The front porch of a white house.

The home of Andrew Lester, the 84-year-old white homeowner accused of shooting Black teen Ralph Yarl, is shown April 18, 2023 in Kansas City, Moissouri. Yarl mistakenly went to Lester's door to pick up his siblings, according to published reports.

(Photo: Chase Castor/Getty Images)

We Need a National Conversation on Gun Control, at Home and Abroad

Could there be a relationship between Andrew Lester's lethal paranoia and the logic of American militarism?

Can we form a circle big enough to fit 330 million Americans? Do we have enough folding chairs? I don't know, but somehow we've got to launch a national conversation about . . . war, security, guns, fear and, oh God, the global future.

Ultimately we need to pull the whole planet into it—this is, after all, one planet, not 193 separate entities—but a circle of Americans, citizens of the most militarized and, perhaps, fearful nation on Earth, is a good place to start. We have to reach into our collective soul, folks!

"In a small courtroom in Liberty, Mo., Andrew D. Lester, 84, carried a cane as he pleaded not guilty on Wednesday in the shooting of Ralph Yarl, 16, who had come to Mr. Lester's door mistakenly thinking it was the address where his younger siblings were waiting to be picked up. . . .

". . . Mr. Lester, who lived alone, told the police after the shooting that he fired his gun because he saw someone on his front step apparently trying to enter and was 'scared to death' of being physically harmed. . . .(T)he Clay County prosecutor, said that there was a 'racial component' to the shooting but did not elaborate. Mr. Lester is white; Ralph, who was released from the hospital and is now recovering at home, is Black."

Ever since Lester's arrest, two weeks ago, I've thought of him as Grandpa Sam: our new national icon, the face Uncle Sam has morphed into—armed and scared (and racist).

Ever since Lester's arrest, two weeks ago, I've thought of him as Grandpa Sam: our new national icon, the face Uncle Sam has morphed into—armed and scared (and racist). He shot a 16-year-old boy in the head for ringing his doorbell. Perhaps the conversation starts here, but this isn't where it ends. "Lone" individuals act in context. Let's expand our awareness.

Norman Solomon, for instance, writing a year ago, after the horrific mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas (21 killed: 19 students, two teachers), noted that President Biden—are you here, Mr. President?—gave a speech lamenting the need for national gun control. He pushed the president to take a broader perspective:

"But what about 'gun control' at the Pentagon?" Solomon asked.

And now the national conversation starts to get real. Humanity is trapped in a hell of its own creation, and "USA! USA!" is the major global perpetrator of that hell. We have an ever-expanding annual military budget, pushing close to a trillion dollars, and we use it to glorify mass murder.

As Brown University's Costs of War project notes: "Nearly 20 years after the United States' invasion of Afghanistan, the cost of its global war on terror stands at $8 trillion and 900,000 deaths."

And the killing, the financial hemorrhaging, continue. Why? We haven't even "won" any of these insane wars, but that's obviously not the point. Have our drones and missiles, our troops on the ground—have those 900,000 deaths—made anything safer within the national borders? As far as I can tell, the only thing our heavily protected borders do is keep us safe from a sense of responsibility and concern: The dead and displaced beyond those borders are simply collateral damage.

America, America, you know that's not true!

All of which brings the conversation back to Andrew Lester and the other good guys with guns who felt themselves about to be attacked by fellow citizens who mistakenly rang their doorbell, opened the wrong car door, or carelessly let a basketball roll onto their lawn. Could there be a relationship between such lethal paranoia and this analysis of American militarism by Massachusetts Peace Action?

"Perception of risk influences gun ownership, as well as overall desire for self-protection," write Nancy Goldner and Cate Henning. "The U.S. government misrepresents the threat of terrorism to gain support for its militarism abroad by frightening civilians into believing such action is critical for safety. . . .

"The impact of U.S. militarism is limiting access to healthcare for veterans with mental illnesses and suicidal ideation, while simultaneously promoting gun ownership and increasing the fatality of suicide attempts. The effects of U.S. militarism are also worsening domestic gun violence affecting everyday civilians in the United States."

So much more is connected than the mainstream media or our political representatives acknowledge. This national conversation—can everyone hear?—is about finding the path to transcendence. Yeah, we love war and we're better at it than anyone else, at least in terms of the sheer capacity to kill. But war doesn't end, and all of us—so we finally realize—are its victims.

And yes, the urge to fight, the urge to conquer, runs deep in our soul. As Barbara Ehrenreich, writing two decades ago in Blood Rites, pointed out, we were once an incredibly vulnerable species. "The single greatest advance in human evolution," she writes, was "this progress our distant ancestors made from the status of anxious prey to that of unrivaled predator. We were not given dominion over the earth: our forebears earned it."

But "dominion" isn't a simplistic concept. We simultaneously know this and don't know it, don't believe it: Love thy neighbor as thyself! This is our wisdom, but we haven't, at least in a collective sense, found the courage to organize ourselves with such awareness at the core. Instead, we've built and maintained a global social structure that divides itself by fear and hatred, not to mention exploitation. As a result, as Ehrenreich wrote: "War appears to be far more robust than any particular religion, perhaps more robust than religion in general."

Now is the time—now, before it's too late, before we kill ourselves—to reclaim and start valuing our divided, precious planet: to find empowerment not in the ability to kill our neighbor but to love our neighbor, whatever that might mean. I know we have the courage to move forward. That's why we are having this conversation. Please speak! Everyone has the right to be heard.

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