It Was Supposed To Be A Story About Art

In July 2017 I was introduced to the indomitable Jessica Mindich, founder of the Caliber Collection. It is an organization that funds gun-buybacks of illegal firearms in a handful of cities across the United States, including my hometown of Detroit. The guns are exchanged for a $50 Visa gift card, destroyed and then handed over to artists to use; some of the guns are melted down and made into jewelry. A percentage of the proceeds from the sale of the art and jewelry go back to Caliber Collection to fund future buy-backs.  It is a virtuous cycle.

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I discovered Jessica through Detroit-based artist Doug Schwartz, his acrylic sculptures are haunting and beautiful. Gun stocks, muzzles, cylinders, and spent casings all suspended in hefty cubes; sentenced to a life imprisoned. He is part of the Raise the Caliber collective of artists that Jessica has assembled. The work is somber, but important and purposeful.

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I’m a writer and have been working on a story about Jessica and the work she does for the last six months. As the time passes I find it impossible not to come face to face with the hard realities of gun violence and the issue of gun control in America.

I thought it was going to be a story about art. It inextricably became a story about gun violence in America.

After a quick call to her in the summer of 2017, we decided to meet in person in the fall when she came to Detroit for a panel, a shred—she and her partners take the guns to a welder and have the firing pins welded so that the guns are inoperable for evermore, and a gun buyback. We’d square things away when she nailed down the details.

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As it turned out, the week she was coming to Detroit I’d be in Las Vegas for a conference. I decided the story was more important than the conference and canceled my trip. I would have landed in Vegas on October 2, 2017, less than 24 hours after the mass shooting that took the lives of 58 people and injured another 851. Sitting safely at breakfast on a dreary, autumn Detroit morning we suddenly had a lot more to talk about.

All of the guns that shooter Stephen Paddock had were legally obtained, including the bump stocks—a device that much of America had never heard of until the horrible events of October 1, 2017 unfolded. There was public outcry for gun reform. The NRA said it wasn’t guns that were the problem; it was a mental health issue. The President and the GOP members of Congress sent “thoughts and prayers” and said “it was too soon to talk about gun control.”

So when is a good time to talk about gun control? A few days after a mass shooting? A few weeks? The thing is, that in 2016 there were 320 mass shootings in America, one nearly every day. Waiting for time to pass from one shooting just forces us to deal with the tragedy of the next one. And that’s just the mass shootings…

I wanted to see what the numbers really looked like, did I really not understand the situation?  You can Google anything, or so I thought–it was then that I realized the awful, tangled, issue that guns in America is.  Asking about guns, no pun intended, is a loaded question.

Taking the average of five years (2011-2014), from the Center for Disease Control’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control’s Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System, over 116,000 people are shot in the United States every year and more than 35,000 people die from gun-inflicted injuries (about half of these are suicides). By the way, it was easier to search the CDC for a rare hamster to human disease transmission that killed four people in 2005 than it was to find statistics for 35,000 gun deaths per year in America. There was more information on the CDC website about the 37,000 non-fatal nail gun injuries that occur annually in the United States. Thanks, Congress!

But I digress…As I continued my research about the work of Caliber Collection in Detroit, I met with Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon. Napoleon is a lifelong resident of Detroit, and his police work has served the community for 43 years. He currently is the Wayne County Sheriff; Detroit being the largest city in that county, and part of his jurisdiction. He knows all too well what gun violence does to a community. Detroit was once the most dangerous city in America, but it is now doing better. Unfortunately, our interview was cut short that day because one of Napoleon’s officers had been shot.

I take a few days to metabolize the events. Still stunned, I call Jessica Mindich to tell her what happened. It’s Monday, November 6, 2017. We briefly talk about what abruptly ended my interview with Sheriff Napoleon, but we can’t ignore that splashed across the news that morning is the mass shooting that took place the day before at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Despite a conviction that prohibited the shooter, Devin Kelley, from possessing firearms he was still able to legally purchase the gun he used that day.

I’d like to think that it’s just an awful coincidence that these shootings are happening as I’m researching this project, but no, it is an everyday reality across this country.

Since I started working on this story we’ve seen dozens more shootings splashed across TV, including the murder of 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018. And, there are thousands more we never hear about. We call for gun control. We wave fists. We point fingers. We walk out. We march.

It is a soup of politicians, the NRA, too many emotions and a heavy dose of fear. Everyone is talking and no one is listening. Fights break out at the family dinner table and friends stop speaking to each other. Guns are polarizing.

I don’t have the answers. I certainly have my opinions, but they are far from solutions. To be completely above board about where my opinions come from, I would describe myself as a Jewish (well, more Jew-ish—I make a phenomenal Passover brisket, and have a gorgeous Christmas tree), mostly-liberal, feminist, pro-choice democrat that comes from a family of gun owners; that has a gun in my home; and, whose teen and adult sons shoot for sport (clays and targets, not animals).  I have family and friends that hunt. I do not support the NRA.  If I was told tomorrow that I couldn’t own a gun, I’d be okay with that.

Living in the Detroit suburbs my entire life I have become somewhat inured to gun violence.  It is hard to turn on the nightly news at dinner and not hear about a shooting.  Death by gun, it seems, is part of life.

I remember a Christmas Eve when I was about 13 or 14 years old.  The phone rang as we sat down for dinner, it was a detective from the Detroit Police Department.  A gun that had been stolen from my parent’s town house when I was just a toddler had been recovered.  It had been used in a recent homicide. When would my dad like to come pick it up from the station?  The gun came home in a brown paper bag with the evidence tag still attached.

For the last 30 years, I have filed that moment in my head as a “thing that just happened.”  I really never thought about what it meant to have that gun stolen from our home; the fact that it took someone’s life. It was an act of gun violence, and we played a part in that act.

Many gun proponents like to frame the issue around their Second Amendment right to “bear arms”. But is it their right? The Second Amendment clearly states that Americans have the right to bear arms for the purpose of a “well regulated militia”. If you’re up for a little reading, look up The Federalist Papers #27, written by Alexander Hamilton (you know, the guy from the musical!). That “well regulated militia” referred to in the Second Amendment sounds a lot like our modern day National Guard, and not like you, or me or anyone that thinks they need to stock up for the zombie apocalypse. Again, my opinion.

This is why I really like Jessica’s approach to getting guns off the street. I think as a country that has so much of our history, our culture, wrapped up in guns it is going to take a miracle for our government to change the way we regulate legal gun ownership in America.

However, unlike their legal counterparts, the Second Amendment doesn’t protect illegal firearms. They don’t have lobbyists fighting for them in D.C. and they don’t have friends in Congress. Regardless of your views on gun control, wouldn’t you give up a $50 Visa gift card to get an illegal gun off the street? I’m no math wizard (really, I was an art history major), but less guns would likely mean less gun violence. And, I think that’s something we can all agree is a good thing. Right?

All images courtesy of Sebastian Sullen

 

 

 

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