While we were going about our business on Monday, March 22, 2021, at 2:30 p.m., a gunman entered a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado, and killed 10 people.
He used an automatic rifle that, as was later discovered, was purchased legally.
That grocery store was seven miles from our front door.
The echoing trauma from that singular event—representing countless others—is immeasurable.
We told our 11-year-old daughter, Opal, the following morning. She is, in many ways, too old to avoid sharing this kind of psyche-fracturing news and also too young to comprehend it. But what am I saying? At what age can one fully comprehend this sort of senseless massacre and why, oh god why, does it keep happening?
On Tuesday night, Opal wanted to join me for a guided Tonglen practice on Zoom, with our beloved friend and teacher, Judith Simmer-Brown from the Boulder Shambhala Center. Opal and I squared ourselves in the frame as my husband, Jesse, was off doing the bedtime routine with our five-year-old, Ruth.
Opal said, “Keep the video on.”
Up to that point, she’d want the audio and video shut off for most of our many COVID-time Zoom calls (mainly because of her loud and unpredictable younger sister).
But with no interruptions from Ruth, it was clear that Opal wanted to be seen. Seen by other members of our Buddhist community (though we couldn’t really see them in the limited number of boxes that were visible while Judith was talking), perhaps to be witnessed as a part of this gesture, this impossible reckoning of unthinkable events. My child is dipping her toe into older and wiser behaviors, whether or not she is aware. Whether or not I’m prepared.
When Judith spoke, Opal leaned in to the screen with her whole body. When Judith mentioned the Atlanta shootings that happened less than a week earlier, Opal looked at me as if I had lied by not informing her of that shooting, too.
Am I honestly expected to tell her about all of them??
I slugged at my can of Old Chub like a pacifier as we listened. Opal and I held hands, off-and-on. The lighting was over-contrasty, shadowy, and rich—fully congruent with how I felt. I wanted nothing more than an enlarged and framed photo of us in that moment to wind up in the attic of our granddaughter’s granddaughter—something for them to look back on from a time where we still had much growth to do.
We started practicing Tonglen breathing. Breathe in the dark, thick, terrified energy. Take it in, this thing we all spend so much time trying to avoid. Then breathe out the smooth, silken, shimmery light of peace. Give away the thing you most want to keep for yourself.
Judith guided us through, step-by-step, practicing for the shoppers at King Soupers, the moment they heard gunshots but still didn’t know what was happening. We breathed in their fear and stress. We breathed out peace. Then for police officer, Eric Talley. We breathed in the incomprehensible sadness of his family and friends. We breathed out peace. Hot stripes of tears turned cold as they dripped from my chin.
I turned to Opal, wiping them, and said, “We can stop anytime this feels like too much.”
“No,” she said. “Let’s keep going.”
But when Judith got to practicing for the people who were innocently shopping and then were shot and killed in a state of fear and panic, my mind said, oh sh*t. My hand was reaching to click “leave meeting” as Opal said, “Turn it off.”
Shortly after, Ruth asleep, Jesse came out to join us on the couch. We did an online search for Biden’s statement from earlier that day.
In all honesty, I didn’t really care what he said. I just wanted to hear his empathy and impetus for change. But mostly, empathy. We’d been far too long without an empathetic leader.
And he delivered—eyes sodden with sorrow, barely able to stick to his script because his heart seemed more interested in feeling the moment.
Until: “I urge my colleagues in the house and the senate to act.” In that moment, he was a man stepping into a role, using rehearsed hand gestures and bound by the coaching he received ahead of time. In that tiny moment, it was made all too clear. Even the president cannot force people to care about this.
He went on to mention that he banned assault weapons and high-capacity magazines when he was a senator, and it was a law for the “longest time” and brought down these killings in a major way, and “we should do it again.”
I made a note to myself to investigate that later.
We closed the computer and all three of us audibly exhaled like some sort of odd, breezy, off-pitch chord.
I don’t remember much from high school government class.
Except that my teacher, Mr. Randolph, had hair implants—a retro version where the procedure seemed to crowd many hairs into one follicle, like stems from a garden forced into a too-slender vase. The scalp-flesh between each hair was shiny, likely from product used to tame the wild, misplaced strands. His head did this cool thing, where if you looked from one vantage point, it looked as if he actually had hair! If you looked from another, like from eye-level, you could see the distinct stripes of emptiness between the hairs, like looking through a cornfield and seeing a complex matrix of lines and patterns, versus a sea of green from a different angle.
So, clearly, a refresher of the Constitution is in order. And since the people who are opposed to any sort of gun regulation wear the Second Amendment around their shoulders like a cape, let’s start with that.
The Second Amendment of the United States Constitution reads: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
Militia? Apparently, during the Revolutionary War era, “militia” referred to groups of men who banded together to protect their communities, towns, colonies, and eventually states. The Second Amendment did establish the principle that the government did not have the authority to disarm citizens. But is this the one amendment that is exempt from updating? The Eighteenth Amendment was the prohibition of alcohol, and yet, I’m happily sipping on a cold beer I bought legally from my friend Tim at the drive-through.
Excerpted from the New Yorker article, Our Broken Constitution, “It’s often noted that the United States is governed by the world’s oldest written constitution that is still in use. This is usually stated as praise, though most other products of the eighteenth century, like horse-borne travel and leech-based medical treatment, have been replaced by improved models. (Thomas Jefferson believed that any constitution should expire after nineteen years: ‘If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force and not of right.’)”
Some members of the NRA speak with belittling entitlement the moment the subject of gun law reform comes to the table. Regarding the current push to expand background checks on gun sales, Jason Ouimet, head of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, said in a written statement: “These bills are a transparent attempt by gun control advocates in Congress to restrict the rights of law-abiding Americans under the guise of addressing the violent criminal culture in America.”
Oimet’s statement makes me want to yell at a stranger for no good reason. This kind of tone-deaf declaration alludes to the fact that enough of the country is more interested in “not being told what to do” than in the health and safety of their communities, making gun law reform an impossibility. Enough of the country seems to be more interested in being able to purchase a semi-automatic rifle without a proper background check whenever they damn well please than in the countless lives that are lost in mass shootings—as well as the community-wide and nation-wide trauma that ferments in the aftermath.
But saying no Second Amendment lover is a decent person is ridiculous. There are no doubt plenty of gun-toters who are also deeply heartbroken over the continuously occurring mass shootings. But for them, there is clearly more to the conversation than what seems so basic to us—to simply pass a law that requires the most intelligible amount of gun regulation.
“It really has nothing to do with guns; it has to do with freedom,” former NRA spokesman John Aquilino said in the documentary, NRA Under Fire, of the organization’s appeal. “Do you give your freedom to the government or do you keep it within yourself, within your community, within your family?”
If someone feels like the freedom of their own family is being threatened, then of course they are less likely to be moved by the death of strangers to vote for change.
As promised, circling back to when the president said he “banned assault weapons and high-capacity magazines when he was a senator and it was a law for the longest time and brought down these killing in a major way and we should do it again??”
From NPR—25 years ago, when Biden was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Congress passed the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act—commonly called the assault weapons ban. It prohibited the manufacture or sale for civilian use of certain semi-automatic weapons. The act also banned magazines that could accommodate 10 rounds or more.
But to secure the votes for passage, the ban’s sponsors accepted a “sunset provision.” This means the 1994 ban would automatically expire after 10 years unless renewed by a vote of Congress. Even so, the ban just barely gained enough votes in the Senate on its way to be included in the overall crime bill, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.
Obviously, by the time those 10 years had passed, the political climate totally changed. Politics were dominated by a different kind of anxiety after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.
Efforts were mounted again after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012—that left 20 children and six adults dead—but the attempt to reinstate the ban after Sandy Hook attracted 12 fewer votes in the Senate than Feinstein had mustered in an attempt to renew the ban in 2004.
Sanford Levinson, professor of law at the University of Texas at Austin, says in the New Yorker, the Constitution places “almost insurmountable barriers in the way of any acceptable notion of democracy.” He acknowledged that the worst aspects of the 18th-century Constitution—the institutionalization of race and gender discrimination—had been corrected through the amendment process. Still, he wrote, “the constitution is both insufficiently democratic, in a country that professes to believe in democracy, and significantly dysfunctional, in terms of the quality of government that we receive.”
Seven states currently have assault weapon bans, but what’s to stop anyone from taking a little road trip cross-state-lines to get the weapons they desire?
NPR went on to say: “One thing is clear: Assault weapons like those once restricted by Biden’s now-expired ban from 25 years ago were used in the most memorable events that have defined the current era of random massacre, including at Sandy Hook in 2012 and this month in Atlanta and Boulder.”
There was very little sleep in our house this week. Bodies were restless when they should have been settled. Heads feeling like beehives. There was a lot of fear about what is safe and what is not. There were messages dictating, “I’m here safe, picking up the Target order,” and “leaving now, home in five.” (Accompanied by funny GIFs of animals in costumes to ease the tension.)
Imagery of the shooting (for the adults: excerpted from the news, and for the kids: etched into their imaginations from the stories they are hearing) slithers in while in the shower, or pouring milk for Ruth’s cereal, or watching the dog sleep. The notion of the instant a life is stripped away, especially in the most unsuspecting of victims doing the most benign of outings—picking out what brand of shampoo, price-comparing pickles, examining produce, Lord, maybe with a child in the shopping cart—is too much to bear.
So—right now, in this moment of March 29, 2021, precisely one week after the slaughter in my neighboring community of Boulder, I continue to scavenge for information to help me make sense of the pieces. I drink my Legally Purchased Beer, feeling safe-yet-not-really-totally-safe-at-all, and gain a thick layer of malaise as a thought passes through me like a kidney stone: the federal government is not set up to do much of anything about gun violence.
Best to adjust one’s expectations to the reality of a situation. History offers much wisdom. The problem is not going to be solved by going at it with the same divisive and expired approaches—deep-seated as those might be.
But is a dead-end of that particular script really the end of the conversation?