Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Contrasting Expressions Behind Two Views of Independence

A contrast caught my eye the morning I began to write this blog post.  I usually write essays several days or even a few weeks before they are posted.

One was this month’s cover story in High Country News, an excellent magazine about issues along the Rocky Mountains westward, where my family’s genes now go back eight generations.

Written by a progressive, it explores both sides of the great gun debate from the perspective of gun-lovers and gun-nuts on both sides. The author also provides industry statistics showing that the “gun culture is dying.”

I’m a political Independent.  I grew up with guns and I own a couple of old rifles and a German WWII pistol, all family heirlooms, but I fall on the “more sensible background check” side of that debate.

One disturbing quote attributed in the article is that “a liberal who happens to like guns is still an enemy.”  I assume that is meant to cover Independents too, but it provides insight into extremists.

Some of the best research on gun owners is found in surveys by the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

It shows that “more and more guns [including assault weapons where are classified as “modern shooting rifles” or MSRs] are being purchased, but they’re being sold to the same shrinking group of middle-aged white men.”

As I was reading this, a Google Alert brought my attention to a letter apparently written by “Joe the Plumber” of the McCain-Palin campaign’s 15-minutes of fame.

Apparently, in light of one of the latest mass murders he gently warned the parents of those who died that “your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights.”

You can’t hold him against westerners.  The closest he has come to being one is working in Ohio to build western-utility Jeep Wranglers like the one I drive and during an Air Force stint in Alaska near where I once lived.

As obnoxious as his statement is, it illustrates that a lack of empathy more than any level of gun control may be the problem behind mass killings, according to research cited by essayist Mark Manson.

It is only one way that gun extremists today are troubling. And part of it may be genetic.

High Country News was founded back in 1970 by Tom Bell, a Wyoming rancher and decorated WWII hero who turned 90 last month.

He was a contemporary rancher of my father, growing up across the Tetons from the one where he and I were born on a spread down the Wind River Range of the Rockies.

This is the setting for northern Wyoming transplant Craig Johnson’s series of “Longmire” mystery novels and the A&E TV series of the same name, although it uses northern New Mexico as a stand-in.

While flying bombers similar to the one in which my dad’s cousin and closest friend Edward was shot down and killed, Bell lost the sight in his right eye.

Coming home to Wyoming he earned a master’s degree in wildlife conservation and game management but always found solace in the wide open spaces his family settled there in 1878.

But by the mid 1960s as I was graduating from high school, Bell began to organize groups to counter the blight occurring throughout the Rocky Mountain West.

One Bell creation, High Country, is still well known today for investigative reporting on various issues.

I guess wannabes such as the Nevada cheapskates along with their assault rife toting posse (sorry, “modern shooting rifles”) would consider Tom an enemy based on that earlier quote.

The difference in these two kinds of westerners occurred to me recently as I read about a purposeful sequel contrived a few weeks later in San Juan County, Utah.

That’s the area that takes in the southeast corner of Utah below Moab and includes parts of Canyon Lands National Park. Think of country similar to the back drop for John Ford westerns or Easy Rider or Forrest Gump for that matter.

Toting those same “modern shooting rifles,” a group with a similar sense of entitlement deliberately drove ATVs down into a canyon where a federal agency ban was protecting fragile Native American archeology.

Not everyone seeking mechanized access across our “commons” is like that, though.

Up in the Yellowstone-Teton nook of Idaho, snowmobilers have been volunteering to carry GPS units as a way to better inform land closures to protect endangered species.

Recent studies find that the difference between Tom Bell and for that matter me, and those deliberately desecrating the public lands in the west, may come down to how we express a dopamine D4 receptor gene we all have, named DRD4.

In variations or mutations from individual to individual, this gene is linked to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dysfunctional “thrill seeking” such as unprotected sex and various addictions such as gambling and alcohol.

University of Michigan researchers from various disciplines including business have now found that people like Tom Bell see the world as interdependent because they have a variation or allele 6 times greater than those who see their independence as trumping any harm their actions bring to others.

In his fascinating new book entitled Inheritance: How Our Genes Change Our Lives – and Our Live Change Our Genes, neurogeneticist Dr. Sharon Moalem describes how our behavior, our experiences and even the food we eat can inform genes differently in people.

It is possible that Tom Bell’s service to his country during a time rampant with fascism, as well as the way he was raised, his field of study and witnessing a desecration by individuals and corporations, might inform his variation of that gene differently.

I share a similar background with the instigator of that recent Utah showdown.  Raised 600 miles apart in the Rocky Mountain west, we both graduated from BYU.

We both descend from the earliest Mormons who settled along the Rockies six or seven generations ago.  In the 1870s, one of my ancestors also created settlements along the Colorado Plateau shared with San Juan County.

A decade or so ago, we each served as presidents of Rotary Clubs in two different parts of the country.  Though we obviously have different interpretations of what’s racist, we both recite the Rotary 4-Way Test, an ethical guide.

The counties where we were raised in Utah and Idaho respectively, are set aside in “commons” for all Americans, his a fourth and mine a third.

We both enjoy the outdoors, mine from astride a Harley with views of the open road and scenic preservation, his tearing off road on an ATV.

So what makes me sign up with Robert Redford while he apparently fancies himself after the Edward Abbey character in his 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang?

Why do I see the federal government as stewards on behalf of the people rather than as a capricious and arbitrary enemy apart while he apparently agrees with the executive director of Gun Owners of America that:

 "The government's out of control, and all three branches are united against the people and the Constitution." 

The difference between us may very well come down to how our experiences have modified or expressed our DRD4 gene, an indicator of a sense of interdependence in some and extreme independence in others.

I’m as stubborn and independent and functionally narcissistic as they come, but in me that gene stops short of the point where my actions might harm other people, a conservative principle forgotten today.

I hate to think that one day some of us on the “interdependence” side will be forced to stand up shoulder to shoulder against those who disrespect public lands and agents just trying to do their job.

And just because I give a damn about others or trust in the law, don’t think for a minute I won’t.  As the article in High Country notes, there are “gun nuts” on both sides of this debate.

Okay, “stand down cowboy.”

Where did you stash the firing mechanism for that old Winchester .32 Saddle-Ring?  Like I said, “gun nuts” on both sides.

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