Saturday, February 21, 2009

Saving our Rights to Arm Bears

A recent article in a news magazine dealt with the legality of bearing concealed weapons while in National Parks. What, you say? Yes, at this time you are allowed to get doused by Old Faithful, hike the Appalachian Trail and dehydrate in Death Valley while bearing a hidden firearm. Or many hidden firearms, for that matter. We're not talking about shotguns or hunting rifles here, we're talking nasty little snub-nosed revolvers designed solely to kill people, Saturday Night specials and other inventions created to hurt, maim, wound.

In most countries such an abheration would create an uproar. Of course, in most countries, handguns are not a staple of the population, and owning one is not taken as a basic human right. In the US, there are approximately 10 handgun deaths per 100,000 people each year, with four being homicide and six being suicides. In Switzerland, where males over 18 have to own a rifle to defend the state and are trained to use such weapons, the rate is one handgun killing per 200,000, with approximatelly the same suicide rate as found in the US. France sees one gun-related homicide per 500,000 people, and 3.4 suicides per 100,000. In Japan (those wiley Orientals must know something we don't) there are 0.02 handgun-related deaths per 100,000 Japanese, and 0.04 suicides. In a year. Most Europeans are amazed to learn that it is more complex to get a driver's license in the US than it is to get and carry a gun. They assume that some sort of gun ed (like driver's ed) exists, and it is simply beyond their comprehension that a potential criminal can get a weapon at a gun show, thereby short-circuiting the mandatory check and waiting period imposed by many states.

Many gun death in the US take place in the city, which is somehow discriminatory. I assume the powers that be, including the NRA, feel there is no reason people hiking through national parks should be safer than say, people hiking through East LA or DC's Georgetown.

There's a real problem... Even the most adamant anti-handgun organization has come to terms with a sad fact: at this time, even with the best efforts and cooperation of everyone involved, it would be impossible to try to recall or license handguns this country. There are too many of them... So here is a modest proposal. Let people have as many handguns as they want, but lets control the manufacture of bullets. Think of it. It might take some work and some hard-ass legislation, but licensing bullets would drastically cut the number of murders and woundings. And it isn't as crazy as it sounds: almost every single piece of durable consumer goods has a serial number. Why not do the same with bullets?

Here's installment 69 or Wasted Miracles.

Joe the Cop’s voice suddenly grew small. He glanced at the back of Mamadou’s head, then at Colin as if seeking advice, made a show of folding the scrap of paper, putting it back in his pocket. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to offend.”
Mamadou shrugged. “You didn’t.” He paused, turned, said, “Tell us what happened.”
Joe mumbled. “Nothing much. Usual violent crap.”
“The boy who was stabbed. He died, right? You said, ‘fatally stabbed.’ Did they catch him, the other boy?”
Joe shook his head. “No. Not last I heard.”
Mamadou nodded as if this wasn’t surprising. “Shame.”
“But they will.”
With three men in the car, it soon got hot and Mamadou cranked open a window. In the house, the upstairs light went out. Mamadou said, “Soon.”
Ten minutes later it started raining softly. Five minutes after that, the tempo of the drops increased on the roof of the car. Mamadou looked at his watch. “We’ll wait another twenty minutes, unless something happens. I’ll go out, take a quiet look around the house, just to make sure they’re not watching television. I’m almost certain they’re not. The neighbor told Aunt Mim these people go to bed early and rise late.”
The rain beat a serious tattoo and just as suddenly ceased. Mamadou grunted. “It would have been nice if it had continued a few more minutes.”
The street was shiny as if coated with oil. Finally, Mamadou said, “All right. I’ll signal you.” He opened the car door softly and Colin noticed the dome light didn’t turn on.
Mamadou said, “Lock the doors.”
Joe didn’t like the idea. “Why?”
“Because I said so. Because I know this area, and I know the people, and even though it looks quiet, I don’t want to have someone open the door, stick a gun in your very white face, and steal the car.”
Colin said, “Just do it, Joe. Don’t argue.”
There was a faint black on gray shadow as Mamadou faded into the darkness.
Joe the Cop said, “Man, he sure doesn’t move like the other people around here. No elbows and knees on that man.”
“Yeah,” Colin said. “He’s pretty unusual.”
Joe nodded. “Former cop. Must have been kind of tough, place like Africa. I really hope I didn’t offend him. I didn’t mean to. Really. All I was trying to do was--”
Colin cut him off. “It’s OK, Joe. Don’t worry about it.”
The clouds cleared momentarily. Colin cracked his window open an inch. An odor of mulch, wet tar and spent electricity invaded the car. They waited. A few minutes later there was a tap on the side of the car and both men jumped. Mamadou’s hair glistened with raindrops. Colin opened the door and the black man slid in.
“It’s exactly as I said earlier. Howard is asleep on the couch next to the foyer. He snores very loudly. The others are upstairs. Your friend is in the basement. There’s a cellar entrance to the house but it’s locked, so you’ll have to go through the front door--I opened it for you.”
Colin nodded. There didn’t seem to be anything to say in spite of the hundred questions he wanted to ask.
Mamadou turned to Joe. “Follow Colin, then go to the side of the house and stay out of sight. There are some bushes. You’ll be able to watch the road without being seen. Remember the cellular. Just punch in ‘3’ and ‘send.’”
Mamadou reached under the driver’s seat, pulled out an old-fashioned nightstick, handed it to Colin. “I customized this. I think that’s the right word. A lead weight in the tip. Let’s go.”
Colin took the nightstick. It was top-heavy, the handle ribbed. “That is a very big man sleeping in there, Colin, and he got the best of you once already.”
Colin hefted the weight in his hand, felt a slight reassurance. Joe the Cop tapped his shoulder and walked quickly to the side of the house. Mamadou smiled, motioned Colin out of the car, took care to leave the doors unlatched. Halfway to the house, Mamadou said, “Your turn.” He vanished and Colin felt insanely exposed for what seemed minutes but were seconds. He approached the front steps slowly, feeling the grass give beneath his shoes. The lawn was mowed unevenly, tufts of grass sprouting gray in the dim light. His legs felt weak. Only once in his life had he actually struck someone in anger and he had regretted it for months.
From the sidewalk were five steps leading to an unscreened porch and it took forever to reach them. The porch begged for a coat of paint, the spout of the gutter was rusty and needed replacing. Two windows were open, one was closed. The house’s breathing rang loud in his ears.
He tentatively placed one foot on the first step. The wood groaned and he froze, the nightstick dropping to his side. He waited for the front door to explode open but nothing happened. He climbed the rest of the steps, crept to a window, peered in. Howard was asleep on the couch. Seen horizontally, the man was enormous, his chest and belly rising with every breath.
Colin turned the door knob, pushed, heard the hinges squeal. Howard stirred, snorted, turned on the couch so his back was to the door. He had undone his pants and the elastic band of his underwear was disturbingly white.
Colin entered the room, glanced around. There was nothing there to personalize the place, not a single item to testify that people did indeed live there. The walls were bare save for a couple of yellowing Bob Marley posters. The furniture was Aaron Rents, large, colorless pieces with no function other than taking space. There was no clutter, no newspapers on the floor, no magazines, no mail waiting to be read and answered, no stereo or TV.
Reaching Howard took forever.
Colin stood over him, nightstick poised, arm frozen, wondering how hard he had to hit. What if he missed? The man was such a large presence that surely one blow wouldn’t injure him. What if he struck and it wasn’t enough? What if he killed him?
Howard stirred, farted.
Colin’s arm swung down in a short, vicious blow and the nightstick made a fat, full sound as it struck Howard’s head. Howard’s entire body seemed to levitate from the couch. His eyes opened, he looked straight at Colin with annoyed surprise. Then he relaxed, his eyeballs rolled and he slid off the couch onto the floor.
The nightstick was a snake in Colin’s hand. He dropped it, fumbled, found the pulse of Howard’s neck. Whatever the blow had done to his head, it hadn’t injured his heart.
Colin listened for sounds, heard only the quiet cacophony of a house at night. The loudest noise was his own breathing.

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