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Jane Ahlin, Published December 22 2012

Ahlin: Irrational fear prevents us from acting rationally

The adult church choir sits in the east transept of our church’s chancel area facing west. That’s why we noticed an oddly dressed man when he entered the sanctuary through the doors to the west transept.

We were well into the service – actually, the minister had begun the sermon – when he entered. As if on cue, he came in while the minister was talking about the importance of a “welcoming” church. For a moment, I wondered whether the minister had orchestrated a dramatic illustration to underscore that point. (Note: Such drama is far, far removed from Presbyterian norm.) If that had been the case – which it wasn’t – the man would have qualified as an over-the-top example. He came through the door wearing an olive green coat with the hood up. Underneath the hood, his head was covered by a black, full-face ski mask. He was carrying a few shopping bags and a padded case that looked as if it could hold camera equipment (or a gun?). When he sat down, he put the bags at his feet.

Those of us in the choir – who could not avoid looking at the fellow – found ourselves decidedly uneasy. As seconds and minutes ticked by, the soprano to my right took a pencil out of her choir folder, nudged me, and wrote on her bulletin, “What’s with the mask and hood?”

I whispered, “I’ve been wondering the same thing.”

The sermon ended, and at some point between that and the conclusion of the service, the man picked up his bags and walked out.

Later that week, when we learned of the horror at the Newtown, Conn., elementary school, I remembered the unusual-looking church visitor and considered that our unease was understandable. It just wasn’t sensible. What was sensible was that a homeless man dressed for cold weather had come into a downtown church on Sunday morning, listened to a bit of the service, and gone on his way. (Perhaps we are a “welcoming” church.)

It occurred to me that we Americans are stuck in a bad place. Not only are we overly fearful about guns, particularly lone gunmen, but we also see ourselves as helpless. Perhaps comedian John Oliver put it best when he said, “One failed attempt at a shoe bomb and we all take off our shoes at the airport. Thirty-one school shootings since Columbine and no change in our regulations of guns.”

We need effective gun regulation. The notion that regulation will end gun ownership or provide a way for the government to “take away our guns” is bizarrely paranoid. Gun regulation is a public safety issue, not a constitutional outrage. Responsible gun owners understand that.

If the shocking nature of the Newtown killings has provided a moment of clarity, consider three Minnesota violent gun incidents since Thanksgiving, stories we’ve become sadly indifferent toward – stories that are happening across the nation way too often. There’s the Rochester grandfather who keeps a gun by his bed and woke up hearing an intruder. He did not hesitate to shoot the figure he saw through the patio door. Unfortunately, the “intruder” was his granddaughter, who lives there. Then there’s the 4-year-old Minneapolis boy who shot and killed his 2-year-old brother when he found a gun his parents probably bought to protect the family. And we don’t want to forget the Little Falls man who wasn’t satisfied to catch thieves who’d stolen from him before. He thought he had the right to blow them away, and that’s what he did.

In 2010, there were 11,078 gun homicides and 19,392 gun suicides in the U.S. Within a few years, gun violence is expected to take more lives than car accidents. Yes, violent entertainment and mental illness figure into the problem. But death rates will only worsen unless we apply common sense to guns.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.