I never thought gun violence in America would come so close to me

The sickening violence of the synagogue shooting has touched all of us in Pittsburgh

A woman lights a candle at the Star of David memorials at the Tree of Life synagogue  after a mass shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photograph: Jared Wickerham/EPA

A woman lights a candle at the Star of David memorials at the Tree of Life synagogue after a mass shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photograph: Jared Wickerham/EPA

 

Growing up in Northern Ireland, I became familiar with guns seeing British soldiers with rifles at the ready, crouched in ditches or poised at the slit in a checkpoint tower, or occupied in a drill in the field where the helicopter dropped them.

There was the long barrel of the shotgun propped against our kitchen counter when the IRA held my family hostage, one watery night in 1980s Tyrone before the daffodils had fully emerged, and the bags of cartridges they left behind in the bathroom and in my sister’s bedroom.

Guns went in that category in my head labelled “The Troubles”. They were instruments of war and terrorism, not items to be found as raffle items in country fairs, like I see sometimes now in rural Pennsylvania, or displayed in glass-fronted chambers in outdoor equipment superstores just off the Interstate.

I’ve been living in the US for six years now, and am only just beginning to accept that a 12-year-old can handle a .22 for hunting and trapping purposes, thereby have a deeper appreciation of nature than most city kids. Semi-automatics in the hands of anyone are a different story, however.

Of course I knew about gun violence in the US before heading there on a tourist visa in 2010. Michael Moore’s film Bowling for Columbine made a deep impression on me as a young adult, leaving me incredulous and upset and with no desire whatsoever to live in a country that allowed a person to buy guns and ammunition before they could legally drive or be served a pint.

Yet here I am, 16 years after that documentary was made, living in Pittsburgh in the city’s “darkest days”, according to Mayor Bill Peduto. On Saturday, a gunman opened fire at a synagogue in Squirrel Hill, killing 11 people in the deadliest attack targeting Jews in US history.

The killer was not a child but a man in possession of an arsenal far in excess of what might be required for self defence, fed by and feeding a community of anti-Semites on social media, and whose feelings on immigrants are rationalised by the leadership of this country.

Photograph: Cathal McNaughton/Reuters
Photograph: Cathal McNaughton/Reuters

I’m not part of the Tree of Life congregation, nor do I live in the vibrant neighbourhood of Squirrel Hill, but I’m close enough to feel the shock waves and the dread and the deadening feeling that this was inevitable, that in a country with multiple massacres every year, sooner or later one would happen close to me. I’m feeling guilty for feeling lucky, knowing, in this one-degree-of-separation city, that one of the 11 killed might have touched a life that touched mine. The violence has touched all of us, and it is sickening.

A couple of hours after the shooting on Saturday, I walked through silent streets to the local library, to prepare documents for submission to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). I got a letter from immigration a while back to say they need more evidence from me to determine my marriage to a US citizen was in Good Faith. What did my husband and I need in order to respond? Money and contacts and legal advice and friends’ assistance to produce the satisfactory paper trail of a loving relationship.

I hope Homeland Security finds it adequate. If not, and they bring us both in for interview, I won’t feel scared. I’m the right nationality, even if that makes me gag. I’m Irish with a British passport, due for renewal, and good short-term prospects of becoming a US citizen, if I can swallow all that that might entail.

I’ll have to get over my identity crisis if I want to support the brave kids from Parkland, Florida, who stood up to the gun lobby in a way that made me feel hopeful for the first time in years about gun laws here. I will try to do what Pittsburghers must: reflect on the pain inflicted on our Squirrel Hill neighbours and offer them support; speak out against fatally lax gun control; speak out against hate crime; and talk to, and welcome, strangers.

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