As a summer intern years ago at the Tennessean newspaper in Nashville, I liked hanging around the reporters on the police beat. The stories of crime were a mixture of Raymond Carver and Damon Runyon; night court was theatre. The reporters and their sources, the police and prosecutors would all drink together when they weren’t feuding, and the stories were dark and funny. One of my favorites concerned an incident in a bar downtown where a reporter had been drinking and a fight broke out. Someone was shot in front of many witnesses, and the reporter, shifting from patron to professional, asked the shooter, gun still in hand, why he’d done it. “I told him not to change the channel”, he said, waving at the victim, bleeding on the floor. The story made me laugh every time. It made funny the fear that life can be very cheap and violence, as the Rolling Stones sang, “just a shout away.”
The police beat is not a requirement to understanding the darker corners of human nature, but it’s not a bad introduction. It reinforced the common truth that people too often behave in violent and self-destructive ways: the wife-beater, the road-rager, the drunken brawler. The courts are full of them every night and day.
When I was a young intern reporter, I didn’t see any conflict between thinking that drunks shouldn’t carry guns and my NRA beginner marksman patches, earned at summer camp just a few years before. We’ve come a long way from that innocence. Just this weekend were stories about a man exercising his Second Amendment right to carry a weapon in public, thereby scaring a park full of kids; Sarah Palin telling the NRA that she would “baptize terrorists” by waterboarding them, and the New York Times reporting that the gun lobby opposes efforts to make guns safer through technology that would prevent accidents. This is one way to tame man’s violent side; fight it with more violence and hatred. But it seems as futile as the act of the man who shot another because he didn’t like his choice of television and just as likely to end in bloodshed.