Vaccine Shots for Gunshots?

West Virginia will reward its vaccinated residents with new guns, attempting to dissolve one pandemic by aiding another

Photo by STNGR Industries on Unsplash

West Virginia has had an especially challenging time enduring the Covid-19 pandemic. Although the state’s positivity rate is currently at a low since spiking last October (4%), nearly 600 new cases are being reported daily, with more than 200 infected residents hospitalized. In the midst of America’s fight against the coronavirus, these numbers have stained the Mountain State with a poor man’s status. Add to that an oppressive statewide hospital bill—one that West Virginia intends to deflate with a syringe.

West Virginia’s vaccination rate (49%) ranks 45th among all states (Vermont ranks first with 82% of all eligible citizens vaccinated). Its political leaders have settled on increased inoculations as the health solution for its local population and pride. The chosen conduit for this achievement is incentivizing. The state is ready to reward or straight up pay their people to roll up a sleeve and take one for the team. Ohio was one of the first states to offer vaccine prizes. Its vaccination numbers rose immediately after the announcement of a $1 million lottery for five vaxxed residents.

On June 1, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice said, in a sense, hold my beer. He announced a new vaccine lottery program — one more robust than its predecessors that concentrates on men and the young. The initiative will begin on Father’s Day of this year and conclude on August 4. Up for grabs is a treasure as diverse as it is countrified. Pickup trucks are included in the winning pot; as are lifetime hunting and fishing licenses. For the under 25 and vaxxed, in- and out-of-state college scholarships are a possibility. Then there is everyone’s favorite motivation: cash. The highest purse in West Virginia’s vaccination lottery program is $1.6 million. One may view this as a big-picture investment; others as political money being thrown at a health problem.

The offering that makes West Virginia’s new lottery most singular is what makes it potentially the most costly. Firearms are also on the state’s vaccine incentive list. Seriously — the state is offering five custom hunting rifles as well as five custom hunting shotguns to 10 residents who’ve received at least one shot.

West Virginia’s children are sick. The state’s solution: place scissors in the palm of their hands and send them running toward the hospital.

Of course, West Virginia is a carry state. But the insanity of the firearm prizing is heightened by it having some of the most lenient firearm restrictions in America. If you’re a West Virginian age 18 and older, you are legally allowed to carry a firearm in the open without a permit. Eighteen- to 20-year-olds can legally conceal a weapon with a permit. After 21, no one needs a permit. In WV, background checks aren’t needed to purchase a gun. Gun owners are also allowed to bear arms in public places like parks and restaurants. The governor’s stance on the importance of vaccinations — to prevent “sad singing and slow walking… that’s what goes on at a funeral” — presents some troubling irony.

West Virginia isn’t exactly a hotbed for mass shootings like Chicago, yet it hasn’t been immune from gun violence. Their latest shooting was last year; the previous six years showed a one mass shooting per two year average. Their lenient laws, in accordance with other state’s whose laws are as flimsy (36 states accept a WV gun license), pave a traveler’s road to more senseless violence.

On a macro level, America just experienced one of the most gun-violent months in years (60 mass shootings in May; one May week in particular reported 12 mass shootings across the country from Long Island to DC to Ohio to Minneapolis). Every month since January saw an increase of five or more, and now the country is on pace to tally more shootings in 2021 than any other year in recent history (225 so far). By further arming vaccinated residents, West Virginia risks future death for present health — trading vaccine shots for gunshots. That’s a clear read on the state’s civic prioritization: political health over that of its people.

A primary reason for West Virginia being allowed to move so egregiously is the same reason gun control is an empty conversation in America. States like WV and Oregon and North Carolina and Florida are protected as Confederate-minded shields known as Second Amendment sanctuaries — localities whose in-state gun laws are considered superior to federal restrictions like background checks, assault rifle bans, and so forth. Currently, there are 42 American states with local governments that have adopted sanctuary laws. While these DIY rules are in strong accordance with the right wing, it’s not a solely red movement. What’s clear is that it’s a movement of White entitlement; furthermore, proof that the militia mentality of the Civil War’s losers have never ceased pouring patriotic blood into domestic terrorist factions like the KKK and Constitutional Sheriffs.

America is a terrible parent. It chokes its minorities for merely breathing, yet allows its corrosive offspring to smear feces on its walls whenever in tantrum — all in the spirit of free will (entitlement). The country can’t even effectively keep its own out of harm’s way. West Virginia’s children are sick. The state’s solution: place scissors in the palms of their hands and send them running toward the hospital. Imagine what would’ve happened on January 6th if the hundreds of “American patriots” who stormed the Capitol were armed. It would’ve taken only a single assault rifle for the siege to have turned into a slaughter. With firearm licenses not restricted to its state of origin, our nation’s violence cancer will continue to spread.

West Virginia, like so many other gun-happy sectors of the U.S., is blind to its complicity in the deaths of its own. Whenever Americans are aware of its country’s atrocities, they normally deflect (often aggressively). When genuinely or conveniently ignorant, they often become counterproductive to the problem.

When West Virginia’s governor was questioned about the ethics of bribing folks with guns in exchange for higher vaccination numbers, his response spoke more for his ignorance of America than perhaps he’d intended: “Now why in the world would you have to give away something to get somebody vaccinated?” If you’re not going to be well-studied on the country you represent, you should at least be able to read the room.

Bonsu Thompson is a writer, producer, Brooklynite and 2019 Sundance Screenwriters Lab fellow.

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