Jayma Anne Montgomery
GUNLUST AND A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE
The soundtrack of my early childhood was incredibly violent. I was raised in the ghettos of the Waterhouse district in Kingston, Jamaica. It was not so affectionately known as ‘Firehouse’ due to its overwhelming gang-related gun violence problem. In an effort to shield my mind from atrocities I couldn’t fully comprehend, my childhood mind created a collection of sounds and images that I could easily access to remind myself that I hadn’t just imagined it all. But, the bulk of it wasn’t retrievable until years into adulthood.
Every night, I was lulled to sleep by the familiar sounds of street crime. I recall the sound of machine guns firing, likely hundreds of rounds at unknown victims. The volume of the bullets as their sound ricocheted in the steep gully bank behind my town would tell me if the shooting was just a few hundred feet away versus just a few miles away. I remember the distinct sound of methodical punches landing against sweat-slicked skin, rivals hurling menacing insults at one another as they prepared to brawl, and the blood-curdling wail of mothers discovering their murdered children with fresh bullet holes in their bodies, their lives already departed from their limp bodies.
There were terrible sights that my young mind was never able to fully unsee: the deep lacerations of a machete cut to the forearm; a blast injury to the ear, the lobe sagging precariously from the cartilage just like hot wax drips down the side of a candle-stick; blood spewing from a man’s mouth as he was repeatedly kicked in the ribs by another man wearing boots. My troubled and confused mind hid many of these images away but they have begun resurfacing at the most unexpected times. It makes my heart thump faster as I walk through a dimly lit parking garage. It’s likely why the nightscape of an urban street terrifies me and why the rush of a large crowd gathering to watch a street performer or other spectacle provokes sheer panic in me. I always imagine a bloody exchange is taking place or a lifeless body inexplicably riddled with stab wounds has been discovered. Memory is of a persistent and cruel nature at times.
I was mostly in the care of the elderly adoptive parents of my mother during those years. They were thin, kindly people who shared our meager rations with our neighbors and were dedicated members of the local missionary church. I was afraid of what I saw and it has had a profound impact on my adult psyche but I somehow always knew that I was safe. Their love for me was so powerful that I can still recall the brush of gentle fingers against my skin and the comfort of soft kisses on my brow decades after they have both passed away.
When you hail from an environment brimming with domestic violence, gang violence, drug trafficking, and police brutality you will be shaped by it no matter how hard you try to convince yourself that you won’t be. Each violent act seeps into your subconscious and reinforces one of two beliefs: that violence is unavoidable and necessary OR that violence is needless and cruel. I wasn’t certain how much I disdained violence until I joined the military. I will expound on this in my manuscript but let’s just say that this experience solidified my views on war, violence, and weaponry like nothing ever has or likely will again.
The narrative of middle-class and wealthy America is quite different than the one of impoverished immigrants. When you’re poor, you can’t control the desperate acts of violence that happen around you and sometimes to you. There is no place to view guns, knives, or other weapons as recreation. These are the entities that lure sons from their mothers to join street gangs. They murder children and grandparents who are innocent bystanders. It may save your life in a robbery or a rape attempt but won’t soothe the mental anguish of the trauma away.
There are just two perspectives I would like to contribute to the gun violence conversation in America right now. The inconvenient reality is that brown-skinned people in this country often cannot afford to treat guns as recreation. A black or Muslim man who is a legal, law-abiding gun owner with an open carry permit is making himself a target for scrutiny and mistrust. For a Caucasian person, there is often an assumption of pure intentions and motives. Black people and most minorities are not privy to those same assumptions. If a person feels threatened by someone else who is armed but not engaging them in a violent manner, a number of states have laws protecting that person's right to shoot that armed individual. Feeling endangered versus actually being endangered are two very different things. I think until many of the unspoken and pervasive assumptions of the threat of colored people in this country are openly examined and dismantled, we cannot even begin to have just conversations about who should and should not be carrying guns.
The second thing I would like to point out is the way that law-abiding minorities in this country who were not raised in a gun-affirming culture actually feel about it all. Many of us simply don’t feel safe. When I see Christmas cards of politicians posing with their families, each one grinning brightly as they brandish semi-automatic weapons, I feel pure angst and terror. When a white person with no prior criminal record can easily walk into a gun shop and purchase military grade weapons, ammunition, and protective gear without any legitimate vetting process or questions being asked, it makes me feel hopeless. When the subsequent reaction from conservatives and gun rights activists is to double down on the need to ‘protect gun rights,’ I feel confused and angry. I know that had that person been of a different ethnic persuasion, the response would have been very different. When less than one-hundred years ago, guns were often used as a way to enforce vagrancy laws and intimidate black people into submission to Jim Crow laws, I have to wonder why our expressions of feeling threatened by the status quo is viewed as irrelevant or less valid than a white person being slightly inconvenienced by the need to prove psychological stability, a basic understanding of gun safety, and sufficient respect for the lives of fellow human beings prior to purchasing guns.
It has been a true privilege to live in this country as a naturalized citizen for all of these years. My family has been able to thrive socially and economically in ways that I never dreamed were possible. But many immigrants and minorities don’t share my story. I shouldn’t adopt a worldview of self-sufficiency and disdain for the poor simply because of my personal experiences and material wealth. All that I have acquired is a gift from GOD and I have a duty to demonstrate compassion, concern, and generosity to others who have not had this experience of American life.
At some point, I plan to explore the language of the 2nd Amendment in more detail as well as the intended meaning of the writers (rather than what most people do; apply a modern reading on a historical text). We pride ourselves on being a free society. But the best expression of freedom is not a free for all. We need structure and parameters in order for our citizens to flourish. A country where every person is free to uphold their own version of law and order to the exclusion of how it impacts their neighbor is not a country that I want to live in. Protecting yourself against an imminent threat is a right. I don’t debate that. I debate that this necessarily means that every person is entitled to own a gun. I freely state that anyone who believes that is probably psychotic or just extremely short-sighted.
I think that discussions of self-defense and gun ownership need to be teased apart; the former is a right, the latter should be considered a hallowed privilege of the few, the well-trained, and the trusted. GOD never intended a violent world. The fall from grace, the rebellion of the sons of GOD, and the consequences thereafter resulted in this violent world. I don’t want to be a part of so-called Christian conversations where the true deity being worshipped isn’t the GOD of the Bible, but the principalities and powers driving gun lust. We ought to be able to visualize ourselves in a state of complete shalom in the coming Kingdom, with no use for weapons that aren’t primarily tools to build and sustain. I have more to say on this but I think this is plenty for now. I think the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act that was recently passed is a nice start. It will have blind spots and unintended consequences that will require it to be amended. But I’m glad that for the first time in a long time, the desire to do good and seek flourishing outweighed the desire to pander to the extremes of either party in order to secure future political power.
When I read about the city of peace that Isaiah prophesies about, I am most intrigued that cultural differences and national borders are preserved. The peace will not come because of a monolithic society where people agree on everything and never have arguments. The beauty of it is that those differences are brought before the LORD and He then teaches the people how to move forward together without resorting to ugly tactics, bloodshed, and war. What an amazing vision to hope for!
JEREMIAH 29: 4-7
4 This is what the Lord of Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the exiles I deported from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Find wives for yourselves, and have sons and daughters. Find wives for your sons and give your daughters to men in marriage so that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there; do not decrease. 7 Pursue the well-being[b] of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the Lord on its behalf, for when it thrives, you will thrive.”
ISAIAH 2: 1-4
The vision that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
2 In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s house will be established at the top of the mountains and will be raised above the hills. All nations will stream to it, 3 and many peoples will come and say, “Come, let’s go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us about his ways so that we may walk in his paths.” For instruction will go out of Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4 He will settle disputes among the nations and provide arbitration for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plows and their spears into pruning knives. Nation will not take up the sword against nation, and they will never again train for war.