In pondering the significance of the Umpqua Community college tragedy, one of a seemingly unbroken string of mass killings to shake the nation since the shocking Columbine massacre 16 years ago, the first and perhaps most distasteful truth we have to acknowledge is that this shooting will not change anything. I’m sorry to be so blunt. I’m sorry if this sounds defeatist. But any honest assessment of the politics and the culture of firearms in America must come to the simple and inescapable conclusion that thanks to our nation’s out-sized love of firearms, at this very moment somewhere in the Midwest a mother is preparing dinner for a daughter who won’t live to see her 21st birthday, somewhere down South a father and son are restoring an old car that will be completed by just one of them under a somber cloud of loss, somewhere in New England a young couple are planning for a future life together in a world that has a place set aside for only one of them, and this is a scene that is being replayed hundreds, if not thousands of times this very moment all across our country.
I’d like to believe I’m wrong in this, I’d like to believe that at some point the nation will find itself confronted by a situation so horrendous and unthinkable in its implications that we’ll be shocked out of our placid lethargy and apathetic response to the slow but steady drip, drip, drip of gun murders. I'd like to think that at that point the politicians who write our laws will realize that the tired slogans, the dishonest dissembling and the sophistries and hypocrisies of the past will no longer see them secure in their jobs (the only thing they really care about). I’d like to believe that the day will come when we’ve truly had enough and our legislators understand that *We The People* will only be satisfied with real change and that we won’t rest until they have delivered it. My problem with this line of wishful thinking is that a situation this horrendous has already come to pass. It has come to pass a dozen times, a hundred times, a thousand times even, but if I had to choose just one example to put forth I should have to look at the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown Connecticut. In December of 2012, a 20 year old, disturbed young man named Adam Lanza entered an elementary school building armed with Bushmaster semi-automatic assault rifle and gunned down 6 teachers and 20 toddlers whose only miscue that day was having the temerity to step down from the school bus their parents had placed them on and attend grammar school as they had on many previous occasions. If you can conjure a more horrendous, senseless and despicable act violence, then I’d like to hear it, but I strongly suspect that Sandy Hook damn near well represents the non-plus ultra for gun violence. Almost as shocking is the fact that nearly three years later Congress has not yet taken any action even to close the so-called “gun-show loophole” or to require that private sales of firearms go through a licensed broker. As a result, as many as 40% of all gun sales and transfers in the United States occur in circumstances that legally require no criminal background check on the purchaser. If in the wake of Sandy Hook our politicians can’t make an effort so minimal, so widely supported and so uncontroversial as to ensure that all gun sales are subject to criminal background checks, then forget it. It’s over. There’s little sense in asking ourselves what needs to happen for there to be tangible, positive change in this country. The NRA has won the day and you, me and everyone you see around you is living in the NRA’s America.
To understand how we’ve go to the point where we are, you really have to delve into the corrosive absolutism of contemporary gun culture, the noxious intersection of firearms ownership and partisan politics, and the toxic spread of an attitude of wholesale contempt for the very notion of empathy and concern for the suffering of others that has become the hallmark of contemporary conservative American politics. The notion that the unbridled pursuit of self interest is and should remain the paramount civic virtue manifests itself, not just in an acerbic contempt for government assistance to the needy, not just in the Right’s unhinged reaction to President Obama’s attempt to extent health insurance coverage to those Americans who cannot afford it, but also in any attempt to place restrictions on firearms ownership, whether it be in limiting the types of firearms that can he held in private hands, or the sale of ammunition and high capacity of magazines. When we freely allow the sale of 30, 40, 50 round capacity clips the notion that firearms equip the citizenry with the means to hunt and provide effective home protection can be safely discounted as a quaint and mildly amusing vestige of a bygone era. Today you can certainly walk into a sporting goods store and purchase a 38 caliber revolver that will provide you with all the firepower you will ever realistically need to defend your family from a home intruder, but you can also walk out with an AR-15, a 30 round magazine and 1000 rounds of ammunition. If you really want to give in to your inner Rambo you can even buy magazines for these weapons with capacities of 100 rounds or more. What you have in your possession at this point isn’t a tool for home defense, it’s is a weapon that was designed for the express purpose of killing as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, in a theater of war. Ask a gun enthusiast why he would ever need such a weapon, and why its public sale should be allowed and he will almost inevitably reply with something along the lines of: “Why would anyone ever need to own a car that can travel at more than 100 miles per hour. Maybe we should ban those, too?” The military style assault rifle is seen as a hobby item, an expensive toy like a motorcycle or fast car whose prohibition is an unacceptable form of nanny state paternalism, much like Michael Bloomberg banning Big Gulps in a misguided attempt to combat obesity. Never mind that these things are all too often used by psychopaths to murder children, or college students, or even firefighters responding to a blaze that was intentionally set to lure them to their deaths. Why should all those lives cut short impact me in a negative way when it’s so much fun to bring my Bushmaster to the shooting range and live-out my action hero fantasies by filling a target full of 30 holes in 15 seconds?
And here I’m merely referencing the arguments and mindset of the “responsible gun owner.” I haven’t touched on the paranoid survivalist who’s hoarding assault rifles, K rations and ammunition in preparation for the coming race war, or the New World Order, the United Nations invasion, or the day that all good, patriotic citizens rise up in anger and finally overthrow the Zionist Occupation Government that is the cause of all our nation’s ills and all of her woes. These folks’ reasons for opposing restrictions on these sorts of weapons are, perhaps in a sense less selfish, but they’re much, much more frightening by a very wide margin. These are the people who snap, one day, and blow up Federal office buildings packed with men, women and children, or in less grandiose fashion buy two tickets for an Amy Schumer movie and vent their hatred of feminists by gunning down the pair of young women who had the misfortune of taking seats a row or two down from him.
Perhaps a wave of Islamist terrorist operations would change public opinion. We’ve certainly made such a scenario as easy as possible to carry out. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when Uncle Sam was busy setting up the Department of Homeland Security and granting the NSA unprecedented access to our phone records and online data, the NRA worked swiftly and effectively to nip in the bud any movement toward including firearms purchasing restrictions. Boarding a plane with nail clippers or an 11 ounce bottle of shampoo was strictly forbidden, but as for buying an AK47 at the gun show without passing a background check? Of course! I mean, why needlessly gum up the wheels and cogs of commerce by imposing onerous regulations on private party exchanges of durable goods?! Never mind that a pair of ne’er do wells by the name of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo shortly afterwards demonstrated just how simple and cost effective it would be to terrorize America when they set about murdering 16 people and wounding another 7 with a Bushmaster rifle and a hole cut in the trunk of an old sedan, all while holding the city of Washington DC paralyzed in fear for weeks.
But then, who are we kidding? A wave of Islamist terror shootings, far from effecting the implementation of sensible firearms restrictions would almost certainly result, instead, in rush to stock up on guns and ammunition and a xenophobic backlash against American Moslems, Hindus, Sikhs… anyone whose accent, dress and religion seems suspect to the guy who obtained his doctorate in comparative religious studies from the University of that bar down the street with the topless waitresses and $3.00 tap beer on Tuesday. If anything, the unbelievable ease with which military grade weaponry can be acquired in the U.S. should serve as a pretty good counter-argument to those who fear that this nation is under grave threat from Islamist sympathizers living among us. If these folks are here and plotting to do us harm, then what are they waiting for? There are business districts in this country where you could practically drive down the street slowly with your windows rolled down, toss out a $100 bill and have someone toss a semi-automatic pistol right back in. Maybe it’s just that the radical Islamists don’t really see the point in it given that red-blooded Americans seem to be doing a pretty good job of killing other red-blooded Americans without the need for any pesky, logistically complex, coordinated, foreign intervention.
We’re living in the NRA’s America, you see, and we live by that organization’s rhetoric, we live by its logic and we live by its rules. “Guns don’t kill people,” we’re informed, “people kill people” and thus any attempt to stem the flow of violence by restricting firearms sales is misguided. Instead we should be focusing on the people side of the equation. Of course, this argument becomes a bit problematic when we’re dealing, not with a convicted criminal who was prematurely released back into society by some bleeding heart, liberal judge, but as is so often the case in these mass killings, an individual with no substantial criminal record but a documented history of mental illness. And so it has become fashionable for the NRA and its defenders to instead lament the “wholly inadequate manner” in which we deal with and treat mental illness in this country. Now, the cynic might suspect that this purported concern for our nation’s sorry mental health treatment options is little more than an insincere red-herring tossed out to draw attention away from guns. The cynic would be wrong, however, as evidenced by the whole hearted and full throated support that the NRA and gun enthusiasts threw behind President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, a piece of legislation that not only extended health insurance coverage to millions of Americans who didn’t have it, but that for the first time in history mandated at the Federal level that private health insurance also cover mental illness. Are you laughing yet? You should be... at least insofar as it's possible to laugh at these sorts of things. The cynics are, of course absolutely correct, and the NRA's new found “concern” for mental health betrays all the sincerity of a jaded 50 year old prostitute’s theatrical undulations in the moments just prior to the bill coming due.
2nd amendment absolutists and NRA apologists are often fond of pointing out and ridiculing the fact that mass shootings so often seem to occur in so-called “gun-free zones.” The murder of 20 toddlers at Sandy Hook elementary took place in a “gun-free school zone.” The murder of 9 parishoners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina occurred in a venue in which the octogenarian ladies and their pastors who had gathered to pray to the Almighty for Peace on Earth had been so unjustly forbidden by the state from also bringing along their firearms. The murders at Umpqua Community college? Gun free zone. And here, for once, the NRA and its friends do have something of a point, for in contemporary America there really isn’t such a thing as a gun free *anything* zone. Decades and decades of devil may care firearms sales have so flooded our streets , neighborhoods and schools with guns that, even though the United States comprises a just 4.4% of the world’s population, we boast of nearly half of the world’s stock of privately owned firearms. Now, according to the NRA’s Alice in Wonderland logic of “more guns, less crime” these figures surely indicate that we should be the safest nation on earth. Yet statistics simply do not bear this notion out. When comparing the USA against the advanced, industrialized democracies of Western Europe we find that the U.S. suffers from anywhere from 40 times the per-capita rate of firearms death (for the UK), to a low of about 3 times the per-capita rate (for Finland). More guns, more crime would seem to be the norm in places where the standard rules of logic apply. Nonetheless, you can rest assured that the NRA will continue to push the convenient fiction that America’s biggest problem, so far as gun violence is concerned, isn’t that we’ve got too many guns in circulation, it’s that we don’t have enough. The Wayne LaPierre's of this world will continue to insist that the reason gun murder rates are so high in America is that we simply haven’t reached a critical mass of gun ownership. We haven’t yet got to the point where no matter what the situation, no matter what the gathering, no matter what the occasion, when a crazed maniac shows up dressed to the nines in bullet-proof vests and wielding multiple semi-automatic weapons (as James Egan Holmes did when he murdered 12 people at a Colorado movie theater) an armed citizen will be ready and waiting to take him out before he can cause much harm. Don’t bet on it, though. Not in the real world, in any case. This white-hatted gun-slinger fantasy is as much Hollywood action-movie hero fan fiction as it is implausible, bizzarro-world wishful thinking social engineering experiment. The notion that we’re going to turn into a nation of Wyatt Earps (or more likely, Bernhard Goetzs) parading through life with pistol strapped to our side because the NRA wants us to is as improbable a work of science fiction as anything to spring from the imagination of George Lucas. That’s just not who most of us are, or want to be.
A far more likely scenario is that things will simply continue to churn and churn as they have for the past several decades. Almost every day a mass shooting will take place somewhere in America. Local papers will report on most of these (an estranged husband murders his wife and two kids, a disgruntled employee kills his boss and several other co-workers, etc.) but every eight or nine months or so, a killing so brutal, so senseless and so heart-wrenching will take place that it will have the whole nation talking and soul searching. Politicians will hold press conferences. Gun control organizations will hold press conferences. The NRA will hold press conferences. And then, slowly but surely, life will return to its slow, lazy pace. The good news is that you, personally, as well as you immediate family, are more likely than not to remain safe throughout all of this. Yes nearly 10,000 people died from gunshot wounds last year alone, but don’t forget, we’re a nation of 300,000+ million so the odds are still very much in your favor. I guess one might feel concern for the victims, but in this nation of rugged individualists where “empathy” is little more than a sign of weakness, of bleeding heart, muddle-headed thinking, that sort of thing is definitely not encouraged. We live in the NRA’s America, you see.
I’ll close these rambling and disjointed thoughts by echoing Vox’s Max Fisher, and quoting a paragraph from a New Yorker piece, written by Adam Gopnik in the wake of the 2006 Virginia Tech massacre:
“The cell phones in the pockets of the dead students were still ringing when we were told that it was wrong to ask why. As the police cleared the bodies from the Virginia Tech engineering building, the cell phones rang, in the eccentric varieties of ring tones, as parents kept trying to see if their children were OK. To imagine the feelings of the police as they carried the bodies and heard the ringing is heartrending; to imagine the feelings of the parents who were calling — dread, desperate hope for a sudden answer and the bliss of reassurance, dawning grief — is unbearable. But the parents, and the rest of us, were told that it was not the right moment to ask how the shooting had happened — specifically, why an obviously disturbed student, with a history of mental illness, was able to buy guns whose essential purpose is to kill people — and why it happens over and over again in America. At a press conference, Virginia's governor, Tim Kaine, said, ‘People who want to ... make it their political hobby horse to ride, I've got nothing but loathing for them. ... At this point, what it's about is comforting family members ... and helping this community heal. And so to those who want to try to make this into some little crusade, I say take that elsewhere.’”