Tuesday, June 14

In Memory of B.B. and Others

In the wake of another teenage shooting in the United States, I would like to address a message to friends of Brandenn Bremmer. Not believing that Brandenn had made a single enemy in his short life, this includes everyone. And if the name "Brandenn Bremmer" means nothing to you, please see my original post on this child prodigy and apparent victim of suicide in early March of this year, at the age of 14.
It seems that approximately 10,000 visits to my blog have been made in just over one year of its existence. I have also received hundreds of comments and occasional e-mail correspondence from readers. Recently, I received e-mail from someone claiming to be "a very close friend of Brandenn's." This person, who signed their initial comments as "FriendsofBrandenn," requested by e-mail that I remove my March 28 post on Brandenn an account of the fact that she found it offensive. Although the necessity of the request was questionable to my mind, since, I thought, the person could simply choose not to read the post, I carefully weighed the reasons given for the request. In the end, I found none of them compelling. The person writing to me identified herself, in a final message, as the mother of Brandenn's close friend, and I surmise that her name is Mary Smith.

Although Mary Smith was unable to provide compelling reasons for my removing the fictional letter that constitutes the centerpiece of my March 28 post, I am going to discuss our correspondence here as a contribution to the issue of juvenile gun access laws in the United States.

Despite my informing Mary Smith that I was considering printing our exchange of messages, I cannot, in good faith, reproduce all of her messages word-for-word, since she has announced that she would not like to continue corresponding with me and I have not obtained her permission to reproduce her words in their entirety. I will, therefore, paraphrase the exchange briefly and reproduce only the most telling parts or parts that I wrote.

First, a brief summary: on March 28, I posted a fictional letter, identified as such, whose main purpose was to raise the following questions: why, in reporting the apparent suicide of 14-year-old Brandenn Bremmer, did the AP staff writer Sharon Cohen make no mention of parental responsibility in the matter, if only to ask how and why Brandenn had been given unsupervised access to a loaded weapon? And what does this omission suggest about the reporter's assumptions concerning the reading public? In other words, in the mind of Cohen or those for whom her article was intended, did the fact that a 14-year old was given unsupervised access to a loaded weapon count for nothing when it came to assessing the responsibilities for his death? Raising such questions was, as I said, the main point of the avowedly fictional letter. A second point was to question the reported rationalization for Brandenn's suicide as stated by Brandenn Bremmer's mother and, at other times, paraphrased by Cohen on the basis of the mother's comments. According to this line of rationalization, Brandenn may have killed himself because he was extraordinarily intelligent and because God had assumed a special role in his life on the day of his apparent suicide -- specifically, the role of helping Brandenn accomplish things not possible on Earth. It was implicit, but clear (at least to the readers who responded to the post by leaving comments in the comments box below it or by speaking to me personally), that in amplifying this rationalization by means of a fictional letter, I meant to draw attention to its insufficiency in explaining both the causes and responsibilities surrounding Brandenn's death. Of the former, we may well forever remain in the dark; but when it comes to the issue of responsibilities, much, I am sure, can still be determined. This seemed necessary to point out because, for one, the reporter Cohen did not herself draw attention to the exorbitant nature of the rationalizations, which may, admittedly, have been the fruit of a traumatized mind. Still, the rationalizations returned me to what they appeared to cover up or at least obscure: the role of parental responsibility.

Below is how, in sum, Mary Smith responded to my post. The possibility that, as someone who knew Brandenn well, she may have made these charges in a state of great emotion has not been lost on me; nonetheless, I feel compelled to give at least schematic replies to them (which I will do after each charge is paraphrased):

The message is essentially of two parts. In one half of her message, Mary Smith argues that I should remove the fictional letter because, in it:

1. I criticize someone I do not know personally;

my reply: I do not need to know someone personally to be able to establish a good reason for examining their reported words critically, especially when my criticisms are not ad hominem in nature, as they clearly were not in this case;

2. I criticize Brandenn's mother for not having handled the press well, when it is likely that I myself would not have handled the press perfectly if I had been in the mother's place;

my reply: my comments were not critical of the manner in which the mother handled the press but of the content of her rationalizations and the fact that the mother, as well as the reporter Cohen, omitted to question whether Brandenn's unsupervised access to a loaded weapon was a contributing factor in his apparent suicide;

3. I write with 'tunnel vision' because I am likely from the East Coast and likely do not have children;

my reply: it is strictly irrelevant whether the author of the letter has children or whether the author lives on the East Coast, neither of which conditions, whether they have been met or not, would restrict the significance of the letter in any way or cloud its author's "vision";

4. I base my criticism on an AP report that took the mother's comments "out of context."

my reply: the question of "context" is precisely the question to which the post was most sensitive, since the parents' not restricting or supervising Brandenn's access to a loaded weapon was surely, to my mind, a crucial part of the context out of which the mother's comments were taken; therefore, it is unfair to accuse me of having taken the AP reporter's words for granted -- as if I had assumed that they encapsulated the entire incident and all the relevant issues. Moreover, there is no conceivable "context" that would recast the mother's surmising that "maybe the physical, earthly world didn't offer [Brandenn] enough challenges and he felt it was time to move on and do something great" as a justification for the reporter's not raising the question of the parent's responsibility to supervise the child's access to a loaded weapon. It is unpersuasive to assert or imply that, by showing skepticism toward this rationalization, I had distorted it by omitting certain contextual elements.

So much for the reasons this good friend of Brandenn gave for requesting that I remove the fictional letter posted on March 28.

In the second part of her message, Mary Smith comes to the defense of liberal gun access for children and teenagers. In this, she reveals that she understood that my real purpose in writing the fictional letter was not, as she suggests in the first part of her message, to attack someone ad hominem or to respond uncritically to a single AP report but, rather, to raise a serious issue. I should say that this longer, more developed part of the message left me somewhat confused. If the mother had been offended by the remarks of someone who, to her mind, wrote insensitively about a friend, why also go to such lengths to defend easy gun access? I at first suspected that the author of the messages had only signed their comments as "FriendsofBrandenn" and not signed their e-mail at all so as to operate as a front for the National Rifle Association. Possibly, I thought, I was receiving mail from an NRA member masquerading unscrupulously as an acquaintance of Brandenn. Indeed, it took several days before I was able to put this suspicion to rest when, in a final, brief communication, Mary Smith revealed her identity and the nature of her relationship to Brandenn.

To defend lax gun access laws, Mary Smith provides a rebuttal consisting of three parts:

1. A "regionalist" argument. I provide this section of the message verbatim:
"Here in the Midwest, it is common (and our right as Americans) to have firearms...because hunting is a common tradition/sport, kids learn about hunting/firearms and archery at a young age, hunting with friends and relatives starts at a very young age. Deer hunting in the fall, turkey hunting at Thanksgiving - this tradition can start as early as ages 5 -8 yrs old, and very common from about 10 yrs old and on. No one around here would have considered Brandenn 'too young' to have access to firearms. And NO ONE would have reason to think he shouldn't."
my reply: While it is true that gun access laws vary from state to state, in Nebraska, where Brandenn lived, the laws relating to juvenile gun access are not radically different from those of New York State, where I currently reside. In short, in neither state are gun owners held responsible for leaving guns accessible to kids. In other words, there is "no state requirement that gun owners take responsible steps to prevent children from gaining easy access to their firearms. Gun owners are not held accountable for leaving loaded guns around kids, even if a young child shoots themselves or someone else with a gun left in plain sight" (source). So, in a legal sense, Mary Smith is correct to assert that the parents cannot be held responsible, but this is not a reflection of regional culture. I might put this point differently by noting that the NRA's influence expands far beyond the State lines of Nebraska.

Moreover, no matter how "common" the unsupervised or supervised access to guns among 5-year-old kids in the "Midwest" may be, does the "common" nature of an absurd and dangerous situation make it any less absurd or dangerous? The questions I have raised are not: Should one be permitted to have or not have guns? Does the Constitution allow for having or not having them in general? The question is: should parents be held responsible for supervising their own children's use of guns?

The lax gun laws as they relate to parental responsibilities do not justify what I suspect may well have been a clear case of parental negligence in the death of Brandenn Bremmer; rather, these lenient laws are themselves the problem. The reason I say this does not stem from my currently residing on the "East Coast" or the fact that I have not raised children. It comes from my assessment that letting kids use loaded weapons is at best negligent. It is further supported by my awareness that an increase in juvenile killings and suicides has been linked by the Department of Justice to increasingly lax gun laws.

2. The second part of Mary Smith's rebuttal consists of a "hyperbolic" argument that is developed as follows: Because some teens kill themselves with means other than guns, such as tree limbs and ropes, or household drugs, and because it would be foolish to conclude from this that only bad parents would ever allow their children access to ropes, trees, or medicine cabinets, then it is equally foolish to conclude that parents who give their children free, unsupervised access to guns should be held responsible for doing so in cases where their children use these guns to kill themselves or others.

my reply: This argument is based on the fallacious assumption that there is no difference in danger or power between all objects capable of being used as instruments of self-destruction. Guns -- I think I understand this much about them -- not only are powerful in a physical or mechanical sense but, in the United States especially, enjoy an exalted status as symbols of power, sex, justice, adulthood, manliness, ruggedness, free-spiritedness, frontiersmanship, decisiveness, and -- yes -- freedom. Given this situation, it is not surprising that, in such a society, the more guns one makes available, and the less supervision one insists upon for the children and teenagers who would be tempted to use them, the more killings there are sure to be. That we know this to be so is shown in studies such as the one conducted by the Department of Justice a few years ago, which concluded that "easier access to firearms contributed to a huge rise in the number of U.S. homicides and suicides among juveniles" (source). The opposite tendency is understandably also true: "From 1993 to 1997, the number of juvenile homicides and suicides dropped, according to the study, which credited the decline in part on tighter laws regulating access to firearms" (ibid., my emphasis).

So, in respect of the knowledge that, in whatever region of the United States it occurs, easing children's access to high-powered weapons contributes to a huge rise in juvenile homicides and suicides, my post was meant to draw attention to the lamentable state of affairs in Nebraska, New York, and many other States in which "there are no restrictions on juveniles possessing rifles or shotguns including semiautomatic assault weapons" and in which, when juvenile suicides by gunfire are reported in the press, questions relating to unsupervised juvenile gun access are not even raised, and those who may raise them in their own public forums are accused of being insensitive and asked to retreat into silence.

3. In the final moment of her message, Mary Smith suggests that, instead of concerning myself about gun legislation, I should have done "something actually helpful" like writing about "understanding the complexity of gifted individuals." When I asked her to explain what she understood by that phrase as it relates to Brandenn's death, instead of taking responsibility for the connection she had implied between the two, Mary Smith provided a number of web links to sites that she feels address "the complexity of gifted individuals."

my reply: this suggestion only repeats the tactic which I was critical of in Brandenn's mother's comments. It is surely possible that "the complexity of gifted individuals" -- whatever that phrase is meant to evoke -- played some direct or indirect role in Brandenn's untimely end, but my point is that I am not willing to simply accept that possibility as a fact. Nor am I willing to take this supposed fact as grounds for dismissing out-of-hand all other questions concerning the precise factors that led to Brandenn's apparent suicide.

If I may address my displeased reader frankly: I know it must suck to feel that some long-winded East Coast liberal who probably doesn't even have kids is trying to tell you right from wrong, but please know that I read the newspapers and see the incidents of juvenile suicide and homicide tallied month after month, and the whole thing has made me wonder: What's going on in this country? However much you'd like to believe that Brandenn Bremmer took that gun in his hands in a quiet little corner of Nebraska -- a place with its own rules and customs and that, as such, is radically exceptional to things that take place on the East Coast or in regions where liberals haven't developed a proper fondness for weapons -- the fact is that Brandenn killed himself in a nation where such incidents are common and where laws regulating minors' unsupervised access to guns are uniformly lax. Moreover, these laws are lax not because of some Constitutional right that the framers of that document set down in law so that all the nation's children could take up arms against a potential new wave of British Redcoats, or so that seasonal hunting traditions in the Midwest would go undisturbed, but because the National Rifle Association has long targeted our politicians in Washington with its powerful lobby and thereby assured its friends gun-sale profits at the expense of all social, regional, and safety-related considerations. If the NRA could facilitate the sale of semi-automatic rifles to all the teenagers of this nation, believe me, it would. And no amount of killing of and by our children would ever allay the NRA members' passion for peddling and glorifying weapons. Their short-sighted and self-serving claim will always be: "it's not the guns that kill, it's the shooters."

Let me say, too, that there's a lot that I don't know about Brandenn's particular case. I don't know what kind of weapon he used, what his personal acquaintance with guns was, whether he hunted regularly, or why on that day in March he had private access to a loaded weapon. Here, as in many such reports, all such details -- details over which legislators split the finest of hairs -- have been brushed aside and the whole incident has been boxed up and shipped off for public consumption under the journalistic rubric of "genius mind too genius for its own good, does self in." Given this hasty summation of the event and the lack of information available to the public, it is hard to draw fast conclusions about the nature of the irresponsibilities that likely contributed to Brandenn's death. Still, that fact does not relieve me, as a citizen of this nation, from the responsibility of inquiry and action.

I don't pretend to have all the answers and what I'm suggesting is, I think, fairly modest. When children and teenagers kill themselves with guns, can the circumstances in which the suicides occurred -- the "context," if you will -- be discussed, and the question of parental responsibility not be eluded or buried with the facile and complacent evocation of such things as "God's benevolent influence" or "unpredictable genius"? To go a step further, can the laws of this land lay some measure of responsibility with parents who knowingly or negligently allow their children unsupervised access to powerful means of self-destruction?

In my final substantive reply by e-mail to Mary Smith, I made the following remarks:

[Beginning of copied and slightly modified e-mail message]

Your e-mail has confirmed for me the importance of sharing my views in the way I chose to at my blog and for that I thank you heartily.

The sort of presumptions that I found disturbing in the case of Brandenn Bremmer, as reported by the AP, are equally present in your exchanges with me. They include the presumptions to have fully understood that:

1) the sole factor leading to Brandenn's death was his genius;

(And I ask again: how do you know this to be so?)

2) not an ounce of responsibility for Brandenn's death can be leveled against anyone else, and especially not the parents who, despite all their wonderful qualities (which I do not deny), apparently gave their son unsupervised access to a loaded weapon;

(And I ask you: how do you know that no such responsibilities can be identified?)

3) there is nothing at all unusual about the AP reporter's not raising any question about the boy's having unsupervised access to a loaded weapon;

(And I would ask: why do you presume this to be so? And do you know for a fact that Brandenn was trained properly to use such weapons?)

In addition to sharing these unsubstantiated assumptions, which were the original focus of my piece, you also added, by implication, more presumptuous claims:

4) Brandenn killed himself with a hunting rifle whose sole intended purpose was for hunting fauna or fowl in accordance with time-honored seasonal practices and traditions;

(Do you know that to be a fact, Mrs. Smith?)

5) only people who have children can be sensitive enough not to raise questions of parental responsibility when it comes to the question of parents who allow children to have unsupervised access to lethal weapons;

(It is, I believe, the duty of every citizen to take an interest in preventing needless violence, especially when it is carried out by and against minors.)

6) there is no difference in force or danger between trees and guns, or ropes and guns, and therefore all legislation that would regulate their use and children's access to them should be uniformly lax and indifferent;

(That is a patently absurd argument.)

I am not "insisting" on "leaving that letter" on my site anymore than I am insisting on leaving everything else I have posted there. It is part of my blog and will remain there until someone gives me reason to remove it. Your communication with me these past few days, which I do appreciate, has only confirmed for me the letter's importance, and I do regret that you have not understood the intent of the letter, or have chosen to appear not to have understood it. Surely the questions it raises are questions that, to date, you have given little thought to. Perhaps one day you will be able to see them in a different light.

[End of copied e-mail message]

To wind up this very long post, I note that whereas I speak particularly of Brandenn, someone I did not know personally, I always have in mind the numerous victims of gun-inflicted violence who die before they become adults. We should never lose sight of the following facts:

In the United States, "we loose 928 children and teenagers every year to completed firearm-related suicides. This accounts for more than two young lives lost per day. Of the total 1,890 completed suicides in 2001 for ages 19 and under, 49% were firearm-related. Guns are the method used in 88% of male teen suicides and 12% of female teen suicides." (source)

Given that we are losing so many children and teenagers to firearm-related suicides every year in the United States, I invite all those interested in taking concrete steps to preventing further incidents of the sort in which Brandenn apparently took his own life to take a moment to address concerns over our nation's lax gun access regulations to media representatives and legislators. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence provides all relevant e-mail addresses for this purpose. See, in particular, their action page. Surely, this would be something "actually helpful" when it comes to preventing such violence.