Poetry and Literature

This poem was part of the June 28th Remembrance Program at Maryland Hall

In the rising of the sun and in it’s going down

We remember them

In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter

We remember them

In the opening of buds and in the rebirth of spring

We remember them

In the blueness of the sky and in the warm of summer

We remember them

In the rustling of leaves and in the beauty of autumn

We remember them

In the beginning of the year and when it ends

We remember them

When we are weary and in need of strength

We remember them

When we are lost and sick at heart

We remember them

When we have joys we yearn to share

We remember them

So long as we live, they too will live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them

Remarks at Annapolis Safe Cities Summit

June 27, 2019

By Peter Manseau

Thank you Mayor Buckley for inviting me to be here today. It’s an honor to be part of this conversation about how to make our cities safe, and to remember the brave journalists of the Capital.

The shooting at the Capital offices was personal to me. Like most writers and artists living in Annapolis, I was often in touch with Wendi Winters. I’d send her a note whenever I had a new book out, or was part of an event I hoped to publicize, or just to let her know about things I thought she might be interested in. As anyone who knew her could tell you, she was interested in quite a lot.

Wendi always responded to my out of the blue emails, and featured me and my family’s various projects in her column more than once. Many others in town could say the same. She offered us all the opportunity to see our local activities appear in print alongside the news of the world.

She was a perfect representation of what a newspaper means to a city like Annapolis. A free and independent press is the best friend a free and independent people can have.  

Which was why Wendi’s death along with Rebecca Smith, Rob Hiaasen, Gerald Fischman and John McNamara a year ago tomorrow was such a loss. It was a loss not only to the community, but also it felt like a loss of that community itself. Wendi was one of the ties that bound us all together.

As we continue to work at repairing those bonds, it’s not only appropriate but necessary to look for ways to understand and combat the kind of the senseless violence that ended her life.

One way we must do so which we don’t do enough is to consider that our current dilemma concerning the place of guns in our culture is part of a long history that is far more complex than we usual suppose.

It’s a history that dates back before the founding of this country, and it’s bound up in stories we tell about all that guns have helped accomplished.
From an early age we’re taught that guns tamed a wilderness. Guns won the nation’s independence. Guns opened the west. Yet, forgotten in this well known mythology, there are stories that paint a very different picture of what guns have meant in this country.

Those are the kinds of stories I’ve collected in my book Melancholy Accidents. I’ll tell a few of the today

But first, a word about how I found them.

I am not a historian of firearms, or of the military, or law enforcement – or any of the other subjects that might lend itself to interest in the history of guns.
I am actually a historian of religion. I am the Curator of American Religious History at the Smithsonian,  where my job is to create programs and exhibitions about belief in all its variety in the US.

Yet as I’ve come to discover, guns and faith are often entwined in narratives of the nation’s history, and not always in ways we might expect.

A few years ago, I was researching a book on the influence of minority religious traditions in the America [a book called One Nation Under Gods (2015), which Wendi was kind enough to write about]. I spent my days combing through newspaper archives looking for 18th and 19th century mentions of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and other communities that have been part of American religion from the beginning.

As I scrolled through the long-ago headlines a certain type of story I found in many newspapers began to catch my eye.

Stories like this from the Boston Evening-Post, 9/19/1774:

A melancholy accident happened at Roxbury on Monday last, two young men diverting themselves with the military Exercise, when one of them gave the Word of Command to Fire! the other instantly discharged his piece, not knowing it was loaded, and the ball entered the head of his Companion, Mr. Henry Wilson, 22, & killed him on the spot.

Or this one fro The Pennsylvania Packet 4/25/1789:

A melancholy accident happened on Monday last at White’s Hotel; a sea-faring lad, who had been in the house a few weeks, was in the kitchen with the servant-girl, where a musket had lain for several months, and no person, from its being so foul and rusty, ever knew that it was loaded; the boy, in exercising the gun, placed it close to the girl’s head, when it immediately went off; the contents of which were lodged in the poor creature’s head; she instantly expired.

Or this one, from The American, New York, 7/8/1831

Melancholy Accident: As Nathaniel Ellicott was in the act of cocking and raising a gun, it unexpectedly discharged its load, the butt end giving him a violent blow in the bowels. The gun had been heavily loaded, with nearly double the usual proportion of shot, for the purpose of shooting on the wing. Medical assistance was immediately obtained, but proved to no avail. He lived about 24 hours after the accident occurred in extreme suffering.

Reading through thousands of pages of newspapers from the colonial period and the early republic, I was looking for discussions of belief, and frequently found descriptions of mayhem instead.

Those first reports of historical gun mishaps I stumbled upon at random. But something about them so intrigued me I then began to look for more. Once I knew to search for that phrase common to all of them -- “melancholy accident” -- I found similar stories everywhere I looked.

It turns out that inadvertent homicides, unintended suicides and other firearm-induced injuries were so frequent in early America that a regular account of so-called “melancholy accidents” could be found in newspapers across the country throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The stories often took the form of gemlike narratives that captured the damage done by stray bullets in excruciating detail. Here’s one I found that occurred not far from here, on July 26, 1759:

Last Thursday Afternoon near Annapolis, a very melancholy Accident happened… A Number of Gentlemen were firing Guns for  Entertainment. Mr. William Hamilton, Merchant of Prince George’s County, took hold of the Muzzle to shake down a charge, but as he was lifting it up, it went off, and mangled and tore away a great Part of his Belly, so that his Entrails fell out, and he expired in a few Minutes. Another Man was thereby knocked down, but he recovered. Mr. Hamilton was a Gentleman justly esteemed, and his immature Death is much regretted, having left a young Widow near her Time.

Gruesome though they were, such reports were so popular that the tradition of publishing tales of death and dismemberment continued unchanged through the birth of the republic and beyond.

Reading such reports now, their clinical attention to injuries seems torn from the pages of hardboiled detective novels. In the florid style of the day, a gunshot not only kills a man but “puts a period to his existence.” Widows tend to be “disconsolate.” The children of the dead are without fail “numerous.” When one brother kills another during a hunting expedition, it must be noted that they “had always lived in the greatest harmony together.”

Some of the Melancholy Accident Reports are darkly humorous, like a short accident report from 1874 that read  “A Kansas boy earned a nice Bible by committing three hundred verses to memory, and then he traded his Bible for a shot-gun, and accidentally shot his aunt in the leg—a fearful warning to all aunts.”

More often, these reports are devastatingly sad, such as the abundant accounts of parents accidentally killing their children. There’s a very short report from November 2, 1873, in which a man who had unintentionally shot his son to death “slowly pined away from grief and remorse, and died of a broken heart.”

The pain he must have felt is unimaginable, but moreover, it reminds us that the initial shot in every story of a gun death is really only the beginning; it echoes through all the lives around it.

As a public historian I am always looking for moments of the past that might speak to today’s concerns. I might have dismissed these reports as historical curiosities but for the fact that I began noticing them about five years ago, at just the same time that contemporary gun accidents were beginning to get more attention.

While I was collecting hundreds of stories like those I just mentioned from historical newspapers, I was also reading in current papers of a 9 year old girl in Arizona who accidentally killed a shooting instructor while trying a submachine gun at a rifle range.
I read reports showing that in the year following the deaths of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, more than 100 kids the same age had been accidentally shot and killed around the country.

One of the most awful stories came just after Christmas in 2014, when a young woman in Idaho visited a Walmart Supercenter with her two-year-old son. As they made their way through the aisles, the toddler reached into his mother’s purse and drew out a legally concealed 9-millimeter Smith & Wesson handgun. He then fired at his mother from point blank range, killing her instantly.

Because this occurred in a county with 100,000 people and 20,000 concealed carry gun permits, local law enforcement expressed sympathy, but stopped short of questioning the logic of keeping a weapon where a toddler could reach it. As a lieutenant at the sheriff’s office said, “It’s pretty common around here. A lot of people carry loaded guns.”

Comments from the dead woman’s family likewise lent the shooting an air of unavoidability. They lived their lives around weapons, the mother’s loved ones explained. They spent their free time at rifle clubs and on hunting trips, so blasts like those that rang through the Supercenter on a Tuesday morning were not usually cause for alarm; they were heard naturally through their days. As her father-in-law explained, “We are gun people.” For them, guns weren’t tools or sporting equipment or a hobby, they were part of their identity.

Though it was just one of the more than 12,000 gun deaths in America that year, something about this shooting in Idaho cried out for retelling across all media and around the world.

Dozens of news stories throughout the country hit the same sad notes, while the hash tag #IdahoWalmart lit up Facebook and Twitter. Reports in Europe highlighted Idaho state legislation that expanded areas where concealed weapons would be allowed. In Australia, a correspondent ruefully observed, “Normally when they handle a gun, very young children kill themselves or other children.”

What made this story so compelling? Was it its setting, within the national ritual of the post-holiday shopping trip? Or perhaps it was the familiar image at its core: the distracted mother hunting for deals as a curious child digs through her purse. As the New York Times noted in its reporting on the women’s death: “The details are shatteringly ordinary.”

In their ordinariness, the facts of the shooting added up to something haunting: a sudden recognition that guns now move through the American landscape with such ubiquity that even a family stroll through Walmart can end with unimaginable tragedy. 

The story suggested that the question we collectively face is not if the guns all around us will fire, but when. It also revealed something about how we make sense of such sudden eruptions. In every aftermath, we become a nation of bystanders, gathering the information required to calibrate how shocked or saddened we should feel.

Unfortunately, it seems to be less every time.

The hash tag #IdahoWalmart was particularly ripe for spreading through social media, but I knew reports of these kinds of tragic gun mishaps were not a creation of the digital age. They were in fact a continuation of a long American tradition of Melancholy Accidents.

This tradition lives on: Take your phones and Google “accidental shooting”; hit the news tab and you’ll find examples from just the past few days:

In California: San Bernardino Boy, 12, Dies After

Being Accidentally Shot By Twin.

In Florida: Deputy Wounded In Foot During Accidental Shooting

In Texas:  3-year-old boy dies two days after accidentally shooting himself.

In Mississippi: Gun safety questions arise after 11-year-old dies in accidental shooting

In a country of more than 320 million people and even more guns (recent estimates put the number of civilian owned guns as nearly 400 million), a handful of such shootings every day does not amount to much, except of course to those personally involved. Even when they reach into the thousands, as they do most years, unintentional shootings are statistically invisible when viewed against other causes of death.

Yet the stories told of gun accidents echo far beyond each isolated shot. We often tell them as tales of misfortune and warning, recounted either as lamentations on the vagaries of fate, or condemnations of carelessness. No matter the circumstances, we rarely talk about them the way we talk about other accidents, but as fables with lessons to impart.

But perhaps the most fascinating thing about gun accidents might be that they are still news at all.

Guns are designed to do exactly one thing, but we remain shocked when they do it. Their capacity to do what they were made to do is a reliable source of surprise.

Just as the phrase “melancholy accident” usually appears in historical accounts, in current reporting the word most often used to describe the conditions that lead to such mishaps is nearly always the same: "somehow."

Scanning through news items you can read it repeated like a talking point:

In Utah, a man in charge of setting up targets on a shooting range "somehow" received a bullet intended for a bull's-eye.

In Florida, a gun rights advocate was driving with her son when she heard a bang and felt a pain in her back. As one news item said, "The small child was sitting in the vehicle's backseat, right behind his mother, and somehow got his hands on her handgun."

In Michigan, an 11-year-old boy was killed when "somehow he got a hold of a gun and started playing with it."

In Kentucky, the shooting of another boy was described as if there had been no shooter involved: "While at a gathering with several other kids and adults, police say the 8-yr-old was somehow shot."

The list of "somehow" shootings could go on and on. We are, it seems, in the midst of a "somehow" epidemic — and we have been for a long time.

In the past and today, the way we talk about the damage done by guns often gives it an air of the unavoidable. All those “somehows” subtly suggest there is no one responsible, that we are doomed to remain powerless before guns and fate. Like earthquakes or tornados, we too often regard shootings as acts of God which we are hopeless to prevent.

Along with this sense of dark inevitability, the historic accident reports I’ve collected have many other things in common with today’s.

The majority of gun accidents are family affairs. Fathers shoot daughters, mothers shoot sons, husbands shoot wives and, perhaps most frequently, brothers shoot sisters. Accounts of the latter often strike notes of sibling mischief gone awry: younger brothers point rifles at older sisters, looking for a laugh. Then comes the shot and the game is over.

A shadow of abuse lingers over some of these tales; hints that not all accidents are equally accidental. In many cases, the narratives conclude with a sense that the family members of those killed or gravely wounded are left to contend with a grief that cannot be contained by a newspaper’s column inches.

Accident report writers scattered throughout the young United States were also often drawn to the same themes. Many took a remarkably similar interest in trajectory — in the paths travelled by projectiles as they intersected with human lives.

A writer in 1801 described a single shot that passed through a man’s hand, then his wrist, then his shoulder. A writer in 1838 took care to note how a charge entered a boy’s head on the left side “a little in front of the ear,” before passing out the back of his head and continuing on its course.

Seventeen years later, another report described a shot stitching through a crowd like a needle drawing scraps of fabric together: On its way toward the woman it killed, it passed “through the skirts of a young man’s coat standing near,” and then “tore the dress of a lady who was standing behind.”

As tempting as it might be for gun control advocates to view the plague of stray bullets that afflicted our forebears as proof of how little our gun obsessed culture has changed, it’s not that simple. To begin with, as the exploding firearms in many historical accident reports attest, guns themselves are far more safe than they used to be.

The relative safety of modern firearms may now be part of the problem, however. A mother who keeps a gun in her purse as she shops with her children likely does so with the belief that it will be used when and how she chooses.

The improvement of machines designed to kill has not broken the continuity between the past and the present—it has only reinforced it by offering the false security of domesticating objects that will remain always half wild.

Guns play many roles in the American imagination. They have been used to evoke crime, liberty, the frontier, tradition, and most recently stand-your-ground vigilantism. They are so embedded within our culture that it can be difficult to make even the most placid plans without speaking of aiming, or shooting, or hitting a target.

But what if the ways guns are usually spoken of – in politics, in entertainment, in conversation – do not reflect their most durable meaning?

Though to many they are markers of the virtues that make the nation unique, every gun also comes loaded with an alternate history: not heroic self-reliance, but hapless tragedy.

One of the reasons widespread agreement on guns seems highly unlikely any time soon is that they simply mean very different things to roughly equal portions of the population. After every mass shooting two things seem to happen: a clamor rises for stricter gun control laws, and gun purchases spike.

The interesting thing is that each of these reactions is born of the same desire to feel more safe.

Advocates for increased gun control believe laws will protect them. Gun rights activists believe they must protect themselves. I can’t help but think both these beliefs are delusions-- the former because machines designed to kill are part of our culture in a way that can’t be undone; the latter because despite claims that lives would’ve been saved if bullets had been flying in the other direction in Paris or San Bernardino or Pittsburg or Charleston, more guns firing usually means more death, not less.

If the gun debate is unable to change, it may be because for both sides it’s perceived to be about maintaining some sense of control over a world that seems ever more dangerous. For both sides, it is ultimately a matter of belief about what that means.

I collected these stories because they struck me as an untold part of our history, rather than with any specific political agenda in mind. Yet their overall significance is as a vivid reminder that, despite our mythology, guns have more often played a tragic role in individual American lives than a heroic one.

As I mentioned, I began to collect gun accident reports while researching religion in America, so the two are inevitably connected for me. But they are more broadly connected as well.

We can hear this in one of the most common responses to mass shootings today: In the immediate aftermath of such events many public figures are quick to suggest they not be politicized while offering “thoughts and prayers.”

What I’d like to suggest today is that if more thought was given to guns maybe we would need fewer prayers in the aftermath of their use.

If more thought was given to our fraught history of keeping deadly objects so close at hand, maybe we would need fewer prayers for those we’ve lost.  

If more thought was given to where guns belong and where they don’t, maybe we would need to send fewer prayers to families who live with the consequences of guns ending up in the wrong hands.

Thoughts and prayers are not a bad place to start, but both are meaningless unless they are followed by a willingness to learn from our history. To learn from our mistakes. To learn from our tragedies. And to act on the lessons each has to offer.