Jan 29, 2013

Guns, Geek Communities and Mental Health

If I’ve seemed distracted these past few weeks; it’s because the thoughts in this post were rattling around in my brain.  Hopefully, with it written down, they will stop haunting me a bit.

Next week, we will be talking about the role firearms should play in my local hackerspace.  It’s the end of a long series of friction-building incidents and I hope we can come away with something clear cut that lets everyone relax a little.

It’s come to a head partly because of Sandy Hook, and partly because of some antisocial behavior from an admittedly small number of people.  Not just gun-related things like heaping abuse upon Stratasys for cancelling their contract with Defense Distributed; but also general bad behavior like making vague threats, leaving their stuff lying around and trying to shout down people who disagree with them.

It’s giving some people the impression that our space is, as a group, pro-gun and anti-Obama.  They get tripped up when that turns out not to be true.  (Like most hackerspaces, we have no political affiliation and don’t do issue advocacy.)

I’ve spoken to many members who are unnerved by the presence of a dedicated table for reloading shells, and by the fact that people have brought their AR-15s into the building.  But the more disturbing conversations have been with generally anti-gun members who said they want to get their concealed handgun license (CHL) – both to fit in, and to protect themselves against other space members.

In a way, I can understand that.  Our building is open to the public many nights, and open 24/7 to anyone who pays their first $50 of monthly dues. With over 100 members, we’re one of the largest spaces in the nation; so big that some of us may never even meet each other.  Our space is also in a warehouse district, and I suppose if you could thwart a robbery with your concealed weapon, that would be a nice bonus.  But obviously, if our members are afraid of one another, we are doing something wrong.

What really unnerves me, though, is that some members seem to think that everyone at the space should have a CHL. I’ve heard it suggested that members who don’t like guns should take a mandatory gun class.  Our president personally asked me to attend a class on the AR-15, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that I’ve made it pretty clear I have no interest in that hobby whatsoever. I’ve even had one of our particularly uncivil members tell me that if he had his way, only the gun owners would have a voice in our organization.  This is a problem, and not just because I’m being pressured to do something I don’t want to, sometimes in insulting ways.  It’s a problem because I should not have a gun.

I have depression.  It’s undiagnosed (because I’m too poor to afford a diagnosis) and treated only with the best self-care I can muster.  At this time, I am proud to say that I’m a fairly happy depressed person.  I haven’t had a major incident in over a year or so.  By the standards of my brain, that’s pretty excellent.  Even given that, I stay away from guns, because they might, in a moment of pain, offer a clear path to fatal self-harm.  Naturally, I don’t want to be part of a social group that constantly tempts me to go down that road.

This is the thing that gets lost in all our debates about gun control.  We talk ceaselessly about how things would play out in a confrontation, about robberies, about home invasions.  What we neglect to acknowledge is that of all U.S. gun fatalities, 57 percent are suicides, including half of the mass shootings that spur on our perennial discussions about the role of guns in our society.  This means that gun users are more likely to take their own lives than the life of another person.*  This is the cold, heavy truth in the pit of this issue: that no matter how we deal with interpersonal confrontations, guns cannot fix this.  More CHLs cannot fix this.  Safe laws cannot fix this.  Teaching children to shoot definitely cannot fix this.

I live in Coppell, Texas – a tiny, affluent suburb where you’re more likely to get busted for pot than threatened with a weapon.**  This incident happened a quarter mile from my home: the mayor of the city killed her 19-year-old daughter, and then herself.  She was under financial stress after the loss of her husband to cancer years before.  She had borrowed the weapon from another mayor, telling him she wanted it to use for her CHL class.  She didn’t have to go through a waiting period, or a background check; she didn’t even need to use the gun show loophole.  He insisted on teaching her to use it first.

I’m willing to bet that in our hackerspace, a self-selected community of geeks, we have an incidence of depression that’s higher than the general population.  But even if it wasn’t, introducing pressure to own a gun into an unrelated interest group isn’t responsible or prudent.  We know better than that – or at least, we should.

The last time we talked about this in a meeting, all that happened was the pro-gun president saying, “Show of hands; who has a problem with us having weapons here?”  This time I’m hopeful for a less intimidating approach that lets everyone have their say, and leaves us all feeling comfortable in the space we joined.

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* In fact, FAR more likely, because unlike homicides, the shooter-to-victim ratio in a suicide is always 1:1.

** Based on my recollection from reading the police report for many years, in any given week I see one to six marijuana arrests, and I see a weapons related offense every two to four months.

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