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Confessions of a Gun Death Hunter

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Every morning the dead greet me before the caffeine gives me a chance to focus their reality. I post their stories to a Facebook wall. Why? I was about as numb as most of you are.

Then I woke up.

I have a big problem with violence against children. Bigger than many, I suppose. Sandy Hook was a bit too much for me. I looked for someone to make sense of it all. Early on, Slate put out a "Gun Death Tally" in response. Advertised as "Every gun death since Sandy Hook."

There were problems.

The design bothered me. Little paper-doll symbology of each victim dot the page. Click on each of these bits of anonymity, and you could see "Unknown" generally and the link to the story of the death.

Busy as they are, they often don't update those stories. Who were these people really? What happened that they ended up dead?

As a journalist, everyone always dreads the "crime beat" or the "police beat" because it's the dog with fleas of journalism, where the rookies go to cut their teeth or get so frustrated they quit.

In a practical sense, it's understandable. The beat is very late hours, particularly on weekends. Not very spouse or family-friendly for reporters.

No matter where you live, you see bits and pieces of these deaths. They're the background noise of your daily news, that occasionally grabs our attention between the home finance story and the weather when the story is about someone who looks or lives like you, or it involves children, where we can all be universally outraged, or random mass murder in a public place, which scares us all.

The other problem with the Slate wall was that it only told a small fraction of the story. For every person killed I was finding five, ten, or twenty who were wounded by gun violence. Aren't they victims too? Slate did not respond to my observation.

Beyond that, turning real human beings, and the violent tragedies that end their lives into FBI stats or paper dolls on a webpage is something that is done to sanitize all this killing, to dismiss the graphic death and violence around us. Most papers won't even report the reality that suicides, the largest number of gun deaths annually. If they do, it is only in the most sanitized fashion to avoid upsetting the family or the neighbors.

The truth is that it upsets us because it could just as easily be us, and it's also hard to absorb a lot of community tragedy on a local, personal level, let alone a national level.

When I created a Gun Victims Wall, I wanted people to see the individual stories, to know about the guy who drunkenly shot off his finger trying to shoot off his wedding ring after an argument. The six year old who killed his seven year old sister with an unsecured weapon. The 18 year old who walked into a bar, was refused service, then came back and shot the place up, killing one and injuring many more.

We have had a lot of problem getting people to look at the page. Even gun violence supporters are squeamish about dealing with the messy lives of real people. We have thousands of people who look at the page, but only a few that "like it." I guess it's hard to "like" something like that.

As I got to know them as I wanted readers to know them, as real people who had these shootings and killings alter or end the course of their lives, something else happened:

I finally started seeing the "big picture" that the NRA and the gun manufacturers don't want you to see.

It's like staring at that art with the psychedelic box long enough that you can see the Mona Lisa in the image.

The ugly secret of gun violence, the thing that the gun-makers don't want you to know, is how incredibly SOCIAL gun deaths are, for the most part.

We don't keep stats, so my observations are anecdotal, but the vast majority of gun deaths are various domestic disputes:

  • Arguments over everything from the way a steak is cooked to an auto accident to men who get women pregnant and think that a bullet solves their maternity problems.
  • Desperate people whose home or lives are underwater, or who suffer from untreated depression who take their own lives, and those of their families
  • People who can't kill themselves who know that cops will if they draw a weapon on them.
  • Petty jealousies, love triangles, feelings of being disrespected by friends, co-workers, loved ones or strangers that erupt in homicidal violence.

Alcohol and drugs and firearms are always a deadly mix. Untreated depression, rage, and mental illness are also trees in the bloody forest that appears when you digest the whole stories on the micro level, then step back and look at the bigger picture.

Yes, there are the stories of the NRA narrative, people saving their lives and others with their guns. We look for them every day, and invite the many pro-gun supporters to find us real news stories, and not gun-lobby aggregations of stories weeks or years old, to post their finds as well. They are, though, few and far between.

We post them, because the soundness of any argument in a debate means that one must be able to present both sides and still be morally and factually correct.

You dispel the NRA myth that gun death is largely an urban "minority" thing. There are just as many, if not more killings, woundings and maimings in the 'burbs and the countryside. Guns are equal opportunity killers, too. Just as many middle class and rich white people end up in body bags as those who are poor and minority.

Really look beyond the label and most "gang-related" violence is over very petty squabbles about turf, women, and powerless people seeking respect.

The truth is that you are more likely to die by a gun if you possess one. The likelihood that you will take your own life, or the lives of your family, friends or neighbors in a moment of extreme stress, heavy substance use, chemical depression, or a combination of circumstances are much, much higher. The likelihood you will accidentally kill someone, either by negligence with your weapon, or by shooting a bystander while trying to extricate yourself from danger, go up exponentially.

That's the dirty secret that the people who sell you the instrumentation of quick, easy death at the end of a bottle, or a jealous rage, don't want you to know.

Gun violence is personal, real, and very avoidable. Give the police the tools to deal with domestic violence and guns, depression and guns, and alcohol/drug abuse and guns, and 85% of the deaths out there now just go away.

What we do to officers, whom we do not empower, and force to kill people whose deaths were avoidable, is an inexcusable occupational post-traumatic stress that often leads to further violence, depression, death or suicide.

Maybe it is time that someone as concerned about gun violence as you are, that you have read all of this, needs to look at those trees to see that forest, and get your elected officials to finally do the same.

Universal background checks are a drop in the bucket. A bandaid on an artery wound. Which you can see if you really LOOK at what's going on out there.

My shiny two.