Early in the morning on June 25th, about a week before I arrived in my new hometown in western Pennsylvania, police here opened fire on a car of three black man speeding towards them, killing the driver, 27-year-old Elip Cheatham.
According to eyewitness accounts, the events of the night are as follows: A shooting occurred at Edder’s Den, a bar in what most of us would euphemistically call a “rough” neighborhood. One of the victims was a friend of Cheatham’s. Cheatham and another friend loaded the 20-year-old with a leg wound into the back of Cheatham’s car and drove towards the hospital. Blocks away, they encountered a police blockade, and this is where accounts begin to splinter.
Cheatham’s family alleges that the police, who had pulled Cheathan over in the same vehicle the day prior to the shooting but not issued a citation, were unfairly harassing him.
The other passengers, both of whom survived, allege Cheatham slowed as he approached an intersection, and police opened fire.
The responding officers allege that Cheatham sped up, as if to crash through the blockade, which is why they opened fire.
What is not in question is that Elip Cheatham was fatally wounded in the shooting and died shortly thereafter at the hospital that had been his initial destination.
There are plenty of assumptions to be made about the incident on Sheridan Avenue on June 25th, and what you probably already believe happened is inextricably linked to your existing political viewpoints. The same is true for me. I’m not here to speculate about whether the police unfairly profiled Cheatham or whether he and his friends were engaged in risky behavior at the bar. This isn’t about whether they had it coming or whether the white cops shot because they saw a black guy.
But it is about another black man getting shot.
According to the Children’s Defense Fund, African-American males ages 15 to 19 are almost five times as likely as their white peers to be killed by firearms. In 2007, according to the National Center for Injury Presentation and Control, while 80 percent of white gun deaths were a result of suicides, 84 percent of African-American gun deaths were homicides.
We do ourselves a disservice as a country–white or black–if we simply assume this discrepancy is a result of a natural predilection for homicidal violence among young African-American men, if we refuse to investigate the myriad reasons why guns are fired in this country, and what correlation those trigger fingers might have to factors like race, class, geography or hate.
In July 2012, outside of western Pennsylvania, a gun crime almost completely different than the shooting of Elip Cheatham captured most of the national attention.
24-year-old James Holmes, an ex-PhD candidate from the University of Colorado walked into a theater in Aurora, Colorado, a body completely wrapped in protective tactical gear, orange hair peeking out on top. Holmes allegedly set off multiple devices–likely improvised bombs meant to cause panic and confusion–and then opened fire, killing and injuring dozens with bullets fired from an AR-15 rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun, and two .40-caliber handguns.
It’s worth wondering why the details I chose to include about Holmes were that he had once been a PhD candidate, that he had dyed hair, that he wore riot gear, and that he set off a bomb. Because I wanted to emphasize the horrific irony that a person hypothetically intelligent and rich enough to get into a PhD program could perpetrate such violence, thereby bucking any stereotype about mental capacity or class? The dyed hair has been much-discussed in follow-up media reporting about the shooting as bearing some relationship to a comic book super-villain, namely the Joker, though I suppose I might also have mentioned it as a somewhat subtle reminder that the shooter was white, bucking racial stereotypes.
I know why I mentioned the outfit and the diversionary devices: to emphasize that he planned the attack.
I probably don’t need to explain why I mentioned what kind of guns he used. I do have my own political motivations here.
The details I chose to include about the Aurora shooting also belie the details I chose not to include. I do not want to write about whether the film he chose says anything about violent media contributing to spree killings. I do not want to write about the conflicting reports that Holmes was under psychiatric treatment, or on medication.
I want to talk about why Americans like so much to hold guns and why we so often shoot them at other people. I want to talk about why that sometimes happens more often to certain groups of people. I want to talk about what we’re really talking about: the darkest places inside ourselves, the caverns of depravity of which we are all–absolutely every one of us–capable.
The question is whether we allow it to grow and eventually crawl up out of our poisonous throats.
When I read accounts like the shooting death of Elip Cheatham, I have a particular political response. I lean left. I tend to look for clues in the story that the police may have used racial profiling.
When I read accounts of spree killings like Holmes’ alleged crime, I have a particular emotional response. I cry. I tend to connect to victims easily, tangentially.
When I read either kind of story, I shake my head that we, as a nation, haven’t done more to regulate assault weapons.
But the truth is, I understand violence better than most. I have that proclivity, too.
I’ve hurt more people than I care to admit publically. And I mean hurt, physically, not some emotional kind of hurt, which we all like to admit to, as if owning up to our mistakes makes us bigger, more honest people. Try admitting to people that you’ve actually committed physical violence, often, with your bare hands. See if they think you’re bigger for owning up to it.
I’m 5’2” and I weigh 120 pounds, so I know that the kind of violence I’ve committed, in the scheme of things, is pretty minor. I’ve never used a weapon, unless you count a frying pan, so the damage I’ve inflicted has been relatively easily for my victims to overcome, physically anyway.
But. There is a particular kind of anger that leads directly to a desire to harm. When I have hit–slapped, punched, kicked, bitten, dragged by hair, slammed doors on–people, I knew exactly what I was doing and I wanted to.
None of this was self-defense or childhood game or explained away by anything that might make you more comfortable. This was rage, quivering rage that swelled up in my body and shook its way down my arms until I screamed and flailed and exploded into a thrashing ball of fury.
I learned this. It was easy to learn.
I can still taste that metallic desire, the clenching in my jaw, the spasms in my bone that wouldn’t let go.
I’ve never fired a gun, never even held one in my hands, and for most of my life, I thought I would be perfectly content to live out my days never having done either. I’m beginning to rethink that. Now, when I drive past the billboard on Rt. 22 for the A&S Indoor Pistol Range, I get a little tingle of curiosity.
Not because I’ve changed my mind about my own need to protect myself. Even as a single, small woman who lives alone, I’m clumsy enough to know I’d do myself more harm than anyone else with a gun nearby. An old boyfriend was even nervous that I’d sometimes keep a kitchen knife on the bedside table, sure I’d hurt myself with it, suggesting I get an aluminum bat or something a little less volatile.
A part of me thinks that holding and firing a gun must be like getting hurt really bad, like throwing a punch or protecting a kid–something everyone should do at least once in their life, to know what it feels like, to know whether they are capable. Partly it’s a survivalist thing. If I were ever in a situation where I needed to handle a gun, even if just to disarm someone else, wouldn’t it be better to be familiar?
But mostly, the reason I’ve started to think I might visit the A&S Indoor Pistol Range one of these days is because I want to know what that kind of power feels like.
Does it feel like swagger, the way I feel when I turn my head at a bar because I can sense a man is looking at me? Does it make you feel weak, like when you’ve hurt something you know didn’t stand a chance against you, something smaller and more frail that you never should have hit? Or is it more like the hand-shaking adrenaline of my inherent desire to commit violence, the way I felt midway through pounding blackness into the eye of the school bus bully who called my baby sister a cow, when I noticed I was smiling?
My guess is all and none of the above. My guess is I can’t imagine what that kind of absolute power feels like, and that’s the exact reason I’ve always been terrified of even touching a gun.
Despite all those prior confessions of violence, I honestly don’t think I’m capable of something worse than, say, pushing someone down the stairs. (When you grow up inflicting violence on others, you learn very quickly to draw yourself a line, knowing that when your vision flashes white there is no turning back and your body will take over so you’d better program it to know exactly how far it can and cannot go in hurting the object of your rage.)
I think only an external, physical outlet would relieve that anger. When I have felt it–and it has lived, thank God, dormant for many years–my whole body shakes with the desire to commit violence. I don’t think something like a gun, something passive, something once-removed, would satisfy that desire.
But I can’t say for sure.
Maybe by now I’ve lost you. Maybe you think this is a confession, and you are refusing to absolve me of my violence.
But this isn’t a confession, just an admission. It’s true, whether we want to look directly at it or not.
It’s also true that you are capable of violence as well.
Don’t look away.
Haven’t you always imagined a scenario in which it would be acceptable to cause another person harm?
Sure, those scenarios have always felt safe. You’re walking down a dark street, holding your lover’s hand, and some shadowy figure jumps out of the darkness, grabs one of you, has a weapon, tries to push his hands underneath his victim’s clothes. Damn right you would throw a punch and probably worse. Or maybe you see someone’s hand linger for a little too long on your child’s back, maybe just a little lower than it should. Now your heart is pumping. Your fists are clenching. You feel the first tingles of protective rage, of evolutionary fear. Ramp up the severity and your violent response increases in kind.
We all stay up some nights, playing through home invasions or witnessed crimes, we imagine where we would strike, and how. We enact the nightmare. This is acceptable. Palatable. And frankly, too far outside our capacity to truly envision for us to feel like it is something that might really happen.
But you have a line. You’ve already drawn it. And once you’ve drawn that line, you probably know—if you’re being honest with yourself—that you might lunge for at least a little less.
Now think how much closer that line might be if you were holding a weapon that allowed you to act fatally, instantly, on that very first surging impulse of violence.
This is what a gun is for.
This is why other weapons, or other objects that can be used as weapons, do not fall into the same category of guns in terms of regulation. You may be able to inflict violence with a car, an axe, a knife, a blowtorch. But none of them can be used without pause, with one swift motion. And those that can do not cause instant death.
I think taking the life of another—rather than simply inflicting violence on another— should require an entirely different sort of rage. There is a meaningful distance, for many of us impassable, between wanting to hurt someone else and wanting to kill them—but a gun significantly narrows that gap.
How many people in a crowded theater do you think James Holmes would have been able to murder with a blowtorch?
I’m not so naïve as to think regulations, bans, restrictions of any kind would solve the problem of homicidal violence in this country (though that’s not a valid reason not to enact them).
But I do know that one of the victims of the Aurora shooting had, just weeks earlier, narrowly avoided another spree killing, at a local mall. I do know that within a month of the Aurora shooting, three more spree shootings had occurred elsewhere in the country. I do know that this kind of impulsive, violent action is far from uncommon.
I know that even trained police officers are just men and women behind those badges, driven by duty, but infallible as anyone else. I know that Elip Cheatham is dead because no one had the time to ask questions.
I know that we humans are creatures of raw emotion, of rage and fear and love and grief. Our impulses flip like switches with the feral synapses of our imperfect brains. I know that the world is a place of disaster and terror in large part because of the ways in which we are able to act far too instantaneously on our every flash of thought. Those things we call instincts are really just wild neurons flashing, are dangerous little dictators and they yell fire at the faintest sound of a predator approaching.
I know that our culture says he who shoots fastest wins.
I know the allure of violence and its concurrent rush of power. I know the severity of the desire to cause harm.
And I know that it shouldn’t be so easy.