Violence and the instruments of our own misfortune

Taoist Philosopher Lao-tzu once wrote that weapons are instruments of misfortune, and that those who are violent do not die naturally.

The recent events at the Virginia Tech campus attest to this truth.

Cho Seung-Hui, a native of South Korea, moved to the United States at age 8 with his family. At the time of the shooting, he was a senior in the English department with a chronicled history of abnormal behavior and a particularly violent writing style.

All told, between 175 and 225 bullets were fired, killing 33 people, including Cho. All indications suggest the massacre was premeditated, and that there were some signs of his instability to those around him before he carried it out.

As experts sift through the evidence trying to understand Cho’s motive, the argument is raised once again about gun control. One side is quick to point out that permissive weapons legislation allow such troubled young people to buy devices of extreme violence everywhere from local storefronts to eBay. Proponents of the constitutional right to bear arms contend this is just such an act against which a responsible public must be allowed to protect themselves.

This event, the bloodiest in modern American history, has caused me to reflect on my own personal relationship with guns, or more accurately, that of my family.

My grandfather died of cancer when I was a teenager. He was a generally angry man who seldom afforded himself any emotional intimacy, even with his wife and children. As I grew older, I learned bits and pieces about his past, generally through others.

As a boy, my grandfather found his mother’s body in the garage of their home, after she had shot herself in the head. Neither he nor anyone else in the family ever spoke about this while he was alive, though I pieced a few things together over the years. Such an experience could help explain much about his morose disposition, and his habit of waking up to a cocktail of orange juice and vodka nearly every day.

He had the triple whammy of genetically based depression, the loss of his mother and the trauma of finding her dead. In this context, his reclusive nature and tendency to self-medicate made more sense.

Strangely, though, he maintained a disturbing connection to the incident by keeping the gun she used to kill herself. As if this was not macabre enough, he gave it to my father before his death.

Throughout my childhood, my father kept two guns in his unlocked nightstand. One was a Ruger with a fully loaded clip, and the other was an old black revolver. Though I can’t confirm its origins, since we don’t speak of it, I believe the revolver is the one used in my great-grandmother’s suicide.

I remember, on occasion, sneaking into my parents’ room to peek into the drawer at the guns. The very sight of them made my skin tingle. Once or twice I actually picked up the revolver, just to feel the weight of it in my hand. There was a morbid exhilaration, both in the power it held and the knowledge of the life it had claimed.

I have fired a gun only once, at a gun range under the supervision of my father. Both the noise and the recoil of the firearm scared the hell out of me, and I’ve never touched one since.

The most frequent argument I hear in support of owning a gun is protection against others with the capacity and means to commit acts of violence against those whom we love. Self-preservation is a natural human response. However, it is not a Christ-like response. Nor is it a response advocated by any major world religion or philosophy, including mainstream Islam.

Albert Einstein once was asked how World War III would be fought. His response was, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

Our dependence on mechanized tools of aggression ultimately will be the instrument of our own misfortune. The prospect of mutual annihilation may help maintain a temporary peace, but like Cho and others who find solace in these means, they point to an inevitable, and unnatural, end.

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