I learned about the power of guns when I was nine years old. I had a red felt cowgirl hat that tightened with a white cord under my chin, a holster made of stamped fake leather, and two toy metal six-shooters. When I waved them around shouting “Bang, bang!” I imagined myself out in The Wild West among the saloon owners and cattle rustlers I saw on TV—someplace like Texas.
I wasn’t at all prepared for the real thing. I’ll never forget the principal of my elementary school, his face stricken, telling us the news from Dallas: “The president has been shot.” He sent us home early, and for days afterward we sat in front of our TV watching the disturbing images over and over: the president slumping over in the motorcade car, Jackie spattered with his blood, Jack Ruby fatally shooting alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, the eerie rider-less horse in the funeral procession.
I thought then that such shattering violence would be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. I didn’t know that one renowned civil rights leader had already been assassinated that year in Mississippi. I couldn’t begin to imagine that within five years two more African-American leaders would also be murdered—along with voting-rights workers and freedom riders and the victims of lynch mobs—and that the brother of the president would also be gunned down by an assassin.
Last night I was part of a gathering sponsored by Black Lives Matter in front of the Asheville Police Department. We kept vigil, acknowledging the lives and the grievous killing by police this week of Philando Castile of St. Paul, Minnesota, and Alton Sterling of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And, amid moments of silence and a drizzle of rain that a speaker called “divine tears,” we poured out grief and outrage and fear over the national tragedy that last weekend hit painfully close to home. The killing of Jerry Williams outside a public housing project on Saturday didn’t make national news—perhaps because Asheville isn’t considered a city large enough to warrant such attention, or maybe because the circumstances are complicated and no video has appeared publicly to verify what actually went down that night. But another young black man is dead and another white police officer is on administrative leave and another investigation is under way in a catastrophe that is all too common in this country.
I learned this morning that while we were keeping peaceful vigil last night, so were people in Dallas. Our vigil ended quietly in a downpour of rain, theirs with a torrent of sniper fire that left five police officers dead. Fifty-three years after gun violence in Dallas first shattered my world, it has done so again.
When will it stop? When will we dismantle racism and ban white privilege and bury the guns? When will we respect the value and dignity of all lives? When will our weapon-saturated and violence-obsessed culture turn away from this madness?