I don’t know how many times I’ve accompanied people through the news that their loved one died from gunshot wounds. I’ve been working as a chaplain at a level one trauma center for less than a year, and while I’ve already lost track of the number of times I’ve walked through this harrowing experience with strangers, I’ve done it enough to know that there’s a set of steps I can generally expect.
It often begins with an urgent message buzzing on the pager holstered to my belt. It might say something like “911-5,” meaning that a level one trauma patient will arrive in the emergency department (ED) in five minutes. I’ll join the other first responders in the trauma room – a big, brightly lit space inside the ED where access is restricted to those who need to be there. It might or might not be immediately evident when the bloodied stretcher comes through the door that the patient’s likelihood of survival is low; after the chest compressions are called off and the time of death is declared, the results are the same. If the patient’s loved ones have already arrived at the hospital, I immediately ask the doctors in the room which of them is coming with me to talk to the family. On my way to the private waiting room, I’ll probably notify the security supervisor: we need a couple of officers ready and waiting in the hallway; and I’ll probably remind the security officers to please remain there unless they’re asked to come in. The presence of officials with badges (and sometimes guns) generally makes what’s about to happen worse than it has to be, but having them nearby in case we need their support is prudent.
The doctor (and later, the homicide detective and coroner) will do the talking. It’s a common misconception that the chaplain is the “angel of death,” the bearer of bad news. But I don’t tell those shocked and scared people that their loved one is dead; I’m there to support everyone – the family as well as the medical staff – through the process of realizing the unreal in that moment.
The doctor will probably start by asking the family what they already know. Then they’ll tell them some of the specific things our medical team did to try to save the patient’s life – and then they’ll say something like, “In spite of our best efforts, I’m so sorry, but they did not survive.”
This is the cue for the eruptive moment of dissociative grief: many will scream uncontrollably. Some will immediately vomit or dry heave. They might crumple to the floor, limp, as if they themselves have just been shot. Some will cry as hard as they’ve ever cried in their life; others will be rendered breathless, like they’ve just been kicked in the stomach with a steel-toed boot. Some people will react more explosively, punching or kicking the walls, or they’ll take-off running outside. Some will ask me to drop to my knees and pray with them right then and there, which I do; others will react by screaming at God to go to Hell, and I’m there to honor that reaction, too.
They’ll think they’ve just heard the worst news of their life, but they’re only slightly wrong. And I know it. Because, next, they’re about to learn that they’re not allowed to see the body of their loved one for up to 3 days. The moment the patient is declared dead, they become the victim of a homicide, and a homicide victim’s body is considered evidence by the police. It will be the coroner’s decision, but most of the time, the coroner won’t let the family see the body until after the medical examiner’s office has completed their work. The coroner will probably apologize as they tell the family that this rule is for their own good: the body can’t be tampered with until the autopsy is complete in order to have the strongest case against the assailant. This explanation will not satisfy the victim’s parents. Or their siblings. Or their lovers. Or their children.
I started working in crisis care chaplaincy at a time of intense need: 2016 set the record for annual homicides in Louisville, Kentucky at 117 deaths – and 2017 ended with only 10 fewer. According to this article by public radio news station, WFPL, “Murders have increased in Louisville since 2013, and typically, the neighborhoods most affected are predominantly black and poor…. the rate at which black men are murdered here is 5.5 times above the city’s homicide rate. Guns accounted for nearly 80 percent of those deaths, according to the report.”
And, as remains the trend for the rest of the nation, Kentucky’s elected officials appear unwilling or incapable of doing more than wringing their hands while they offer their “thoughts and prayers” to those most directly affected by this gun violence. Last June, Kentucky’s “proto-Trumpian” governor, Matt Bevin, took the thoughts-and-prayers mantra one big step further when he suggested they were, in fact, the solution to our city’s dramatically and racially inequitable gun violence. On June 1, 2017, Bevin held a meeting here in town where he “urged people to set up walking prayer groups that would cover 10 blocks of various troubled areas. He suggested that the groups also pray with the community two or three times a week for the next year. The governor added that his office would not necessarily coordinate this effort.” Bevin’s diction that “the groups also pray with the community” clearly implies that his vision for these prayer groups isn‘t one of people from within the communities most affected by gun violence. In other words, the governor’s solution to the violence is that pods of white people roam about poor, black neighborhoods to pray their problems away for them.
Relating this approach to mass shootings, Mr. Bevin, in the wake of 2018’s mass shootings in Marshall County, Kentucky and Parkland, Florida, recently said something that I can get behind for the first time in his two years in office – although, unsurprisingly, I must take him out of context to do so: “It is a cultural problem.”
Yes, Mr. Bevin, it most certainly is a cultural problem that we have in front of us. And that’s why laws to finally put fundamental safety regulations on guns (the kind which the rest of the post-industrial world already has) is a critical step which we must immediately take, but it’s not where our work in the cultivation of peace through justice ends.
As I write this article, only a few miles away from where my young daughter sleeps, a massive example of our cultural problem has just commenced – The National Gun Day Gun Show. This is an unfortunately specific and timely example of our “cultural problem” for two reasons:
(1) It is a flagrant celebration of violence, power, and war. To quote the show’s TV commercial, “If you’ve got any guns or military items, bring ’em out, for appraisal, sell, or trade!… Guns! Guns! Guns! Rifles, pistols, knives, and swords, plus everything used in the military!… Go ahead, make your day!”
(2) Like most other public demonstrations of “gun rights,” the National Gun Day Gun Show is blatantly, if implicitly, racist. Look at this PDF poster ad for the show and tell me if anything jumps out at you. Are you white, male, and over 40? No? Then you won’t find people who look like you among the many faces featured on this ad (to be completely fair, there are 4 women on this poster, none of whom are pictured without the accompaniment of their husbands). If you’re not yet convinced that this is racist, consider that, when you visit the Gun Show’s homepage, you’re met with this poster while the auto-playing audio track tells you:
No, no, no! We don’t kneel for the red, white, and blue! We stand straight and tall! It’s called a family tradition!
This piece of racial politics is unrelated to anything else in the ad except that the announcer drops it between saying, “If you’ve never been to a gun show, you don’t know what you’re missing,” and, “It’s gun show time in Louisville, Kay-Why!” This image paired with this audio makes it crystal clear who is – and who is not – invited to “go ahead, make your day” at this semi-annual event.
During a 2010 National Gun Day Gun Show, then-senate-candidate Rand Paul was interviewed by the local Fox News TV affiliate. The story shows footage from Paul’s senatorial campaign website in which he’s proudly firing automatic weapons while the commentator introduces him as a “lifetime NRA member and Gun Owners of America advocate.” In this story, Fox News features Paul addressing the gun show attendees, saying:
We must continually remind Washington that a majority cannot vote to take away our second amendment rights.
The commentator follows this by saying “Paul has come under fire during his campaign over controversial statements he’s made about civil rights, immigration, and the BP oil spill.”
So, in perfectly contextual summary, Senator Rand Paul told a group of heavily-armed white people, most of them men, that they must defy any democratic process by their fellow citizens to regulate or disarm them, while at the same time speaking out against issues of equity for people of color and the health and welfare of the natural world. And he won a seat in our United States Senate on this exact platform. Twice, so far.
I invite you to go back and watch that television commercial for the 2018 National Gun Day Gun Show. Imagine that Show Manager Ron Dickson is black instead of white and wearing a leather jacket instead of chaps when he quick-draws his pistol and points it at the camera with a grin. If you can even fathom this unlikely image on a TV commercial, what emotional reaction do you have to it? And how are your reactions to that imagination different than when you actually watch the one of Dickson dressed up as a white cowboy? Why is it nearly impossible to imagine an expo center full of people of color – or, more specifically, black men – who are giddy for “Guns! Guns! Guns! Rifles, pistols, shotguns, and semi-automatics”? Could it be for the same reasons that more people of color don’t open carry pistols to my neighborhood playground and grocery store (like some white people do): they wouldn’t survive long if they did?
The most alarming problem is that this is not a conspiracy theory, nor is it a phenomenon isolated to this gun show or the state of Kentucky. These are unfettered domestic terrorists, strategically organized under umbrellas like the NRA and protected throughout the government by officials like Governor Matt Bevin and Senator Rand Paul, who plainly state that they “need” their personal armaments to protect their privilege from the democratic decisions of the majority of their fellow citizens. And the most dangerous part is that they’re now putting actions to these inflammatory words and getting away with it. Could we not have a more clear precedent to demonstrate this than on January 8, 2018 when Cliven, Ryan, and Ammon Bundy as well as Montana “militia leader” Ryan Payne had their final charges dropped for their armed occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon? While I have no intentions of misrepresenting how complicated and ugly this two-year legal battle was, I also see no reason to not plainly name that these people would not be alive in 2018 to have their charges dropped if they were anyone other than white men. Some, if not all, of them would have certainly been killed by law enforcement officers during their long, armed insurrection at Malhuer. To claim otherwise would be in defiance of every precedent of which I’m aware.
So, on to the million dollar question: what do we do with this state of affairs? When reporters asked Kentucky Governor Bevin this question, he replied that “it’s not a gun problem. What I would say to those for whom that is the solution: get a new idea, because that is not the solution…. Let’s start a conversation. I’m one person, you’re one person. There’s no one person, not one person, who has it all figured out.”
It might possibly be true that there’s no one person who has it all figured out. But Mr. Bevin has already had opportunities to “start conversations” about gun violence, like the one he spearheaded in West Louisville in June of 2017. Here’s how a local African American minister described that conversation: “We gave the governor the benefit of the doubt by attending the meeting, expecting it to be a dialogue, but actually it was a monologue,” said Reverend Clay Calloway. “He came in to preach to the preachers, and we were insulted by his intent and his content… His whole approach was bizarre and insulting.”
Rev. Calloway’s colleague, Reverend Kevin Cosby, echoed this conclusion about Governor Bevin’s “conversation,” saying,
The fact of the matter is there is violence in the community because there is poverty, and the poverty is rooted in systemic injustice and racism that has plagued this country since 1619. To talk about the present situation without talking about the historic and social antecedents that gave birth to it is disingenuous, is dishonest… it’s cowardly and it’s political.
Lest we get the impression that this is an unfair depiction of Bevin, we can see his stance clearly in this 2016 NRA video of his address to their annual meeting. Bevin told the crowd of nearly, if not entirely, all white people, “99% of the world that has ever lived, or will ever live, will never appreciate the degree of freedom that we have at this moment, at this time, in America…. [But] we are being suffocated even in this nation…. We are under assault from regulation and from liberal ideology, and we are the ones who have to stand in the gap…. You are here because you recognize the encroachment. You recognize what is coming. You recognize the threat. But what are you going to do about it? How badly do you want a better America?”
How much more clear can leaders like Rand Paul and Matt Bevin be that their platform is based in white supremacy? Politicians like Bevin are quick to wear their faith on their sleeve and claim that they’re fighting in some religious war to defend Christianity. This claim is clearly refuted by his opposition from Christian ministers like the Reverends Calloway and Cosby. In that NRA video, Bevin gives plenty of lip service to his stance as a veteran being about patriotism and support of the military. However, look at the scenes when the camera pans across that crowd of NRA convention-goers. According to the Pew Research Center, “Racial and ethnic minority groups made up 40% of Defense Department active-duty military in 2015.” Those are clearly not the demographics reflected at that NRA convention, so we might reasonably deduce that Bevin’s rhetoric doesn’t speak for our veterans as a population, either.
Turning to the demographics of mass-shooters, however, there were 62 mass shootings in the US from 1982-2012. Of those 62 shooters, 44 were white males – and only one was a woman. While the phenomenon of rampant mass shootings is a complex issue, we can reasonably deduce that the dominant paradigm of our government and the population most benefited by the agenda of groups like the NRA are the same as those demographics who are responsible for the majority of our mass shootings.
We must join the countries who don’t share our nightmare of frequent mass shootings by emulating their diversity of elected officials as well as their gun safety laws. But we must also disarm these white supremacists and their enablers from positions of power like our leading government offices with just as much urgency. This will not be a simple remedy to our gun violence in itself; but it is clear that we will not have any effective remedies without these steps.
Through my work in chaplaincy, I can tell you first-hand that grief has many faces when a person dies; but, the grief surrounding a homicide is different. And, furthermore, I can tell you that committing a homicide by squeezing a finger over a trigger is entirely too easy, especially with a gun that will fire bullets as fast as that finger can squeeze – it, consequently, makes up entirely too much of my job as a provider of spiritual and emotional crisis care.
I see so much suffering every time I enter my workplace, and some of that suffering is simply a part of the fullness of life, of love and loss; but the last thing this life needs is even more manufactured suffering. And wouldn’t that be as appropriate and concise a definition as any for what handguns and assault weapons are: manufacturers of suffering.
Please, friends. Let us unite and stand behind our youth today that we will not continue to condone or allow this manufacture of suffering.