Saturday, May 29, 2021

The #Midwessay: Julija Šukys, Postcard from Missouri: Greetings from Gun Country

Like fellow Midwesterner and incredible essayist Sonya Huber, I loathe the harmful writing advice of “show don’t tell.” Yet, I am also a writer born and raised in the Show Me State. While Missouri is steeped in Southern front-porch storytelling, the Middle West’s characteristic pragmatism, understatement, and complicated* past and present are perpetual in our prose. We want it both ways: to show and to tell, to be Southern and Midwestern. Ultimately, there’s a certain resilience and toughness Missouri essayists must harbor because we can’t assume you, dear reader, share our points of reference or understand why we stay or live in this place, however long. Ultimately, though, describing what others do not know or have the words for makes for wilder, more inventive stories. The Missouri essayists in this project share the very Midwestern joys and terror of what it’s like to be in a state with “no particular place to go.” What constrains and releases us may surprise you.

Missourians: we'd love to have more essays riffing and rumbling on the #Midwessay! Contact me at michaella.thornton at gmail and I'll be happy to include your thoughts and insights in this project.

 —Michaella A. Thornton

* And by “complicated,” I mean openly racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, ableist, xenophobic, and more. We have a lot to unpack and improve on here.

Postcard from Missouri: Greetings from Gun Country

Julija Šukys


Since 2013, I have lived and worked in gun country. Missouri is second only to Mississippi for having the laxest state firearms laws in the country. In Missouri, for example, you need no registration or permit to buy a handgun or long gun. Nor is a permit needed to carry a concealed firearm or to bear one openly. Firearms may be transported and stored in vehicles. No Missouri law requires citizens to inform police officers of the presence of a firearm on one’s person when approached. The state asks for no background checks in private sales, and Missourians may purchase guns legally from age eighteen. I’ve found varying statistics for the state’s ranking according to firearm deaths: 7th and 12th in the country, depending on methodology and sources. As I work through my research materials, both scholarly and journalistic, I find many contradictory claims. I discover a common lament about the lack of research into gun violence. It turns out that it’s not so easy to answer a series of seemingly reasonable questions: Who are Missouri’s gun owners? How does ownership vary by region, gender, and race? Where are Missouri’s guns coming from and what are they being used for? [1] The answer? “No one knows.” [2] Americans have no responses even to basic questions, like exactly how many households in their country own firearms. What, for example, are the odds that the person living next to me or across the street owns one? I have no idea. Yet, as I move through a city where just about anyone is allowed to carry a gun, the answers to such questions have begun to feel urgent. 
     Missouri mothers share tips and scripts, coaching one another on how to get over the awkwardness of asking fellow parents about weapons in their homes. When he was in second or third grade, my son came home from a play date and described how his friend had showed him the crossbow his father used for hunting. From that day, we continued to welcome the friend into our home, but never again did my son step foot in that other house. Though a crossbow is not a firearm, it is certain to maim or kill the child who can’t resist trying its weight and testing its trigger. That child would not be mine, I decided. 
     In 1996, “public health researchers produced a spate of studies suggesting that . . . having a gun in the house increased risk of homicide and suicide” dramatically. [3] Accidents happen with alarming frequency too, because (as with crossbows) unsecured weapons and small, curious hands are a deadly combination. Deeming such homicide and suicide research politically motivated, the National Rifle Association pushed for a federal provision called the Dickey Amendment, which prevented the Centers for Disease Control and later the National Institutes for Health from using public funds to advocate for gun control. [4] According to Mark Rosenberg, then Director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, “the Dickey amendment was a warning . . . . If you do research on guns, we can make your life miserable.” [5] Risk-averse researchers interpreted the prohibition broadly, perhaps more so than necessary. As a result, the country saw develop “an enormous shortage of scholars—a lost generation—who might have committed themselves to studying the particularly challenging and large public health crisis from an early stage in their careers.” [6]
     Gun violence and disputes over who gets to own and carry a firearm have marked my life in Missouri since my arrival here. Shortly before my third semester of teaching at the state’s flagship public university, St. Louis police killed a Black youth, 18-year-old Michael Brown, on the streets of Ferguson. Protests raged in that city located a 90-minute drive east of our campus. Gun sales spiked all over the state in a troubling reaction to the shooting. [7] Soon, as more firearms entered more homes, the Show Me State earned a dubious distinction: Missouri took the nation’s lead in shootings by toddlers. [8]
     A year after Brown’s death, guns took center state again in the state, but this time on the campus where I teach. In late September 2015, a University of Missouri faculty member, Associate Professor of Law Royce Barondes, filed suit against the institution that employs us both. He claimed that the “ban of firearms on university property violated his right to bear arms under the Second and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, the state constitution, and state law.” [9] In his complaint, the law professor asked for a ruling on two issues: first, whether he could leave a firearm locked in his car while parked on campus (University regulations explicitly prohibit this) and second, whether he had the right to carry a concealed firearm as he went about his work on campus. [10]
     I couldn’t understand why anyone who worked at my university (or at any university, for that matter) would advocate for the presence of weapons there. Between 2015 and 2019 the United States saw no fewer than 83 incidents of gunfire on college or university campuses. If we were to include elementary, middle, and high schools in this count, the number would almost triple. [11] In light of these figures, I suspect that, in filing his suit, my law school colleague saw himself, potentially, as the proverbial good guy with a gun. 

On October 1, 2015, about a week after news of the lawsuit reached us, a 26-year-old Umpqua Community College student walked into an introductory writing class. It was a sunny and clear morning in Roseburg, Oregon—a city once known as the Timber Capital of the world. Six guns in his possession, the student began to shoot. The first to fall was Lawrence Levine, an English instructor. In the end, the Umpqua shooter murdered nine people and injured another eight before turning the gun on himself. 
     News of the Umpqua shooting stopped me in my tracks. Just like Larry Levine, the first to die in the Roseburg attack, I too teach in an English Department. I too teach writing classes. I too correct my students and occasionally have uncomfortable encounters, as Levine is said to have done with the shooter on the day that preceded both their deaths. 
     Levine’s students could have been mine. Such an event could easily happen in my classroom. The thought stayed with me as I taught through to the end of semester and as I worked at my office desk that faced outward, looking over treetops and at the wall of the next building. 
     “How can you sit with your back to the door?” asked a colleague, one day when she popped by for a chat. 
     I replied with a shrug, “I like to see the light.” 

I have always loved university campuses as places for reflection, walking, and socializing. My favorite sights on any campus include students gathered under trees talking or reading, claiming green spaces as their own. 
     At McGill University in Montreal, where I studied as an undergraduate, we entered campus through a series of gates. In winter, students played broomball on the ice rink beside the library. In spring, it was frisbee and touch football. Lanky bodies with notebooks on laps or coffees in hand slouched on the slopes surrounding the players. The space inside the gates felt sacred and familial. It was where I felt happiest. Where I belonged. 
     The University of Missouri campus had felt safe too, at least until Umpqua. “We used to believe that public spaces were safe and now we’re more likely to believe that public places are dangerous,” writes Gary M. Lavergne, author of Sniper in the Tower, a book about the 1966 University of Texas shooting. [12] I have come late to such fear. After Umpqua, I gathered my strength, both literal and figurative, and heaved my solid oak desk around to serve as a barrier between my body and the office door. 

Both good and terrible things come in threes. In October 2015, within mere weeks of learning of both the lawsuit and the killings at Umpqua, I read about yet another campus shooting, this time on the campus of Northern Arizona University. In a mere ten days, a professional writers’ association called NonfictioNOW was to hold its annual conference at NAU’s Flagstaff campus. Along with a number of my writer friends and students, I had plans to attend. The news soon exploded on the association’s social media feed. Writers’ reactions were quick and strong: We have to address the issue publicly, some members declared. The association must make a statement. We need to speak out as a community. And finally: Someone should write something. Like so many discussions that take place in the digital sphere, that one rapidly and predictably devolved into misunderstanding, recrimination, and bad feeling. But for me, the suggestion had sown a seed. Someone should write something. As I walked across campus on my way home that day, I thought of Larry Levine, of my heavy oak desk, of my colleague’s lawsuit, and I decided that that writer should be me. 



[1] Sarah Kendzior, “The New Wild West,” Quartz, Sept. 22, 2016.

[2] Kendzior.

[3] Sarah Zhang, “Why Can’t the U.S. Treat Gun Violence as a Public-Health Problem?” The Atlantic, Feb. 15, 2018.

[4] Allen, Rostron,  “The Dickey Amendment on Federal Funding for Research on Gun Violence: A Legal Dissection.” American Journal of Public Health 108.7: 865-867. July 2018: 866..

[5] Jon Greenberg, “Spending bill’s gun research line: Does it nullify Dickey amendment?” Politifact, Mar. 27, 2018.

[6] Sandro Galea and Roger D. Vaughan, “Learning From the Evolving Conversation on Firearms: A Public Health of Consequence,” American Journal of Public Health 108(7): 8565-857. July 2018. 859.

[7] Kendzior.

[8] Kendzior.

[9] Royce de R. Barondes v. Timothy M. Wolfe and the Curators of the University of Missouri. Case Number 2:15-CV-0430. United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri Central Division, 2015. 

[10] The autumn of 2018 saw a ruling upholding the prohibition of guns on campus, with the court ruling that the University had not violated state statute by making its own rules regarding guns on campus. The matter remains unsettled, though, as does the question of whether the firearms prohibition violates the state’s constitution whose Amendment 5 declares the right to bear arms unalienable. 


[12] “Tragedy Made Public,” Houston Chronicle, Dec. 16, 2001. A37.


Julija Šukys (PhD, University of Toronto) is the author of three books, Silence is Death: The Life and Work of Tahar Djaout, Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė, and Siberian Exile: Blood, War, and a Granddaughter’s Reckoning. Her essay “There Be Monsters” appears as Notable in Best American Essays 2018. Šukys is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Missouri, where she teaches the writing of creative nonfiction. Her current book project explores the intersections of gun culture, academic life, and archives. 

What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond.  These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors

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