Thursday, August 30, 2018

Gun Control (2015)

This was an essay that I wrote for a nonfiction writing contest in 2015. Clearly, because of the major incidents that have happened since - like the shootings in Las Vegas, Orlando, and Parkland, just to name to worst - it needs to be revised. I'll post that later.

Gun Control
By Grant Matthew Jenkins

As a kid in Kansas, I’d shoot people all day.  Until we had to go inside, my lower-middle-class neighborhood friends and I would play the hell out of some Army, Cops and Robbers, and—back in a less inclusive and sensitive time—even Cowboys and Indians.  As long as the game had guns—by which I mean a toy, a stick, or simply a finger—we wanted to play it.  Indoors, outdoors—it didn’t matter.  You just had to be able to generate authentic sound effects—ttthhkthththththththBOOGE!—and you were good to go.

Despite our youth, the rules got complicated.  The trick was to find a way to make sure that when somebody got shot, they would admit it, lie down, and play dead.  Usually, the games would devolve into shouting matches about who shot whom and did they stay down long enough.  Despite the delicate checks-and-balances, the object was always simple: to massacre the entire other team of 8 year-olds.

Only rich kids or kids with more permissive parents than mine had cap guns or black plastic M-16 look-alikes.  Those are banned now.  In 1989, a federal law was passed making it illegal to make such replicas without a conspicuous orange tip.  The legislation resulted from a slew of high-profile incidents like the one in Memphis, Tennessee, where in 1988 police shot and killed a ten-year old boy who was holding a toy Colt 45.  March 4, 1983, 5 year-old Patrick Mason was shot and killed by a Stanton, California, police officer who mistook Patrick’s toy gun for real. 

Even before that toy gun law took effect, however, I had moved on to tamer prey, such as poetry and girls.  But prior to puberty, I worshipped war, guns, and weapons of all kinds—drawing them, studying them in books, and talking about them with friends.

Perhaps I am the best argument for gun freedoms: culture and nurture really didn’t have any effect on me. In fact, despite my childhood fascination with guns and gun violence, I developed in the completely other direction, the direction moving from indifference to intolerance.  However, there are other persistent and important arguments made in favor of unrestricted gun ownership that I am sympathetic to.  

For starters, I believe that the right to revolution is essential to this nation, to any democracy.  In other words, if we don’t like the way we are governed, we can change it.  That right is inscribed in our foundational documents.  As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” Guns, of course, are such “guards,” the stick behind the soft-talk of political change, because the status quo, especially a dictatorship, will never relinquish power without being forced to.  In part, this right to revolt is the spirit behind the letter of the 2ndAmendment, and, as part of a democracy, I must abide by all its laws, not just the ones I like. Respect for the rule of law is one of the things that has made America a beacon to the world.  The only way to change this legal fact is to amend the Constitution, and right now the possibilities of that are exactly nil.

I also understand people’s desire to have the means to protect themselves and their families. Nothing gives me greater consternation than the thought of some axe murderer breaking into my house, torturing me, raping my daughter, and killing my sons.  There’s almost nothing I wouldn’t do to keep them from such harm, including shooting someone.  A 12-gauge shotgun would stop and most likely kill any intruder without much aiming. As far as property goes, I’m less sympathetic to the need for guns to protect it.  After all, it’s only stuff and can be replaced—there’s no sense in getting shot over it.  But one can never tell why someone would be breaking into your house, so I can’t blame anyone for shooting first and asking questions later. 

Lastly, it is clear to me that most gun owners are responsible, law-abiding citizens who appreciate guns as protectors, hunters, collectors, and aficionados.  A very small percentage of guns in the United States are ever used to commit crimes such as robbery or murder.  According to sources like the NRA, gun manufacturers, the FBI, and Gallup, 70-80 million Americans own a total of 300 million firearms. The US Department of Justice said that of the 5.3 million violent crimes committed in the US in 2008, 8% (or 436,000) were committed with firearms.  That same year, 10,886 murders—two thirds of the total—were committed with guns.  Even if each murder were committed with a different gun, only 0.00004% of guns were involved.  That means most people keep their guns safe and used for their intended purposes.

But here’s the thing—I’ve never really been that interested in this topic.  My parents never owned guns—I never hunted and rarely went to a shooting range.  Yeah, my dad shot them when he was in the army, but he never owned any back then, so I didn’t have any around me when I was growing up.  The kid who imaginarily blew his friends away on a daily basis is now a hippy liberal adult who would probably be in favor of much tighter gun controls in the United States, much like the ones they have in Canada.  However, from my view, we have so many other more pressing issues to deal with—global warming, job creation, a corrupt financial system, corporate welfare, campaign finance reform—that guns have never been a top priority.

As a teacher of writing, I won’t even let my students write about the topic of gun control anymore. When I began teaching in the early 90s, I had no such rule but quickly learned that, left to their own devices, many students would inevitably write essays about how we should or shouldn’t eliminate handguns or have more restrictive law and regulations.  Any mention of the Second Amendment in a paper would immediately draw my ire, and soon I banned the topic altogether (along with abortion).  For decades now, I’ve enforced my fatwa against this annoying theme.  But now, perhaps because of the ban, I feel motivated to finally tackle the topic myself.

How did I go from gun-totting tot to indifferent adult?  I’ve often wondered how that change happened.  Am I inherently liberal, or did I learn it somehow? Did I learn it by seeing news reports toward the end of the Vietnam war, by witnessing the footage of Ronald Reagan getting shot when I was in 5thgrade, by starting to date girls who for the most part didn’t like guns?  I really can’t figure it out.  All I know is that my exposure to guns (fake or real)--pretending to perpetrate violence, watching violent movies or TV--none of it turned me into a gun-loving, violent person.

It wasn’t until I was a teenager and went with my best friend and his family to their cabin in Creede, Colorado, that I ever really gained experience with guns.  In the cabin, as back home, Mr. B had a locker full of a large variety of guns, from Colt 45s and 44 magnums (the fashionable gun of the day, thanks to Clint Eastwood and Dirty Harry) to 12-gauge sawed-offs and 30-ought-6 hunting rifles with scopes.  A small arsenal.  When we would hike or camp high up in the San Juans, we’d always pack heat, some kind of combination of shotguns and high-powered hand-canons.  Mr. B didn’t like bears, so he wanted to make sure we were protected.

He taught me the basics of gun operation and safety, things I had never learned as a child of gunless folks.  As a budding liberal, I was suddenly and ironically fascinated with the processes of cleaning, loading, and handling firearms.  Out in the wilderness, I started to look forward to the chance to try the different weapons in target practice.  We’d set up the requisite and cliché bottles on stumps like we were in gangster films—it was romantic and fun—yet a sublime reminder of their awesome power. I remember Mr. B standing in his boots, jeans, and denim shirt lifting his arm to point a 44 at stump about 50 feet away. After the loudest report I every heard, the stump seemed to explode, splinters of oak flying.  “You wouldn’t want that to be your head,” he said pointedly, as he locked the safety in place before handing the gun to me.  Always on the fore of his tongue and actions was Mr. B’s concern for safety.  Such actions taught me a respect for guns and their terrible power and consequences. 

*           *           *

In my lifetime, I’ve witnessed three of the top five school massacres in the history of America.  They are so well known, you only have to use the name of the place to identify them: Columbine (13 dead), Virginia Tech (32 dead), and Newtown (27 dead, 20 of them children).  All of these involved guns, most acquired legally.  We must ask ourselves, how is it that 4 of our deadliest 6 massacres have happened at schools?  And all in the past 12 or so years??

But not all are so recent, advocates argue—things aren’t getting worse, they say.  The attack that still holds at number one for people killed took place May 18, 1927 in Bath Township, MI where Andrew Philip Kehoe, 55, killed 44 and injured 58.  But he used bombs to kill most of his victims, so it’s not relevant to the gun control debate.  Number four happened before I was born on the campus of my alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin.  When I was a student, not a day went by when I passed that clock tower that I didn’t think of Charles Joseph Whitman taking pot-shots over the edge of the 28thfloor with his hunting rifle.  From that height, he even sniped an unborn child sleeping in his mommy’s belly. The mother’s name was Clare Wilson, 18, anthropology student.  Whitman also killed his own mother. In his suicide note, he said that he loved her very much.  On the morning of the shooting, he was able to buy two guns, adding to the five he already owned, and over 700 rounds of ammunition.  In his note, he complained of “irrational thoughts” and wanted his life insurance money donated to “a mental health foundation…[to] prevent further tragedies of this type.”  I guess advocates are right—sadly not much has changed—but why are these school shootings happening more frequently?

Less famous is the Red Lake, MN school massacre, but there Jeffrey James Weise murdered 9 and injured 7 in 2005.  Jeffrey was 16 and suffered from depression.  In 2012, 43-year-old One L. Goh, a former student at the school, killed 7 and wounded 3 at Oikos University in Oakland, CA.  He used a .45-caliber semi-automatic handgun with four fully-loaded 10-round magazines.  Since 1989, there have been 6 other school shootings involving 4 or more deaths.  Of the 17 deadliest school attacks in US history, only three happened before I was born.

And gun violence is not getting worse?

In my lifetime, most of the top 10 largest non-school mass shootings in US history have also happened, six of them in the past 25 years:

Oct. 16
July 18
Aug. 20
Nov. 5
April 3
Sep. 6
July 20
July 27–29
June 17/18
Aug. 22

There are 70 more mass murders in the US not included in this chart in which at least 5 people were killed.  All of them, except 4, involved firearms, belying the NRA’s argument that such crimes would happen even without guns.  Reaching back to 1889, only a third (21) happened in the 80 years before I was born in 1969.  49 have happened since.

It doesn’t take research to find this information. All of it is on Wikipedia.  Anyone can find it.  If they want to.

But massacres are only the most shocking aspect of the dark side of our gun culture. Presidents and politicians, namely conservative ones supported by the NRA, like Ronald Regan, have gotten shot.  We’ve allowed four major wars—Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan—to be waged and funded in our names.  Video games such as Call of Duty, played regularly by children, now simulate the most intense, graphic, and violent firefight situations.  I don’t even have to mention the blood and guts coming out of Hollywood, where you can’t show a naked body in a movie but you can depict countless human beings having their heads blown off.

Even the most ardent gun advocate/apologist has to admit that we live in what sportscaster Bob Costas controversially referred to as a “culture of guns.” He chastised the NFL for their laissez-faire attitude towards the glorification of guns after Kansas City Chiefs linebacker, Jovan Belcher, killed his girlfriend and then himself on Dec. 1, 2012.  Gun advocates think that this culture is a good thing, embodying and emblematizing our God-given freedoms.  Guns are power, virility, safety, liberty.

But even the reasons for guns to which I’m sympathetic begin to fall apart under scrutiny.

According to the National Institute of Justice, “[i]n 2005, 11,346 persons were killed by firearm violence and 477,040 persons were victims of a crime committed with a firearm.  Most murders in the United States are committed with firearms, especially handguns.  In 2006, firearms were used in 68 percent of murders, 42 percent of robbery offenses and 22 percent of aggravated assaults nationwide.”  The simple fact is that, if there were fewer guns, there would be less crimes committed with guns and thus less crime in general.  According to the calculations of James D. Agresti and Reid K. Smith of JustFacts, 1 in 240 Americans will be murdered with a gun. Think about that next time you’re in a crowded nightclub: living it up now, one of you willbe shot to death in your lifetime.

Even more than murder, guns are used for suicides.  A 2008 editorial in The New England Journal of Medicineon the public health side of the gun debate points out:
Firearms were used to kill 30,143 people in the United States in 2005, the most recent year with complete data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A total of 17,002 of these were suicides, 12,352 homicides, and 789 accidental firearm deaths. Nearly half of these deaths occurred in people under the age of 35. When we consider that there were also nearly 70,000 nonfatal injuries from firearms, we are left with the staggering fact that 100,000 men, women, and children were killed or wounded by firearms in the span of just one year.
The reality is that guns—intended for self-protection—end up more often being used for self-destruction. It just goes to show how the road to violence is paved with good intentions.

Then there’s the impact on children.

My children have all played with guns, despite my attempts to limit their exposure to them, particularly at early ages.  With my boys, even if I’d taken away or never given them guns, they’d improvise one out of anything, a twig, a pen, or an always reliable index finger.  They absorb this from the gun culture that steeps us, so prevalent that we can’t shut it out.  

Yes, the massacre of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, ignited the topic of gun control again, but even that tragedy was not enough to change the tide of groundswell support for unabated gun ownership.  Sure, this response is my bleeding-heart liberalism coming out, but one child dying from accidental or intentional gun violence is too many.  It says a lot about the soul of a nation that will not sacrifice the “right” to own over-sized clips or semi-automatic assault rifles but will readily sacrifice innocent children for their so-called freedom.

Oh, and that toy gun ban? It’s a leaky sieve of loopholes. If you read the law, it excludes BB and “Airsoft” guns that shoot projectiles over certain rate, so many of those guns still look “authentic,” which is part of the allure of the organized play involving these guns around the country.  Nor does the law prevent consumers from removing the orange tip that demarcates them as fake—just pop it off and you have your look-alike.  The result?  Incidents of criminals using toys in crimes, as well as of children being accidentally shot by police, is again on the rise. A Cleveland police officer shot and killed 12 year-old Tamir Rice within seconds of arriving in a Cleveland park in November of 2014.  It seems the gun industry is so hell bent on preserving these dangerous toys as the “gateway drug” for later real purchases that they’ll do anything to keep the pipeline open, including sacrifice little children.

The body counts and statistics of those killed by guns in this society are much more concrete than the freedoms protected by guns, which cannot be as accurately measured. Certainly, though a massive undertaking, one can compile the numbers of homes defended by owners with guns.  A 1993 survey suggests that 0.5-3.5% of gun owners use guns for protection every year.  On the other hand, how many potentially tyrannical leaders in the US have been deterred by a gun-owning populace?  Considering the tradition of the smooth transfer of power inaugurated with George Washington and the tight civilian control of our armed forces (our real “militias”), probably none.  Despite the paranoia of a few survivalists, white supremacists, and “doomsday preppers,” there is no threat of tyranny from our federal government.  Most likely never will be, so it’s no longer an excuse for unrestricted gun ownership.  Anyway, how is a semi-automatic assault rifle going to stand up to a fully automatic one like is used in the military?  Furthermore, do any of these people, who are otherwise support-the-troops patriotic, think the men and women of our armed forces are going to attack us and steal our liberty??

Then there’s the argument that most gun owners are responsible.  Maybe most are.  But perhaps some people are too delicate to handle guns.  And who knows when a “responsible gun owner” one day might develop mental or emotion problems that prompt him to use guns as a solution to his problems?  And if individual Americans are responsible, the corporations that profit from gun manufacturing are not.  According to Dan Noyes of PBS, most criminals do not get guns stolen from upstanding citizens; instead, they get them from a corrupt system in which licensed retailers funnel guns from suppliers to the black market.  

In support of gun owners, I also mentioned my respect of the rule of law and how the Second Amendment was framed to protect gun ownership.  But here’s the one solution that no one is willing to talk about: It’s time to amend the Constitution to fix and clarify the Second Amendment and, more importantly, to outline reasonable, serious ways to regulate firearms.  The Founders could never have anticipated the pervasive cancer that guns have become in this country, a cancer that daily destroys our nation’s youth more and more.  The Founders may have felt the Second Amendment was right for their time, but it is wrong for ours.  After all, they were right about something: we have the right, nay, the duty to change our Constitution when it no longer works for us, in our time, now; this is why they allowed for amendments.  Now, it’s time to make the change.  Will America have the selfless courage to do it?


“15 C.F.R. PART 1150—MARKING OF TOY, LOOK-ALIKE AND IMITATION FIREARMS.” Section 4 of the Federal Energy Management Improvement Act of 1988, 15 U.S.C. 5001.

Agresti, James D. and Reid K. Smith. "Gun Control Facts." Just Facts. September 13, 2010. Revised 12/28/12. <>

Carter, David L. et al.  “Toy Guns: Involvement in Crime and Encounters with the Police.”  Bureau of Justice Statistics.  June 1990. <>

Curfman, Gregory D., M.D., Stephen Morrissey, Ph.D., and Jeffrey M. Drazen, M.D.  “Handgun Violence, Public Health, and the Law.”New England Journal of Medicine358 (2008): 1503-1504. 3 April 2008. <>

Ferriss, Susan. “Fatal Texas shooting highlights struggle to regulate replica guns: Toys, BB guns and pellet guns subject to a confusing patchwork of laws.” Center for the Public Integrity.  13 Jan 2012. <>

Klein, Ezra.  “Twelve Facts about Guns and Mass Shootings in the United States.” Washington Post. 14 Dec 2012.  <>

“List of Rampage Killers.”  Wikipedia.  2 Feb 2013. <>

Noyes, Dan. “Hot Guns: ‘How Criminals Get Guns.” PBS Frontline. June 1997. <>

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Power of (Non-) Violence

As I suggested in my post, “Committed Buddhism,” from July 25, 2012, the possibility of a “Committed Politics” in Buddhism hinges on role of violence: sacrificing self and relieving the suffering of others.  Buddhism’s emphasis on compassion, I argued, can offer us concrete ways that we, everyday, can make a difference in the world by relieving suffering around us.

But on further reflection, I wondered about the nature of violence.  One of the most famous political acts by a Buddhist was the self-immolation by Vietnamese monk, Thích Quảng Đức, to protest the U.S.-supported South Vietnamese Government’s persecution of Buddhists.  The fact that he contacted American photojournalist Malcom Browne from the Associated Press and others to record the event demonstrates that he knew his act would make a difference to a U.S. audience who could put pressure on the former French colony and Roman Catholic-dominated South Vietnamese government.  It worked.  Browne’s photo below won the Pulitzer Prize:

In his suicide note, Duc focus on spreading compassion through his political sacrifice:

Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of the Buddha, I respectfully plead to President Ngô Đình Diệm to take a mind of compassion towards the people of the nation and implement religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland eternally. I call the venerables, reverends, members of the sangha and the lay Buddhists to organise in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism.

I am amazed by that sentiment almost as much as I am by the photo, which clearly shows Duc’s serenity, dedication, and strength.  Reporter David Halberstam, who became known for his coverage of the escalating US war in Vietnam, wrote this about Duc’s death:  “As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.” To me, that is the supreme measure of fearlessness derived from meditative practice and the long-sighted view of Buddhist commitment.  More than any other historical event, this man’s courageous and solitary act embodies the political power of Buddhism. 

To be sure, focused against himself, Duc's self-immolation was a non-violent act, and it returns us to my larger question:

What does Buddhism have to say about violence?

As I suggested tentatively in the "Committed" post, it seems as if Buddhism does condone violence in certain situations, regardless of its mostly pacifist stance towards war.  That stance is encoded in many of the written texts governing the behavior of both monks and lay persons.

From the text of the Chinese Mayahana Five Precepts:

“As the Buddha refrained from killing until the end of his life, so I too will refrain from killing until the end of my life.”

From the Eight Precepts, which come from the Anguttara Nikaya text and are for lay men and women who want to lead a more strict practice:

“I undertake to abstain from causing harm and taking life (both human and non-human).”

Certainly, Duc broke these precepts when he killed himself, but his act raises the question of larger purposes.  Of course, the fact that Duc did not physically hurt anyone else besides himself makes this kind of violence distinctly different from when others are affected. 

What if we take this precept literally?

In the movie, Kundun, we see this precept dramatized to the extreme.  Because the Dali Lama and his monks have vowed to do no harm, the extend that promise to the lowest levels of visible life. We see the young prince separate two beetles locked in combat, and when the  arrival of Chinese road construction crews threatens to disturb and destroy subterranean life, we see the monks working ahead of the road crews and sifting worms etc out of the freshly turned earth. (These scenes made me wonder about how far you can take this sentiment, which is why I used the phrase, "visible life."  What about the billions of microscopic life-forms that we destroy everyday without knowing it and being able to stop it.  Are we beholding to them too through the precepts?)

Vegetarianism is another way Buddhist precepts extend the prohibition against killing to daily life.  By eating only non-sentient life, such as plants, people can avoid killing higher life-forms.  In fact, studies show that ubiquitous vegetarianism could have a massive, salubrious impact on the planet by reducing water use, burning of fossil fuels, and growing more food on pasture lands.

How can we practice this precept of non-violence on a political level? 

In my view, political non-violence as a political strategy is what marks the rise of modernity from a positive side.  Certainly the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason and law over brute force and superstition, created the conditions for what we call to the non-violent movement.  But the idea of non-violence as a means of resistance to power was first articulated by Henry David Thoreau in his essay, "Resistance to Civil Government (Or, Civil Disobedience)."  It may come as no surprise that he was highly influence by new translations of Eastern texts, such as the Upanishad and Vedas, that were emerging in the early 19th Century.  In Thoreau, the confluence of East and West produced a new, rational way to fight oppression and injustice.

In his famous treatise, Thoreau recounts how he allowed himself to be arrested without protest or defense rather than pay a poll tax, which he saw as supporting a government that tolerated slavery.  (He also was arrested later for not paying an obligatory Church tax).  
I was put into a jail once on this account, for one night; and, as I stood considering the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated my as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up. I wondered that it should have concluded at length that this was the best use it could put me to, and had never thought to avail itself of my services in some way. I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through before they could get to be as free as I was. I did nor for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar. I felt as if I alone of all my townsmen had paid my tax. They plainly did not know how to treat me, but behaved like persons who are underbred. In every threat and in every compliment there was a blunder; for they thought that my chief desire was to stand the other side of that stone wall. I could not but smile to see how industriously they locked the door on my meditations, which followed them out again without let or hindrance, and they were really all that was dangerous. As they could not reach me, they had resolved to punish my body; just as boys, if they cannot come at some person against whom they have a spite, will abuse his dog.
The bolded section here reflects one of the most important ideas behind the idea of non-violent political resistance: one may gain limitless strength from the fact that, though one' body might be incarcerated, one's mind and spirit are always free.  It is these that are truly dangerous to an unjust or tyrannical government.

Through his act of disobedience, Thoreau advocates a broader brand of political action through a kind of withdrawal from society: "I know this well, that if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I could name--if ten honest men only--ay, if one HONEST man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this co-partnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefor, it would be the abolition of slavery in America.... Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison."  We can see here the beginnings of the contemporary anti-income-tax movement. The larger argument he makes involves prioritizing the conscience of an individual over that of a (corrupt) corporate body (like a government): "The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right." 
Thoreau's principles of non-violent resistance have been majorly influential since their publication, inspiring the work of people like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, in their search against colonialism and apartheid for independence and civil rights.

In his book, Ethical Religion, Gandhi points out that all violence comes from intolerance, not just some animal desire to kill.  Think about that.  Only people who fear difference or strangeness are impelled to hurt others--people do not naturally act violently.  (Incidentally, I do have a reservation about this blanket statement, as I do believe that some people are "natural-born killers" who are psychotic or perhaps have a chemical imbalance in their brain or "destined to kill" who have suffered irreversible trauma themselves.  However, I don't know enough about criminal psychology to make a very informed argument on that topic.)  At any rate, one can easily agree that a government that oppresses its people does so out of fear of losing power or, in the famous case of the Nazis, because of hatred for ethnic difference.

The only viable and effective response to this fear and intolerance, according to Gandhi, is Satyagraha, which may be translated as "the insistence on truth" or "soul force."  This force may be tapped only by those who denounce violence, but it is universal and freely available to everyone (Non-violent Resistance 7).  However, accessing it is not easy and requires commitment;  only the morally strong can employ non-violent resistance: 

Satyagraha requires willingness to suffer (poverty, injury, even death), but it is a practice that can change a society:

I'm not sure Gandhi would have agreed with Thích Quảng Đức's choice to immolate himself.  But who knows?  Perhaps someone can comment if they know his views of suicide.  On the other hand, Gandhi did favor hunger strikes as a method of non-violent political protest, which is a form of killing oneself, albeit slowly.  What's the difference?

What Gandhi could agree on is that Duc's suicide required the supreme quantity of self-suffering.  And this self-suffering, by Gandhi and his followers, was the key force that led to India's independence.  In the United States, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) used non-violent resistance to raise awareness about the violence of segregation and to bring about civil rights for African Americans and other ethnic minorities in the 1960s.  

Even in the 21st Century, social media has enabled even broader and more instantaneous manifestations of non-violent resistance.  The "Arab Spring," including the non-violent protests and revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Iran, and elsewhere in the Middle East, testifies to the power of this practice to bring down despots, dictators, and immoral governments.  In fact, the peaceful revolution in Tunisia was begun by an act of immolation like that of Thich Quang Duc.  Click here to read more of the story of Mohamed Bouazizi, the 26 year-old street vendor who set himself on fire.

What does meditation have to do with non-violence?

Like non-violent political action, meditation is a discipline, a practice.  By doing it, we change, shift, and become better able to follow the precepts.  Through meditation, we get in touch with what Gandhi calls “Satyagraha,” or soul-force, which seeks truth  and love.  As I said before, if meditation does not make us better people in terms of relieving suffering of others, what good is it?

See Gandhi Non-violent Resistance pg 35 #3:
“For this exercise , prolonged training of the individual soul is an absolute necessity, so that a perfect Satyagrahi has to be almost, if not entirely, a perfect man.”

For American civil rights groups--like the SNCC, Freedom Riders and Montgomery protestors—prayer was a large part of their practice.

Any kind of reflection, or deep soul-searching, such as in prayer or meditation, is required to draw on the fortitude necessary to endure the whips and scorns of oppression and injustice. However, as contemporary history has shown, no violence could ever have achieved the kind of freedom and peace that non-violent resistance has achieved.  It is the way of change for the future.