Saturday, February 2, 2013

Gun Happy?

The debate over gun control in the States is in full swing, with Congress this past week starting formal hearings following President Obama’s call for gun-law reforms.

Meanwhile, the gun incidents keep piling up.

One of the most tragic – and, frankly, stupid – of these took place in my home state of Georgia just last Saturday. Keep in mind that details might emerge that put a different light on what actually happened to Rodrigo Diaz, but so far, the facts of the case (as they say on all the TV crime shows) seem pretty straightforward.

Diaz, with three friends, was driving to pick up another friend to go ice-skating. Unfortunately, the GPS he was using directed him to the wrong house, just another one those modern-day annoyances that almost any motorist can relate to. This simple wrong turn, however, went horribly wrong.

The driveway that Diaz pulled into belonged to Phillip Sailors, a 69-year-old man who was convinced that the car-full of young people sitting in his driveway only meant trouble. From reports I’ve seen, there was no actual reason for Sailors to believe this. No one had even gotten out of the vehicle. Apparently, just the presence of a strange car in his driveway at 10 p.m. put Sailors in fear for his life.

It seems a no-brainer that the first thing anyone terrified of bodily harm from intruders should do is call the police. That and locking the doors and staying inside. That’s the obvious response, I would say. Many people would also take their gun, if they had one, and prepare to defend themselves, if needed.

Sailors' first impulse was different. Without bothering to call 911, he grabbed his .22 caliber handgun and went outside to confront the would-be “intruders”.

On Facebook, I sometimes see an Internet meme featuring a photo of a revolver and the text “The average response time of a 911 call is 23 minutes; the response time of a .357 is 1400 feet per second”. (The first time I saw this I think the 911 response time was only four minutes, so maybe police are much slower now due to cuts in government spending. Just a thought.)

The meme’s message that, in any real emergency, the police are too impotent to help you, so you have to take matters into your own hands seems to strike a chord with a lot of people. It’s an article of faith among gun rights advocates who see a weapon as essential to modern American life.

Maybe such thinking convinced Sailors that he had no choice but to dispatch with these strangers himself and skip even trying to contact the law. Who knows what he was thinking. Maybe he was just scared shitless that the kind of violent crime he’s always heard about on TV had finally reached his doorstep. Or at least his driveway.

In any case, he approached Diaz’s car and fired a shot into the air. That act was unwelcoming enough itself, not to say downright threatening, to cause Diaz to immediately start backing out of the driveway. You would think that would be the end of it, that Sailors’ menacing overreaction had removed what he perceived (wrongly, as it turned out) to be a threat. He could have left it at that.

Instead, as Diaz continued to back out of the driveway, Sailors leveled the gun at him and shot again, fatally wounding Diaz in the head. Shot dead. For simply pulling into the wrong driveway.

Sailors is now charged with murder. Whatever justification he might have thought he had for the second shot is hard to fathom. His lawyer has been quoted as saying that when Diaz started to speed out of the driveway, in reverse, Sailors “perceived” this movement as accelerating in the opposite direction, towards him. No doubt, we’ll have to wait for the trial to hear the full explanation.

I’m afraid the underlying reason might be the pervasive fear of crime, if not the actual experience of crime, that seems to grip many Americans. Still, I’ve seen no indication that Sailors has ever been a victim of a crime that could have explained his irrational bravado and lethal overreaction. Maybe it just finely tuned paranoia. There seems to be a lot of that going around.

A few years ago while visiting relatives in the North Georgia town where I grew up, I pulled off the highway briefly to do something like take a phone call. I stopped the car at a wide spot on the shoulder of the road in front of a house, less than a mile from our family home. The house was closer to the road than most. In fact, we were just beyond the edge of the house’s yard, sitting in the pullout the postman uses when delivering the house's mail.  

We sat there only a minute or so before I began to sense that the relative in the car with me was uncomfortable with us being so close to the house. I think she felt that the people inside (if anyone was home) might feel threatened by our presence. I think she half expected someone to come out and run us off, or at least ask what the hell we were doing there.

Maybe I’ve been away from the States too long. Maybe I didn't appreciate how bad crime is there now or how scared some people are. I couldn’t see how anyone could seriously be that suspicious of a car parked next to a busy public highway in broad daylight. I felt my relative was worried about nothing. And nothing is what happened. I finished my call and we moved on after a couple of minutes. No shots were fired.

In college back in the late 70s, I saw the somewhat surrealist film, “Stroszek”, by German director Werner Herzog, about an alcoholic ex-con who travels to rural America to start a new life. Of the entire movie, I remember only two scenes, one because it was filmed at a place I knew well in Cherokee, North Carolina. The other scene I recall because I felt that Herzog’s intended commentary on America was way off the mark.

In this particular scene are two neighboring Wisconsin farmers who have been feuding for a decade over the same tiny patch of ground. To keep each other from taking possession of the field, the farmers, hoisting rifles, circle the no-man’s land on tractors, glaring at each other like two scorpions facing off, not daring to let their guard down.  

To me, this absurd scene was the distorted view of an outsider trying to exaggerate how combative and gun-happy Americans are. It didn’t sound like the America I knew.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about that scene and am starting to wonder if Herzog was right after all. Maybe his dystopian vision of America is becoming all too true. Or maybe US society has always been poisonously uncivil, but only those looking in from the outside could really see it so clearly. Either way, it’s not a happy thought. 


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  2. To me, it sounds like a perfect storm of paranoia (ginned up by right-wing propaganda), distrust of authorities (partially deserved, due to corruption, police brutality and lack of resources), cowboy culture ("there's space for everyone to do whatever they want in the open West, I don't have to live by other people's rules"), the continuing eradication of the American middle class and mistreatment of lower classes and the insecurity and desperation that comes with it and misguided ideas of freedom, responsibility and trust, etc.

  3. Well put! I think you're exactly right. Sadly, with the current climate in the US, I'm afraid similar "perfect storms" will keep cropping up.