Here we are in Arizona, now famous around the world for its violence and death, and I have to tell you that in early January I felt a bit like an angel of death myself. Friends visiting from Italy very much wanted to go to San Francisco, so that is what we did for three days in the early days of the new year. One of our goals? Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. We met our goal on a crisp, breezy (read ‘cold, windy’) afternoon, and it could not have been lovelier.
The blue sign says, “Crisis Counseling – There is Hope – Make the Call. The consequences of jumping from this bridge are fatal and tragic.” Also, the bridge railings are surprisingly low, making it very easy for would-be suicides to clambor over and make the leap.
On our walk back across the bridge, with the wind mercifully behind us, we noticed a small commotion at rail side. Indeed, someone had just jumped to his or her death moments before we arrived. The people responding to the tragedy were extremely low-key and very, very professional. I doubt many bridge-walkers that day knew that anything untoward had happened. There’s a reason why they were so good – they get a lot of practice. Someone jumps off the bridge about once every ten days. No one survives.
Flash forward a few days to January 8 – what a good day for our visit to Tucson to look for a church my friends particularly wanted to see. There was a fair amount of traffic in the outskirts of the city, and as we waited in an accident-caused traffic jam the Captain called to tell us there had been some kind of assassination attempt somewhere nearby and we might want to head home. We didn’t want to head home, so we pushed ahead and eventually arrived downtown. Downtown Tucson on a Saturday is a very sleepy place – most of the shops were closed and there were very few people about. I don’t think it had anything to do with the terrible events that had unfolded at the suburban Safeway Market a few hours previous.
These two experiences with our friends, one right after the other, made me feel extremely uneasy – is America really and truly such a violent place? More violent that the rest of the world? I’ve waited a long time to write about what happened because it’s taken a while to sort out my thoughts on this question.
Here is a picture of Jared Lee Loughren, the unrepentent man who shot and killed six people and injured twelve others (including the now famously and miraculously recovering Representative Gabrielle Giffords) in Tucson the day we were there:
This is what insanity looks like, at least in one of its iterations. And my point, I guess, is that insanity is all around us, not only in the United States, but on every continent in the world, even in our beloved Italy. It is a difficult to find hard figures, but according to Wikipedia there were 5.7 murders per 100,000 population in the U.S. in 2006 and in Italy there were 1.06 per 100,000. The difference between the U.S. and Italy, I suspect, is the ease with which one can get guns and the number of guns that are in private hands. Here in Arizona, which is one of the gun-totingest states, it is legal to carry licensed guns both openly and concealed. I can’t tell you how disconcerting it is to be in a store and see a fellow swagger in with a pistol on his belt.
The NRA will tell you that it is not guns that kill, but people who kill. They will also tell you that it is our Constitutional right to arm ourselves. The first is a nonsense. People cannot kill nearly as effectively without guns – it is guns in the hands of people like Mr. Loughren that kill, and kill often and very effectively. The second assertion is open to frequent debate. The second amendment of the U.S. Constitution says, ” 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.” Some say that it means anyone and everyone has the right to own and carry guns. Others say that the framers intended that guns be owned privately but used in a militia setting to protect the country.
It doesn’t matter who’s right – what matters is that as things stand now there are a lot of guns in the hands of a lot of people. Most people are responsible and careful. But there is a small percentage who are not, and they are the ones who are deadly.
So why the description of the suicide at the beginning of this screed? Only this. It is disturbed people who kill – either themselves or others. Some take their own lives, some decide to take the lives of others. It all adds up to the tragedy of senseless death. These deaths, all of them, are tragic to the close circle of family and friends around the dead and the killers; but they are also tragic and harmful to the fabric of society as a whole.
So… what to do? One of the men taking care of the suicide on the bridge told me that if only the authorities would put up a wire fence high enough to make it difficult for people to jump the number of jumpers would decrease. And it seems logical that if only we could keep guns out of the hands of those who are not stable enough to have them we would all be a lot safer. The first isn’t happening because the bridge authorities do not want to ruin the view from the bridge. The second is not happening because no one knows how to do it.