Speech given on Wednesday, February 28, 2018 by at The Annual Conference on Cultural Diplomacy in the UN 2018
thoughts and prayers equal silence.
i will not remain silent
psalms not poems blood-stained in sutherland springs (and now parkland, florida).
spoken words of the devout ricochet above baptism of carnage.
no more chanting.
another exodus of souls sent to meet their maker.
the view outside my window changed on 9/11 never to be forgotten.
the skyline is not the same.
there was a time soon after, brief but profound, when america was great.
guns still keep my sisters and brothers in check, perhaps more than ever.
color is irrelevant as bullets pierce skin.
forgive the shooter for his mental illness, personal revenge, anger,
never terrorism if he believes in god not allah.
whatever his or her name, hope they are watching us create our own hell.
these arms created to protect us from one another, also kill
the paradise that was promised.
i cannot comprehend how some love guns more than people.
i have been able to admit growth and change, even reluctant defeat
the only weapons i have ever held have been pens and pencils.
as a gay victim of a hate crime, as a latino,
as someone who came from poverty and a broken home.
i have rights to fear and anger and perhaps even hate.
nothing will make a difference in the end.
pride sees no children, mothers-to-be, grandparents, married couples, families.
there will be more excuses, self-preservation, thoughts and prayers.
except for sadness and tears, all will be the same until next time.
there are no words to comfort here. there is disappointment and numbness.
there is no religion. there will be no solution. only death and more to come.
I am not here to give a speech on global diplomacy. I am here as an American artist to ask for your help. Mass shootings don’t happen at the same rate anywhere else in the world. According to the BBC, more Americans own guns than anywhere else. And yet even though the research is clear that more guns leads to more gun deaths, across states with differing laws and across the world, our country still faces seemingly insurmountable challenges.
There are countries where civilians must have access to firearms. Guns are an everyday part of life in countries like Israel. Most civilians in Israel know how to use a gun, given that the country has mandatory military service for both men and women.
However, guns are tightly regulated under Israeli law, even for soldiers. They aren’t, for example, allowed to take their guns home on leave, and individuals have to pass a screening and prove that they have genuine cause to own a gun before they are granted the license.
Japan is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with 127 million people in a country much smaller than the United States. And yet, Japan has had only a few gun-related deaths. No, they haven’t banned all guns outright. People in Japan are still allowed to own shotguns and air rifles but not handguns or anything like assault rifles. The biggest difference between gun control in the United States and Japan is the extremely strict set of procedures that any prospective gun owner has to go through in Japan before they can buy a gun.
The Czech Republic is similar to the United States in that a good segment of the population owns guns, and there is a thriving gun culture in the country. It’s dissimilar, however, in that one shooting in a rural town far from the capital sent the country into a frenzy when it took place in 2015.
Allow me to repeat that—ONE shooting. The difference is that it takes a lot more to own a gun in the Czech Republic versus in the United States. Someone wanting to buy a gun has to pass written and practical tests related to guns, be deemed to be in a solid mental state, be in good health, and have a clean criminal record. The Czechs may be attached to their guns, but thanks to the regulations they have in place, the country still has an extremely low rate of violent crimes.
Also, you’re as likely to be killed by a gun in Germany as you are to be killed by a falling object in the United States. In case you’re not familiar with the statistics, they translate to just over two deaths by gun per million inhabitants. There are a lot of guns in Germany, but the controls are just so strict that gun crime is all but unheard of.
Again, background checks are a huge part of what keeps German citizens so safe. People under 25 who try to buy a gun have to go through rigorous psychiatric testing, and people over that age can be called in for the same tests if they display anything that authorities deem to be troubling behavior, which can even be something like drunk driving. People can’t inherit usable guns; inherited guns have to be modified so as to be unusable. Also, police can carry out random checks of gun owners’ households to make sure that the guns are being safely stored—given that the Second Amendment calls for “well regulated” gun ownership, there’s no reason why this couldn’t be constitutional in the United States.
Gun control is not ever going to be the only solution to mass murder attempts but how is it not a place to start? In Norway, one of our president’s favorite countries, despite the country’s strict gun laws, the Norwegian far-right terrorist Breivik was able to carry out a mass killing spree that claimed the lives of 77 people, many of them children. The mass shooting rocked the country—and the world—and this incident led to stricter gun control laws in Norway’s fellow Nordic nation of Finland.
But while Breivik showed in the most chilling way that Norway’s gun control laws were possible to bypass, the country did not tighten those laws after the shooting—because they decided that they were already tight enough. And unlike in the United States, this decision hasn’t led to any more instances of gun-related terrorism. While part of that is certainly due to a different culture surrounding guns, part of it is also due to the fact that Norway makes it very difficult for anyone to own a gun, so it’s simply not as easy to carry out regular massacres on Norwegian territory.
In the United States, the pro-gun-message discipline of the National Rifle Association and congressional allies has been impressive. The NRA has come out with a consistent narrative about mass shootings placing the blame on mental illness. The problem, according to them, is that criminals and the dangerously ill can get their hands on guns. At moments, the NRA and supporters almost sound like liberal gun-control advocates. All of which is perfectly sensible, yet puzzling, if not patronizing.
There are people with mental health issues around the world in your very own countries and yet the United States is the only country where mass murders using assault rifles are common. Whether it may be because of the gun control policies or mental health counseling offered in your countries, in spite of whatever issues your people may be facing, you’ve got this in check while our leaders and politicians allow a lobbyist group like the NRA to own them. In America, it seems that it is far more important for our people with pre-existing mental health issues to have access to firearms but not healthcare.
The NRA paints a picture of an American dystopia, in which hand-wringing liberals, having closed down mental hospitals during the civil-rights era, refuse to put dangerous criminals behind bars. Such rhetoric has effects far beyond the world of gun rights. Both in Congress and in state legislatures around the country, politicians are debating proposals for increased supervision of the mentally ill, and mandatory reporting of those seen as posing a danger to themselves or others.
The well-funded National Rifle Association has an iron-fisted grip on many members of Congress and state legislatures across our country, making it exceedingly difficult even to get the most basic gun regulation bills passed.
Trump, who once supported an assault weapon ban, graciously received $30 million from the NRA to help put him in the White House. Unsurprisingly, though some politicians claim lobby groups do not affect their stance on issues that they supposedly believed in long before (ahem—Marco Rubio!), leaders like Trump now embrace a “More Guns!” NRA-approved narrative.
Trump recently suggested arming school teachers with guns to protect our students or adding more police officers with guns to our schools. Never mind the fact we can’t arm our school teachers in the United States with pens and printer ink but now we want to give them guns. Because all it takes is “one good man with a gun to stop one bad guy with a gun.” Well, there were four (not one or two or three) armed cops at the Florida school shooting who waited outside and chose not to confront the attacker.
So quick-witted Trump changed his narrative from all school teachers to only a certain percentage and claimed that he would have run in even if he didn’t have a weapon. A fascinating statement from a man who avoided going into our military service due to bone spurs.
Speaking of Trump, another issue we face in America worth considering when discussing gun control is racism. There are dramatic racial, economic and geographic disparities in American gun violence. Black children 17 and under are 10 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than white children. About half of America’s gun murder victims each year are black.
So, in the United States, a civilian of color with a licensed handgun is not who the NRA is fighting for. Take for instance Philando Castile. A licensed gun owner with a valid concealed carry permit and no criminal record beyond a series of alleged traffic violations. He was also a longtime cafeteria manager for the St. Paul school district when he was pulled over in 2016 and shot to death.
The police officer claimed Castile had a broken brake light and matched the description of a robbery suspect. Castile, who had his girlfriend in the passenger seat and her 4-year-old daughter in the back, told the officer he had a firearm in the car. The officer fired seven shots into the vehicle, claiming he believed Castile was grabbing for the gun. His girlfriend, who streamed some of the episode on Facebook Live, later testified Castile was simply retrieving his wallet.
The NRA never came to his defense. Now imagine a black school teacher with a licensed gun when police officers arrive at a school looking for an active shooter. It could be the same thing. If you have three words —black, man, gun— there are no negotiations. Arming teachers isn’t the solution. Banning assault rifles is.
Civilians in the United States of America should only have guns to protect themselves and perhaps hunt. If anyone from any country needs an AR-15 or a similar weapon to hunt and shoot a quail or a bear, perhaps hunting should not be their sport of choice. The defense of “Let them have guns” is as much a solution to mass murder and gun violence as “Let them have drugs” is a solution to drug addiction. Saying gun control hurts our freedom is a false argument amounting to propaganda. Gun laws don’t curtail freedom any more than speed limits or seat belts. You still get to drive your car and have your guns. We all believe in the Second Amendment. We all believe in the First Amendment, the guarantee of free speech, but we accept that you can’t yell “fire” in a theater.
Our current battle to reshape gun laws can often feel like a stalemate. That’s all nice but how am I supposed to help your country, you may be asking? Well, I am here today to ask you to shame America into actually being great again and the world leader we once were. We need you to remind the American people that you once looked up to us for inspiration and guidance. Whether it be through continued newspaper or magazine features humiliating our obsession with guns or foreign poets and writers calling out our insecurities or asking our politicians why we continue to let this to happen. Please help us get back on our feet.
There has been a lot of talk about “Make America Great Again,” and I’m sure that sounds obnoxious and nationalist to anyone outside of this country. We are #1! #1 in mass murders.
Sadly, this is what most of you from other countries think of us Americans. A vast majority of our people are concerned more with guns to supposedly protect themselves than with protecting our own children. Imposing restrictions on assault weapons is no more a limit to our Second Amendment than a ban on a citizen’s right to own surface-to-air-missiles, land mines or hand grenades. Please mock our government, rip them a new one, be shady AND fierce and let them know how wrong they are to allow this to continue.
Assault weapons are used to kill people. In schools. In churches. At concerts. In offices. In malls. Anywhere large groups gather to learn or pray or work or be entertained.
Each time our country suffers another mass shooting incident, we are fed excuses such as background checks might not have stopped the last massacre, or the one before that, or the one before that, so why bother trying. We in the United States have a long way to go, and a lot of work to do. The facts are clear though—the world offers many cases where gun control has been a success, and there’s something to learn from each and every one of them, whether the lessons be in universal background checks; no guns sold to minors; no assault weapons for anyone other than the police or the military; or no guns sold to anyone who does not pass a mental health screening.
Many of us within the United States, believe it or not, would still like to make the world a better place for all of us without boundaries—regardless of color, religion, who we choose to love, gender and beliefs. It is not about what country we offer our allegiance to but how we can help one another make this a better and safer place for all of our children and loved ones. Poet Audre Lorde once said, “Your silence will not protect you.” Through cultural diplomacy, please do not remain silent. Help us all find our way back to humanity.
Emanuel Xavier is a poet. His works are at EmanuelXavier.com.