled your wonderment of life and being alive.

My family didn’t always go on safari just to kill.  Even on “non-kill” photographic safaris, however, hunting was ever-present on our minds.  We enjoyed wildlife viewing safaris to national parks, including Masai Mara, Amboseli, Samburu, Serengeti, The Ark, Treetops, Lake Nakuru, Ruaha, and Ngorongoro Crater. Although we exchanged rifles for cameras on these occasions, this did not stop the males among us from incessantly referencing this and that particular animal from a hunter’s eye.

“Wow, look at the horns on that impala!”  Or, “Wow, what I would give to have my rifle right now!” Or, “That Zebra stallion has dark, beautiful stripes – a lot nicer than the zebra I shot last year.”  Sometimes my siblings and I would so intensely want to shoot a prized trophy that we would act out a shot, positioning our left and right arms and hands outward toward an animal, as if holding a magnum calibre rifle, and then making a shot sound with our mouths, while simultaneously pulling on an imaginary trigger. Of course, on these “hunts” we always bagged our animal.

An elephant "shot" with camera at too close proximity.

An elephant “shot” with camera at too close proximity.

This interest and love of hunting and firearms lasted longer than I care to admit.  And when guns no longer featured into my home inventory, they were temporarily replaced with a compound bow.  I transitioned to bows for two reasons.  Most importantly, I lost bi-lateral high-frequency hearing for a combination of likely reasons, one of which, were rifles exploding in close proximity to my unprotected ears.  Stupid, stupid, stupid! Secondly, once you master “the shot,” which I did, rifle hunting offered little pleasure other than “the stalk.”   The rush that comes from observing first-hand the skill of an expert tracker as he reads the telltale signs of animals and nature, and leads you ever closer to your intended quarry is the topic of many a-fireside-conversations.

Tracker follwing animal spoor

Tracker following animal spore

What changed my mind about firearms is difficult to articulate in words. Obviously there exist any similar number of “Newtown, Connecticut” type incidents to point at, yet those have all occurred at a safe and sterile distance from my own life, and despite the horrid, tragic, and senseless loss of life, including small children, they were not the effective change agent for me.

Although I could add as a caveat, that during my family’s residence in South Africa, we once counted up the number of friends and acquaintances we had known murdered and it came to about 20, and add to that almost 50 incidences of armed hijacking (I lost count after 40).  Yet even there, amidst what psychologists and social theorists define as “a culture of violence,” mindsets were mitigated because South African society absurdly yet understandably came to accept violence and crime as simply part of “the culture.”  After all, if you’re unable to stop or stem violence you still have to live with it.

Zapiro cartoon depicting an endemic "culture of crime" in South Africa

Zapiro cartoon depicting an endemic “culture of crime” in South Africa

For me, a change of mind and attitude toward guns and killing germinated during the summer of 2001.  That summer just prior to 9/11 was singularly formative in reshaping my worldview and identity, and, of course, post-9/11 only reinforced my sense of shared identity with people of the world, given that more than 90 countries lost citizens on that day.

As part of my postgraduate studies I had the fortune to attend summer/2001 seminars at Bossey Ecumenical Institute in Geneva, Switzerland. This studies-abroad experience was singularly transformative, in that, for the first time I was obligated to temporarily suspend my protective, American cultural identity bubble.  If I was to get anything out of the three weeks’ study, I had to place myself in the vulnerable and unsettling position of having to listen and vicariously experience life and faith through the shared experiences and perspectives of individuals, who I shared few life commonalities with.

A discussion about homosexuality and interpretation of holy scriptures arose one session, particularly over how subjective truth is, and how people are selective (pick and choose texts that best fit their interpretive and cultural lens) when it comes to contentious issues.  My mindset at the time was conservative, so both my thought and contribution was in effect to try to claim a high ground of “absolute scriptural authority” (*postmodernism posits that all truth is interpretive and provisional – I agree) and disregard or at least minimize the reality and day-to-day experience of those who of necessity have to live a daily branded life of being gay.

At some point in the discussion, America’s gun culture came into play.  A participant from India, about my age, heterosexual, and married shared something that struck a deep chord of change in me.  I take considerable liberty in recounting these twelve years later what exactly she said –

“Being tolerant or even advocating for homosexual rights is about perceiving God as ‘life-giving.’  Whatever is life giving or affirming of life is of God, because God is the ‘giver of life.'” She contrasted the “sin” of homosexuality with the “sin” of America’s penchant for guns, violent entertainment, and sometimes aggressive interventionist strategies abroad and posed this concluding thought: One affirms life and the other destroys life, therefore which one poses the greater societal ill and danger?

In November, during the period leading up to Thanksgiving, many, if not all North American Jain communities, hold all-night prayer vigils for the millions of turkeys that are slaughtered for our ritualistic feast day.  In case you know nothing about Jainism, it is an Indian religion, of which one of its underlying tenets of faith is “ahimsa” or “non-violence.” Gandhi’s non-violent means of protest took its inspiration from Jainism, and later Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as Nelson Mandela were inspired by Gandhi.  So there is some truth in saying that Jainism singularly sparked social revolutions on three separate continents and through three historically significant individuals.  When I shared the Jains’ prayer vigil for turkeys with my world religion classes each semester, I inevitably heard snickering.  To young identities shaped by a pioneering, minutemen and wilderness-subduing history, such as is the United States’, the idea of commiserating with birds to be slaughtered seems the utmost in absurdity.

Yet is it?

Which is more out of kilter?  A near obsession by many with all things guns – gun shows, gun collections, gun rights, and guns themselves, of which the latter were the primary contributing factor in 8,600 of 12,700 total murders in 2011? Or an “absurd” valuing of life; one that advocates non-violence even to the point of holding all-night prayer vigils for turkeys?

You be the judge.

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A Masai Warrior, A Roasted Corncob, and a Life Lesson

For some unknown reason, as I sat to write this FIRST EVER personal blog, a flurry of thoughts and images confronted me, each vying for primacy of expression.  I chose an image from early childhood – that of a tall, slim Masai warrior, standing just on the edge of my family’s camp fire, leaning against his long, double-edged spear, the sharp point of which was anchored firmly in the ground beside him, and with evident boredom or fascination – I could not tell which, observing and listening to an incomprehensible white American family’s interactions and conversations (*Note: the individual in the photograph below is only representative of my memory).  During these once or twice-a-year safari outings, my family had become accustomed to these semi-nomadic, fireside gawkers, who arrived almost on cue each day accompanied by their herds of cattle, irritating-to-your-face-and-ears flies, plus insatiable curiosities – for many of them: admiring their faces for the first time and at great length in the side mirrors of the camp’s resident Land Rover Defender.

Masai Warrior  This image is seared in my consciousness, in part, because of what occurred between the warrior and myself – a small, insignificant incident, perhaps, yet full of meaning these many years later.  I must have been 8 or 9 years old at the time, 3rd or 4th grade.  I was eating a roasted ear of corn, while seated on a camp chair, within leg reach of the boundary-setting stones of our campfire. I had consumed at least half of the ear, if not two-thirds, when I become intensely conscious of the fact that we were eating, and this very visibly and culturally “different Other” persisted in standing, staring, and maybe, even, wanting some of what we were eating.  Painfully aware that my family and I were attempting to ignore him with the hope that he would grow bored and return to his cattle or family kraal or both, I eventually could not fight my discomfort any more, and got up from my chair, walked over and extended to the warrior my partially eaten ear of corn.

His response to my act of “generosity” unexpectedly and sharply drew deep embarrassment to my white face.  I don’t recall whether the warrior even took my gift, but for certain he did mutter something to himself in either Maa or Kiswahili, and then spat on the ground.  He was clearly offended and unhappy with his “gift.”  Surely he was upset by one or all of these reasons . . . I had already eaten the choicest kernels off the cob.  I offered him remnants of a measly corncob, when the rest of us were eating a meat, potatoes and all the trimmings kind of meal.  I didn’t invite him to sit in a chair around the fire with us.  And, I offered nothing to drink as an accompaniment.

What likely most offended this Masai warrior was not the pathetic “gift,” or the lack of invitation to join my family in our noontime meal, but rather my naively innocent yet demonstrated antagonistic attitude and perception toward difference.

This warrior was someone my culture had instilled in me was inferior, uneducated, “unsaved,” and primitive – all without ever having said as much in words (i.e., hegemony).  Winthrop Jordan, in White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550-1812, noted that “difference” – and more importantly, perhaps – sustaining a sense of difference, is dependent upon isolation and/or segregation, whether sustained by voluntary or legislated means.  Or more blunt and to the point, as Andrew Sinclair noted in The Savage: A History of Misunderstanding, “The unknown is usually the enemy, while the misunderstood is always the savage.”

At that time I did not live isolated from “different others” because of a legislated segregated society like apartheid South Africa.  My individual isolation and that of my family’s was mostly voluntary, induced in part by education and economic privilege, plus post-colonial realities, but hardened by a rationality and practicality influenced in large measure by fear.  A fear of crime.  A fear of over-exposure to poverty and its effects upon the psyche of oneself or even one’s children. A constant unspoken fear and awareness, perhaps, that life is tenuous and unpredictable, and in the briefest moment of time good fortune and societal standing could be reversed.

So  . . . lesson learned and wisdom acquired from this life incident of more than 30 years ago?  A person doesn’t necessarily have to give up what one has inherited through privilege of birth, or acquired through individual hard work, or even to assume another person’s life and identity in order to experience empathy and thereby show relational kindness and respect for those different or less fortunate economically, than yourself.

BUT, I believe people – you, me, we – need to consciously and intentionally live measurably less isolated lives, and more relationally engaged on a day-to-day basis with our respective “different Others”, so that we can in varying measure, shape and form share collectively in life experiences.  This is not socialism, as many attempted to brand President Obama, but a healthy ism of societal relatedness.  And from shared life experiences and relational moments lie the seedbeds of new and transformative thoughts, relationships and paradigms, which can help mend our world’s many fissures.

My significant shared life experiences and relational moments with “different others” regrettably did not occur until postgraduate studies – much to my own self-impoverishment.  Up until my early to mid-30s I was quite confident that I was right and “the other” was wrong (especially the religious other).  It took a little dash of so-called “liberal education” and a big dash of a willingness to be vulnerable and risk my faith and traditional cultural/ideological thought in a much less homogenous and less power-presiding position, before I recognized and experienced first-hand just how small I had shaped God and the “Other,” and just how much I had projected “enemy” upon the “different Others” of the world.  What I’ve since discovered is that contrary to my Puritan-laden heritage, it is not sin that defines humanity, but rather a search for meaning amidst the inexplicable realities of life (miracle of birth, the problem of suffering and the enigma of death), hope and the aspirations for “becomingness.”  As my primary mentor used to tell each class of university students:  “You are not merely human beings.  You are human becomings!”  I wish I had been so wise that campfire day, so many years ago.  Maybe I would be emailing that Masai warrior as friend, requesting a proof read of this blog, and asking whether his recollection of that day and event is anything similar to my own.

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