When I read the news about Ahmaud Arbery being shot dead while jogging on a street in Georgia, it reminded me of my childhood in Belfast during the Troubles, and of a sad lesson I learned there: a gun is something used to kill; it has no other meaning.
At the breakfast table we would listen to news of a “gunman” who had killed someone with a pistol bullet to the head; or walked into a bar with a submachine gun and killed several people at once; or took up a sniper rifle and killed from afar. Shootings were commonplace, and happened without warning.
On the gable ends of houses, painted murals of gunmen would glare at us as we walked to school. The murals would tell us that these men were “freedom fighters”, but even a child could see through that lie. They were killers, and you had better watch your back.
The bravest of killers would use a knife, as they did on the teenager Thomas Devlin, who was brutally stabbed to death as he walked down a street near my house. The most cowardly used a bomb, a timer letting them escape to safety. Sometimes they called in codewords and victims were saved. Sometimes they didn't and dozens died.
Sometimes the killers wore police or army uniforms. Sometimes the bullets were made of plastic. There was no one to protect you, only people to avenge you.
I was always too soft, and never figured out how to harden my heart. As soon as I turned 18, I fled the North and moved to Dublin, always looking back
In the school playground it was common to threaten one another with violence, but everyone kept track of who was connected to whom – who would beat you in the street with their cousins, and who might call in the killers. The knifemen. The gunmen. The bombers. Or the men who would take you to an alley and shoot you in the back of the knees, crippling you for life.
One time a car screeched to a halt beside me, but I was too quick, and had learned my Belfast lessons well. I was halfway up the street and over a hedge before the door stopped swinging.
Others weren’t so lucky, like my friend Eamonn, who was hit with a hammer while walking to school. Or another friend who was gunned down in his living room as he packed weed into pouches to sell.
To cope with violence, some people dressed it up in flags, others, in inevitability. Human beings were reduced to animals for slaughter on the altar of a “cause”, or perhaps the cycle of violence was “just the way things are here”. Head down, plough on. Flags are painted on to the street, so you know where you are, hung from house to house, tattooed on arms, and burned deeper than the skin.
I was always too soft, and never figured out how to harden my heart. And my dad brought me up with one strict rule about politics: “You can’t eat flags”. A wise man. As soon as I turned 18, I fled the North and moved to Dublin, always looking back.
I think about Belfast all the time now, as I live in the US. I moved here partly to escape the gunmen, and the knifemen, and the bombers, and the flags. (Dublin wasn’t far enough, perhaps.)
Most days, though, it doesn’t feel like I’ve escaped at all. In fact, with the ready availability of guns here, sometimes it feels much worse.
If you make these men feel scared, or angry, then they can kill you
In the US now, the gunmen don’t just kill at night. They are shameless with their murders. They kill at all times of the day, and in all places. They dress like commandos and kill in schools. They dress in their work clothes and kill their colleagues. They dress in gang colours and kill in the streets. Sometimes, the gunmen are just children. Sometimes the gunmen wear uniforms. And if you aren’t white, God help you.
Many people hunt here for sport, and I have come to respect them deeply. They stalk prey for hours, covered in grime to hide their human smell. They eat what they kill, and they do not lie about what they are. They know what a gun is.
But there are others who pretend that the gun isn’t a gun. It is a symbol of freedom. A symbol of justice. A talisman of strength and power. No one is going to trample them, no sir. They have guns in their warm living hands and they are going to use it to fight “tyranny”. You see them in Walmart. You see them in restaurants. You see them squeezed into military gear protesting in government buildings. They stand in the street outside rallies with flags sewn into their jackets. These men are the most dangerous because they believe themselves to be heroes.
But they are not heroes. And a gun is still a gun. And if you make these men feel scared, or angry, then they can kill you. And, in the US, unarmed black men seem to be very good at making other men feel scared, despite their guns.
Trayvon Martin was unarmed, and he was shot by George Zimmerman, who was acquitted of all charges. Ahmaud Arbery was unarmed; after a long delay, the three white men accused of killing him have been indicted on murder charges.
A trigger is pulled and someone dies. And across the nation people howl for justice, or wrap themselves in flags and turn away, just like home.
A gun is something that is used to kill. It has no other meaning.