It took me weeks after the Buffalo shooting, a week after Uvalde to make the connection—once upon a time, I sold guns. I am a part of all this, too.
I’ve known for a while that my temporary occupation wasn’t right livelihood—the spoke of the eightfold path that instructs us not to make a living at the harm of others. But this realization that I was a complicit cog in a machine took my breath away. I usually experience the feeling of interconnection in positive ways—my neighbors in Leipzig, Germany mobilizing to send supplies to Ukraine in the early days of Russia’s invasion, teens marching in the street for Fridays for Future. A pay-it-forward chain at the interstate toll booth, or Starbucks drive-through, on Christmas, New Years Day, or just because.
In the days since Buffalo I’ve wondered about the tipping point that led to an 18-year-old adopting extreme white supremacist views and intentionally opening fire at a supermarket in one of the Blackest zip codes in New York State. I look at my 3-year-old son’s sweet face and see the similar features in the 19 kids killed at school in Texas. I feel sad, and also relieved, that we are so far away, that the schools and grocery stores are safer here; guilty for having the option to live in a country where gun ownership is highly regulated and mass killings are few. Never once, until that moment of insight, did I think of my actions while working at a Florida pawn shop more than a decade ago as being part of the massive, totally fucked up system that allows Americans to quickly and easily purchase guns.
I did all sorts of things at that shop in 2011—Windexed the glass case, issued short-term cash loans in exchange for some item of value. The shop also sold guns and handled transfers, serving as a middleman between a seller and buyer. I am a pretty terrible salesperson, and no one seemed to take me seriously when agreeing on the price of the pawn transaction, so I spent a lot of time on the phone in the back, making background check calls to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. I’d call the hotline, and give the dispatcher the gun buyer’s name, address, social security number. They’d put me on hold, music was played, and a decision was made. Sometimes the hold was extra long, the screechy hold music on a loop—which usually meant there was either an error in the person’s information or some kind of problem, like a conviction, that would prohibit us from selling them a gun. Rejected buyers could expect a written decision in the mail; if approved, you waited three business days, and came back to pick up your gun. (There is no waiting period if you have a concealed carry permit.) I also got the guns ready to ship, covering them in bubble wrap, taping the box shut, and driving them to the post office.
My pawn shop stint made for a good cocktail party story. I was in grad school, I reasoned. I needed to make money to live so I could take out less in student loans. I worked for a business run by a family of good people. Around this time, I was assisting a professor teaching a media ethics class, which usually included a nod to Immanuel Kant, whose take on morality I always remember as “do your duty.” Do the job you were hired to do. Call the background check line. Pick up Greek salads from that place on Park Boulevard, get a round of coffee and sweet teas at the McDonalds around the corner.
I didn’t think of any of this–where the guns went, who bought the guns, who the gun was sold to after it was sold again–when Sandy Hook happened a year after I had graduated and moved to rural Hernando County. I was working my dream job at a newspaper, covering police and courts. One time, I accepted an invitation from a local gun dealer to go shoot at the range. (I think this was an attempt on his part for me to “see the other side”). I remember shooting at a target, going home and taping it to the front door of my little house, surrounded by five acres of woods. I was a good-ish shot, and enjoyed the experience.
By the Parkland school shooting in 2018, my gun-slinging days were long gone.
Virginia Tech happened when I was in college, studying abroad in India, but everything was in place for me to be a future sort-of gun seller, wasn’t it? Same goes for Columbine, which happened a few months before I started high school.
The Buddhist teachings on dependent arising, or interconnection, are often wrongly romanticized and condensed as “we are all one.” We’re not, writes Thanissaro Bhikkhu, an American Buddhist monk in the Thai Forest tradition and abbot of Metta Forest Monastery in California; in a 2016 article, he cites several passages, concluding that “the Buddha wanted to avoid the view that everything is a Oneness because it doesn’t put an end to suffering, because seeing all things as One gets in the way of awakening, and because the idea of Oneness simply doesn’t square with the way things actually are.”
When I think back on that year or so and start to do the math, I am devastated. Even if the shop sold one gun a day, that is a lot of guns. Revolvers usually hold six bullets; rifles can hold dozens, extended magazines can be loaded with something like 100. When these guns were loaded and fired, where did the bullets land? Guns are a durable good–even if they were purchased legally, they could have been resold somewhere in a parking lot, man-to-man, no background check required (legal) or at a gun show without the standard waiting period (which was legal in Florida until 2018).
On the afternoon of this insight, I imagine bullets whizzing every which way. The bullets aren’t doing anything in this image, just scattering, like seeds from a dandelion might, before taking root and sprouting and growing again. Some of these “bullets” fly all the way to Europe, where I am, landing in the form of that loud pop when our train, parked at a station on the morning of the Buffalo shooting, was uncoupled. Another landed last week, when my son and I were sitting at the train station, just for fun, enjoying a coffee and a snack and watching trains and people and pigeons come and go when I panic, my pupils widening, eyes darting, brain thinking about all the horrible things that could happen as I sip my cold brew and he gobbles down his pretzel.
Even if every bullet that came out of every gun that passed through my hands was used in target practice, and never harmed anyone, how can I be sure that POP! didn’t sow fear in a mother out with her child, an officer on patrol, a person of color in the street whose life is far more likely to be affected by gun violence than my own.
I have no idea how well this “confession” might be received. Back when I was selling guns and getting a master’s degree, I also learned from Prof. Deni Elliott, an ethicist who writes extensively, that ethics isn’t something fixed, but something that you do. So, back in my pawn shop days, I didn’t yet have the Buddhist framework of right livelihood. Now that I do, though I feel guilt, and shame, and other strong emotions about my job at the time, I can adjust what I do for work accordingly.
I also feel that, particularly in America, we are predestined by political leanings, and Buddhists are definitely not exempt from categorizing people as right, left, Democrat, Republican, and so on. It’s all complicated. And maybe sharing where I’ve been and what I’ve done will serve as a reminder that views can change. May all beings benefit.
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