Happiness Is a Mailed Letter – Ep. 1.3

My solution to the gun violence problem. (It’s not what you think.)

CORRECTION: In this episode, I claim that the population density of Cook County, Illinois is 9,000 people per square mile. This is incorrect. It’s about 5,500 per square mile. My claim that Brewster County’s population density is 1.3 people per square mile was closer. It’s actually 1.5.

Transcript (by speechpad.com):

Hi. This is Jaime Escuder. Welcome to another episode of None Sense.

Let’s talk about guns.

You know, I don’t really wanna talk about guns, but guns seems to be a particular problem in my country in that we have these endless horrible mass shootings that keep happening over and over again. And I think maybe we ought to talk about why. (I know that the gun debate is not something that’s at all new but I think it’s important. And I haven’t really waited on it and so I’m gonna do that.)

I’m gonna do that by starting off with a surprise. And this is the surprise, I’m a very liberal … well, this is not the surprise … I’m a very liberal person. Super liberal. I think that … I mean, if I could wave my magic wand, I would legalize virtually every victimless crime, so prostitution, drug use, whatever. I think we live in a far too criminalized society. America is an over-criminalized, “overruled,” I like to say, country. And I’m very liberal in that way and I think that people should just be allowed to do stuff so long as there’s not a victim.

And when I talk like that, people naturally assume that I’m a Democrat, which is true. And, of course, every Democrat is a big proponent of gun control, right? Well, not me. I’m actually not a big gun control guy and this is very surprising to people who, after they get to know me a while when they learn this about me, it’s a shock to them and it’s somewhat disappointing to them. So I wanna explain why, and then maybe because, yes, I’m a Democrat but I’m not a big gun control Democrat, those of you who are skeptical of what I’m about to say might be a little bit more willing to listen.

So, I’m not a gun control guy, number one, because I like freedom. I think people should be allowed to do stuff. And I think one of those things is if you wanna be a gun collector or own guns, I can understand why you would wanna do that. Guns are actually pretty amazing machines if you think about it. They don’t require batteries or electricity, they just kind of harness the laws of physics and chemistry to function and that’s a rare thing.

And I’m not a gun owner, I’m not a gun nut, but I can see, you know, it’s a rare thing, it’s a rare instrument that sort of functions merely out of alignment with the laws of nature. And a gun does and that’s kind of amazing and so I could see how, for historical reasons and just kind of neat mechanical reasons, why people might wanna own guns. And more importantly, even if couldn’t see that, I just think people should be allowed to be free in a free country and so one of the things you should be allowed to do is have guns.

The other thing is I’m not at all blind to the fact that guns have their uses. The police in these types of situations … there was just a mass shooting, like, I think I may have mentioned, in Las Vegas. I think the last count was 58 people dead … in these kinds of situations, so Sandy Hook or Virginia Tech etc., the police always get there too late. Now, that’s not to blame the police, there’s no way they could know it ahead of time but it’s gonna take them some minutes to get there. And if, in that time, the only person with a gun in a room full of people is the guy who’s killing people, that’s how you get to numbers like 58 people or whatever the number was at the Pulse Nightclub, dozens of people killed. So there’s a value I recognize to having guns in places where this is gonna happen.

And then the 3rd thing is, gun control is … even the very concept of gun control is completely ignorant of the fact that it absolutely will not work just in terms of the reality of the existence of guns in this country. I think there was an estimate I saw, there’s 300 million guns in this country. That’s actually more guns, there are actually more guns in the United States of America than there are people. Another article that I read was that the killer in Las Vegas used this thing called a “bump stock” which is something I never heard of before, but I guess it’s some sort of attachment or mechanism that you can attach to a gun. And that turns it essentially into a machine gun or a rapid-fire gun.

And so, now, there’s all sorts of talk about banning these things. And the article I read was essentially how they’re already selling out in anticipation of them being banned. Would-be owners are already buying them and they are already selling out. So who knows how many thousands or tens of thousands or millions of bump stocks are already out there even if you were to ban them? And so that’s one of the things, one of the mistakes that I think people in general make and that legislators like to pretend: that somehow legislating a fact changes the reality of that fact.

And they don’t.

Murder is illegal. It’s been illegal in this country ever since the beginning. I think it’s probably been illegal in every country all over earth. Guess what? At this very moment, there’s a murder happening somewhere. The mere outlawing of a thing doesn’t prevent it.

The mere banning of a gun isn’t gonna prevent guns from the flow of commerce any more than it prevents the flow of marijuana or any of the other drugs from commerce. So, there’s a dose of reality that has to be attached to the gun debate that I think is often missing in this whole legalize or ban guns debate that we’re having.

Having said that, I’m not ignorant at the fact that maybe there are some guns out there, in fact, there are some guns out there that maybe people really shouldn’t have, like these assault weapon type of guns. You know, I don’t want my neighbor, my neighbor shouldn’t be allowed to have a pet hippopotamus. I don’t think they should be allowed to be secretly building and even not so secretly building a nuclear bomb in their garage. Some things are just simply too dangerous. And I think certain types of guns certainly wouldn’t fit that description so I think the idea of having some sort of meaningful debate about what kinds of guns should be normally allowed in society is a good one to have.

And I also recognize that that’s not an easy debate or conversation to have and that we could have a whole, I could devote a whole show to that and not have any answers. And so I’m not gonna do that now, I’m gonna save that maybe for later, probably for never, but for today, I’m just gonna say that I’m not an outright ban all guns guy even though I’m probably the most liberal person that you’ve either met or never met.

A more important harder thing to do is to ask: why do these things keep happening? And if we accept that it’s not because, and I’m gonna talk more about this in a moment, it’s not just because there are guns in the world because as you know, there’s guns in other countries like Canada and yet they don’t have this problem.

Why does the United States have this problem? Let’s start first by analyzing the fact that these things are done by people who not only value the lives of others so little enough to kill them, but they also hate their own lives.

Because one thing that always happens to these cases is the person gets killed. This is going happen.

Actually, my understanding is that this guy in Las Vegas may have had some sort of escape plan or some sort of delusion that he was gonna escape. He didn’t, he was killed. And clearly, he must have known that that was a possibility.

So what is it in these people’s lives or what is it that’s lacking in these people’s lives that makes them decide, “I wanna die. I wanna kill people and then I wanna die.”

There’s a guy named Charlie Hoehn, who did a blog post, who suggested some possible reasons why this Las Vegas thing happened. And one is simply that maybe he was lonely. And I think that’s maybe a conversation, an important conversation that we need to have in this country. Former Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, actually said that loneliness is reaching an epidemic proportion in this country. And he wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review in which he said that 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely.

Now, actually, especially I think for men and I think I can say this because I am a guy, it’s not okay or acceptable or something that it feels safe to be able to go to anyone and say, “I’m lonely.” And yet we know that it exists and we know that many people have it and there’s many causes of it. And I think one of the causes of it is we take each other for granted. Even people that we have in our lives that we maybe see every day or are close to, we kind of don’t inquire into their feelings as people.

I have a little story about this. I live right now in far West Texas in a very sparsely populated part of the country. But I moved here from a place called Oak Park, Illinois, which is in Cook County, Illinois, which is where Chicago is. And it has a population density, Cook County does, of about 9,000 [correction: the actual number is abut 5,000] people per square mile. That’s a lot of people per square mile. And I lived in a building with other people. And I’m not, I’m just as guilty of this as anyone and I’m as much at fault as this is my neighbors, but the truth is, I really had no community there.

I didn’t know my neighbors. I literally did not know the name of the guy who lived upstairs from me, who I could hear walking around at night. I didn’t know the name of the guy who I shared a kitchen wall with. I don’t know what these people did for a living. I didn’t know if they were sick. I didn’t know if they were sad. And they didn’t know any of that about me. And I felt very isolated and alone in a building full of people. And part of it, as I said, is my fault because I didn’t reach out or, you know, extend the hand of welcome or whatever and I recognize that.

But the fact of the matter is, it was loneliness. I think you could say that it was loneliness. And it was loneliness even though I had a family and I had a job and all of that stuff. There was still a sense of that there.

We moved to Texas a very, like I say, a very sparsely populated part of Texas. I think the population density of Brewster County where I live now as opposed to Oak Park of Cook County was 9,000 people per square mile, I think the population density of Brewster is like, 1.3 or 3 people per square mile.

And yet, when we got here, my wife went to the bakery. She bought a loaf of bread and she had some other things. And I think she probably had the children with her, and so she forgot the loaf of bread at the store. Later that night, there’s a knock on the door and the baker is actually there. And she hands the bread to my wife, and she says, “You know, I think you forgot this. Here.” Now, I have no idea how she even knew where we lived, but she did. And she brought the bread over. And that is community.

And I wonder how many people in the United States…and I’m not…listen, I’m not making excuses for what this guy did, I mean, I’m not at all doing that. I’m just saying, we owe it to ourselves that we don’t, you know, go out to a concert or on the eL or something like that and get shot to death by someone who’s over-lonely. We owe it to ourselves to think about what are some of the possible causes. And I recognize, of course, mental illness is probably something significant. But maybe loneliness is a part of that, one of the possible causes of this, and I think we owe it to ourselves to ask, “Are we lonely?” Who around us might be lonely? What are we doing about that? And do we have the courage to admit that it’s a problem or a thing, if not in our own lives, in our country and very likely with someone that we know?

Here’s another reason, and this is related to loneliness, but I think it’s also distinct and this is where my, maybe some of my politics is gonna come out a little bit. But maybe he was depressed or maybe the people who do these things are depressed.

What are some of the reasons, in the United States, someone might be depressed? What about the fact that maybe we don’t wanna talk about it or openly acknowledge it or it’s too scary to admit, but the simple fact that we no longer live in a true democracy, that we, the people living in the United States right now, live in an oligarchy?

There’s something called the happiness, I think it’s called “The Happiness Report” and it’s put out every year. It’s a rating of happiness from different countries, and the United States has been consistently dropping in these happiness ratings every year. And there’s a chapter in the latest report and you’ll find the link to the report in my show notes. And I think I’ve said this in other episodes, but my show notes are always very comprehensive and everything that I reference in my actual Podcast, you can find the link in the show notes. But there’s a chapter devoted to American happiness or American depression in there.

And this is something that comes right from there. And I’m quoting now. It says, “There is a strong and correct feeling among Americans that the government does not serve their interest, but rather the interest of powerful lobbies, wealthy Americans, and, of course, the politicians themselves.” And then they further note that Political Scientists such as Martin Gilens have shown that “only rich Americans have real input into political decision making.”

I looked into that a little bit more and I looked into who Martin Gilens is, and it turns out there is a New Yorker article discussing his work. And one of the quotes from his papers, this comes from Mr. Gilens himself, “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose.” In other words, numbers don’t really matter in this country, what matters is money. And that’s depressing.

Now, interestingly, or maybe not so interestingly, or dastardly, or, you know, depressingly itself because it seems maybe this isn’t even an explanation. Apparently, the guy in Las Vegas was very wealthy. But still, I don’t think we can ignore the fact that living in an oligarchy sucks unless you’re a member of the oligarchy. And even then, it sucks if you have any sort of conscience.

And it’s horribly depressing especially when you’re of a certain generation like I am, Gen X, etc., when you actually are watching the people’s grip over their leadership slip away and you feel powerless to do it, it’s depressing. I know this sounds maybe a strange thing to talk about in a gun control or how do we stop mass shootings kind of podcast. But I really do think that this is a majorly depressing thing that can get people upset and make people hate other people.

And I think we should look at maybe solutions and campaign finance reform, overruling Citizens United, ending the just disgraceful gerrymandering that is essentially completely undermining our democracy. I mean, I’m willing to say this, that doing those things, meaningful campaign finance reform, fair elections that you actually don’t feel disenfranchised from, that you actually feel like you have a say in, that would do more to prevent gun violence than banning guns. Because it will have an actual impact, an actual impact to the people who are living here and maybe won’t wanna kill themselves or others quite so much because they’re actually enjoying their lives a little bit more.

And I wanna talk about another reason, and perhaps the most important reason. And it is this, this is the 3rd reason.

We have lost our identity as a national community, as Americans. I don’t think that we really see each other as one country anymore, we see each other as whites and blacks, religious and non-religious, younger generation, older generation, wealthy, not wealthy, southern, northern, etc. And the fact of the matter is we’re not there for each other anymore. We don’t look out for each other. We don’t care about each other and we don’t take care of each other.

And it’s a fabric that’s being rent apart by our own carelessness towards our fellow Americans. And this has actually been proven through research. There’s a guy named Keith Hampton, Professor at Michigan State University who actually studies this. He studies something called “Helping Behavior” and he did two of these studies. One in 2001 and one in 2011. And he did them in the United States and in Canada.

And again, I will have  a link to his actual paper in my show notes, but in short, in a nutshell, this was the experiment that he did. He left about 7,600 addressed and stamped letters in public places, both in Canada and the United States. And he measured the return of those letters.

In other words, someone is walking along and they see a letter on the ground or on a bench or in a phone booth and it’s clearly like someone lost it. And he checked to see how many people actually went to the minor hassle of placing it in a mailbox so that whoever it was intended for would actually receive it. In 2001, he found that 63% of the letters were returned and that’s both in Canada and in the United States. In 2011, when he did the test again, the number remained at 63% in Canada. However, the number fell to 53.4%, a 10% drop in the United States.

Since 9/11, we have gotten more distant from each other to the point where nearly half of us, think about this, nearly half of the people that you see on the street, if they see a letter that is clearly lost and has the stamp and the address on it, won’t even bother to pick it up and put it in the mailbox. They’ll just ignore it. We can do better. We must do better because I don’t know that any country, any national union can long last with that kind of apathy. And I really think that we’re wasting time and doing a poor service to each other and to the root of the problem and not doing the hard work when we just insist that banning guns is going to fix everything.

Here’s one more story. I live in a place right now that is swimming in guns, that is flooded with guns. When I first moved here, it was like an Oak Parker’s nightmare. I went to a…I think it was a fundraiser for a volunteer for the local fire department and there was an auction. And literally, every auction items was guns or whiskey. I never felt unsafe, nobody got shot. The place…I mean, they couldn’t… There was probably, again, more guns in that building than were people.

Now, we did have a shooting here in Alpine, Texas about a year ago at the high school. A girl brought a gun to school and according to the police, she was, I guess, she must have been depressed. That’s not according to the police, but I’m assuming based upon what happened. But she wanted to shoot her stepbrother. And when things didn’t go the way they were supposed to, someone walked in on her while she was loading the gun or something, she shot and killed herself. In other words, she was sad.

Now, let me ask you seriously, is that a shooting that happened because that girl had too many guns in her life? Or is it one that happened because she had too few friends?

Now, I don’t merely mean to point my finger at Liberals on this issue whom I disagree with saying, “Stop focusing on something that’s not actually the problem.” Conservatives, if anything, I’m more upset with them because they seem to understand that it’s not the problem but yet, they also keep to seem to pretend that it’s not gonna happen again and they don’t have any meaningful discussion as to what the problem actually is.

For example, overturning the oligarchy or passing campaign finance reforms that might make it harder for them and their rich friends to get elected. That’s hard work. But necessary work is often hard work.

I wanna leave you with this idea. There’s a great radio documentary that was actually put together by Glenn Gould who liked to study solitude and solitary people and see why they chose a solitary life. And the very first one of them is something called The Idea of North where he interviews a few, I think five Canadians who lived for a time in the extreme north of Northern Canada.

And there were a couple of interesting observations. One is that a lot of people go north to these remote places because they hope to get away from community, they wanna get away from people. And then they find themselves actually far closer to community than they ever imagined. I think I personally lived that when I left a county of, I don’t know, 3 million people for a county of 10,000 and then all of a sudden felt very much closer. And that’s because when there’s fewer, I guess, resources or people around, you realize that you really do need each other to get by.

And one of the other people that he interviewed commented on that by saying, You could tell when someone was depressed in the town because you saw them every day. And you would maybe make note of it and unannounced one day, knock on their door, say hello, maybe play a game of chess. “And right away, there was a sense of sharing this life.” And that really stuck with me because you know what? Whether you knock on their door or not, you are sharing this life with them. You are sharing this place, this planet, this moment. And by pretending that that’s not true or by pretending that that person isn’t there, you’re not doing anything other than maybe, making the situation worse. And you’re certainly not honoring the fact that people don’t simply cease to exist just because we ignore them.

So, participate in your community. Look around you and view this as a national community, which it is, and maybe if we can’t stop this gun violence outright, at least, maybe we can finally have a real conversation and get started. Because I don’t feel like we’ve made any progress on this issue and I think the only thing that’s separating us between this moment and the next mass shooting is time and luck. And guess what? Those both run out.

It’s time for us to take responsibility for what’s happening in our own country and think, and see the people around us. And when we see that they’ve dropped a letter, pick it up and mail it.

Thanks for listening.

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