RocknRolla via bikerock, on FlickR

The Safety Is Off

Four days ago I witnessed a drive-by shooting. This may seem like a common occurrence in a city like Detroit or Baltimore or Chicago or Los Angeles, but this was in Portland. Oregon. City of Hipsters, City of (dare I say it?) the Dream of the Nineties, where everybody knows your name and micro-brew flows freely from the eternally bubbling drinking fountains.

My boyfriend and I left our apartment on a Sunday evening and hopped in the car to make the short trip to a brewpub for dinner. We live in North Portland—the “fifth quadrant”—an area that has historically been a hub for crime and low-income housing. Certain areas have already gentrified and others are well on their way, ours included. But frankly, I don’t feel unsafe. Portland’s worst neighborhoods look like Pleasantville compared to the bad neighborhoods of other cities. And when it comes to Portland, I’d rather deal with being yelled at for being a “faggot” who doesn’t belong walking around NoPo than roaming by myself around the “Felony Flats” of the city’s eastern fringes littered with meth-heads and heroin junkies.

We pulled up to a traffic signal five blocks from the apartment and adjacent to a growing community college campus, and that’s where we saw it—a hand extended out a tinted window shooting a handgun. The target? A group of five or six teenagers loitering in a convenience store parking lot.


Five or six kids in the lot. Five or six gunshots from the car.

The light went green, the shooters tore off, and with a rush of adrenaline I pulled over to the curb, taking note of the make, model, and color of the car and trying to get a plate number. We watched as the group in the lot scrambled into a car once the coast was clear to take their hobbling friend—shot in the leg—to the hospital. And then we waited. 911 calls were already overloaded and within two minutes 20 squad cars ripped in from the North Precinct a mile away and they swiftly cordoned off the busy intersection with yellow tape.

Once witness statements and car descriptions were given, we abandoned our immediate dinner plans and got the hell out of there, driving somewhat aimlessly away from the neighborhood and talking through what just happened. Fight or flight kicked in, and we chose flight.

It suddenly became clear to me how my instincts to get out of Dodge could easily lead into a shift of opinion about the neighborhood, my safety, or minority communities. I came a little bit closer to understanding how irrational fears and freak experiences can develop into bigotry and hatred. But I took comfort in the fact that we were not targets, nor was this a common occurrence compared to bigger cities with bigger problems.

Ironic as it may be, we ended up heading into one of Portland’s trendier neighborhoods once the pangs of hunger settled back in. I didn’t think I’d ever be so happy to be surrounded by mopey, apathetic hipsters.

Incidentally, we’re moving in a few weeks after buying our first home in a sleepier part of the red-headed step-child suburb of Portland—Vancouver (Washington, not BC). “Jumping the river” is frowned upon among the cool kids, but we’re pleased as punch to have found a home in our price range that will also save heavily on business and income taxes (and hey, now we can get gay married there, too, if we want to).

After watching a drive-by shooting 100 feet in front of me, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’d feel safer on a secluded dead-end street lined by 3- and 4-bedroom ranch homes. But the truth is, it can happen to anyone. It can happen anywhere.

The truth is, gun violence is happening to anyone, anywhere.

When it comes to political involvement, I’m admittedly something of a sponge. My boyfriend of nearly six years is the one who recognizes legislators’ faces and can rattle off their constituent states 80% of the time (all while providing uncanny impersonations of those most colorful personalities). He’s the one watching the pundits every evening and keeping up on the days’ legislative events. He’s a man of passion with a strong sense of justice, and he cares deeply about the governmental system and the people that represent us as citizens—those who directly affect our daily lives.

It was his idea to attend a luncheon fundraiser for President Obama’s re-election (my first-ever campaign contribution). It was with him that I first celebrated an inauguration, and I have been by his side as we’ve watched two presidential elections unfold. In truth, I’ve learned more about the political system in the last five years than in my entire life combined and I thank him for that. I’m proud to say that we put our votes where our mouths are and encourage our friends to do the same.

Last night I unknowingly returned home from a late meeting with terrible timing—Justin had just watched a recap of the President’s remarks from earlier that day on the White House lawn and he was livid. I’ve seen him worked up before, but this was the first time I’d heard so much ire, frustration, despair, and sadness in his voice.The bipartisan compromise on gun sale background checks was voted down.

I grew up in a pretty conservative, religious family, and I admit to being a registered Republican until 2005. When I was a teenager, my father purchased two shotguns (one 12- and one 16-gauge) and a .22 rifle for skeet and trap shooting. We were never into hunting, but I fondly recall driving up to an abandoned quarry in the mountains with my family or with our Boy Scout Troop and being taught how to shoot.

The importance of gun safety and responsibility couldn’t have been stressed enough, and I thank my dad for being patient and willing to teach me how to properly hold a shotgun, aim it down range, and fire it. My fear of these powerful, deadly weapons was slowly overcome as one by one I shot down gray and neon orange clay pigeons slung from a spring-loaded launcher. Guns became a thing of reverence and respect, and they were always stored away with trigger locks, in padlocked carrying bags, and in a locked gun safe in the garage. Off limits and only with Dad’s permission.

But even as my political participation and awareness increased once voting age came around, gun rights were never in the forefront of my mind. I recall having specific thoughts about abortion, immigration, and taxes, but never anything about my supposedly god-given right to bear arms. It was as if the notion of gun ownership was itself locked away tightly in a safe in my parents’ garage.

I couldn’t sleep last night—a rare problem for me—and as I lie awake in bed trying desperately to doze off, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I felt about Congress and its inadequacies. I couldn’t stop thinking about Gabby Giffords and the parents of Newtown victims and a visibly irate President. I couldn’t stop thinking about the kid around the corner who was shot in the leg. The witnesses to the tragedies are always the most vocal, the biggest proponents of change. Had seeing a shooting in person kicked my own feelings into gear enough to do something about it? More importatnly, how many more people need to witness gun violence before our country will actually act on it?

Three days prior to the tragic massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, in which 26 children and teachers were killed, a shooter opened fire in a shopping mall in a Portland suburb, killing two and injuring one other before taking his own life. The loss of the local event may pale in comparison, but it felt more real because we had just been there shopping for Christmas gifts the weekend before.

When I was a teenager, I remember the shock and panic that ripped through school districts across the country as Kip Kinkel killed his parents and then shot up his high school in Springfield, Oregon, killing two and injuring 25. The following year, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 12 and injured 21 at Columbine High School in Colorado.

12 dead, 58 wounded at a theater in Aurora, Colorado.

6 dead, 8 wounded at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

6 dead, 13 wounded at a Safeway in Tucson, Arizona.

32 dead, 17 wounded at Virginia Tech University.

29 current and former students of Chicago’s Harper High School were shot over the course of a single year.

This is just a sampling of the most widely reported gun violence in recent years. I can’t even begin to fathom all of the individuals that have been shot and/or killed by guns in this country.

Nor can I fathom why our legislature cannot accomplish anything to restrict the availability of firearms in our country. No “A+” rating is worth the climbing death and injury toll. No lobbyist group should have the power to say that our friends, our neighbors, our relatives, our kids can continue to be sacrificed over the altar of a right that the Supreme Court has already determined “is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”

91% of Americans supported the background checks amendment. Only 54% of our elected senators—those put into office to represent the views of the American people—voted for it. The answer is not adding more guns to the mix. The answer is not arming our schools. Irrational fear has set in—a fear begotten of money, power, and influence. A fear falsely instilled by people who think they should call the shots, and that those shots should be open, accessible, and freely exploitable. Something is terribly, horribly, explicitly, tragically wrong here. This has to stop—and we have to fix it.

Mark my words: if we cannot make our communities safer with the Congress we have now, we will use every means available to make sure we have a different Congress, one that puts communities’ interests ahead of the gun lobby’s. —Gabrielle Giffords

Let’s put an end to this. Speak up, speak out. Fight for faster, common-sense progress on background checks, on ammunition clip limits, on mental health services. We’re better than this. Let’s do something we can be proud of.

Image via BikeRock on Flickr

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