Ballots and Bullets

We find ourselves in a presidential election year, faced with some tough choices. In this convention season, the rhetoric is getting more shrill and the facts are harder to come by. An individual’s vote in November, it seems, is less about choosing for a candidate as defending against everyone else. And it seems to me all of life in the United States has become about defending ourselves from something or someone. More and more of my friends have a weapon or weapons at home, and about the same number are getting concealed weapons permits. When they ask me if I will be doing the same, I tell them no. They ask me why, thinking that I have an aversion to guns, but my answer surprises them.

You see, when I was in the Navy, I was a gunnery officer on my ship. I have shot most every kind of weapon you can imagine, from single shot pistol to machine gun. I was on a pistol team in college, and I received a sharp shooter ribbon on active duty. I was very comfortable with weapons in the context in which I was responsible for them, either in competition, or as part of an arsenal that was to be used by professionals. Because of that experience I knew one thing without a doubt: weapons are dangerous, and they are most dangerous in the hands of people who don’t think they’re that dangerous. I didn’t want a weapon at home, because I heard about all of the accidental shootings of friends and family; I didn’t want to carry a weapon because this isn’t the old west and because I wasn’t convinced I could use it on another human being even if the situation became dangerous. I don’t have a good answer for the question, “What if someone breaks into your home?” or “What if your family is threatened?” Maybe I’m naïve, but I think I or someone in my family is a bigger threat holding a weapon in the dark than most anyone who would break into my home or accost me on the street.

And in some ways, I think of our votes the same way. There are a lot of reasons to use our votes in anger, defensively trying to keep others from taking away our slice of the American dream. But that is a dangerous way of looking at the freedom to vote, because it becomes less about what’s good for the country and more about what’s good for me. I’m concerned that we’re losing the sense of being part of a collective. We’re losing our national identity and substituting a weaker version where there is little cohesion, little concern for others, and our priorities distill down to isolation and comfort. Many years ago, the group Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote a bit of social commentary called “Saturday Night Special,” in which they sang, “Hand guns are made for killing, ain’t good for nothing else.” As our bullets, so our ballots. God help us.

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