Guns, America and Tragedy: The View From Here
As everyone knows, there was another gun massacre in America on Friday December 14th, this one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut. The horrific details are almost too painful to recall. Adam Lanza – a bright, quiet, socially awkward 20 year old – first shot his mom multiple times at their home and then proceeded to drive to Sandy Hook Elementary. He had in possession three guns legally registered to his mother. He would only use one: a .223 calibre rifle. When he arrived armed and wearing a bullet proof vest, he first shot his way through a secured door and entered the school. The school’s principal, Dawn Hochsprung, was among the first to respond to the sounds of gunshots. She must have courageously attempted to intervene before the shooter could do more harm. But she had no chance and was riddled with bullets. The shooter then made his way to a classroom full of kids and their teachers. He killed most, if not all, of them. He then entered another classroom and did the same before turning his gun on himself. He had enough ammunition left to kill many more kids. It is believed that it was only the knowledge that the police would soon arrive at the school that prompted the shooter to kill himself.
The community of Newtown Connecticut has been plunged into the sort of grief too profound to contemplate. Who wouldn’t be driven to the depths of despair by the knowledge that twenty kids and six adults were ruthlessly mowed down in a place of learning, a place of community, a place of apparent safety? The rest of the country is no doubt sharing in Newtown’s grief. Intermingled with their profound sorrow, however, is a question and crisis over which Americans remain strangely divided. How many mass killings need to occur before more of America realizes that their love of guns and their strange belief that guns and freedom are synonymous will only lead to more such episodes?
By now it is clear to most people outside of America that their love of guns is demented, dangerous and tragic. This explains why much of the world is dumbfounded by America’s lack of action around guns, despite the haunting regularity of mass shootings on its soil. No wait: there has been action. A panel of federal appeals court judges in Illinois just last week struck down the state’s ban on carrying concealed weapons. In 2008 courts struck down Washington’s ban on handgun ownership. Such court led folly is in keeping with the country’s perverted fascination with the second amendment of its constitution.
Those who zealously defend the right to bear arms don’t only point to the country’s constitution. They also invoke arguments which would be laughable if they weren’t so dangerous. “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is perhaps the most inane response to the plea for a saner approach to guns. Equally inane is the idea that all these tragedies highlight the need for more guns. If someone else had a gun in at Sandy Hook Elementary School or that theatre in Aurora – or so the thinking goes – the shooter would have been killed sooner than was otherwise the case. It’s hard to imagine a more dystopian scenario: an entire nation of citizens carrying concealed weapons wherever they go.
Yet amid the tears and the goodbyes to those murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary are voices of sanity struggling to be heard. These voices are perhaps too polite, their outrage muted, but at least they are being raised and not only with respect to gun laws. Thus, for example, they are saying the simmering issues of mental stress and mental illness can no longer be ignored. In all of the coverage I’ve observed the shooter hasn’t once been referred to as a ‘coward.’ It suggests that people understand that such a designation doesn’t begin to explain his capacity to murder dozens of people in cold blood. I don’t pretend to know what combination of twisted thoughts and deprivations drove the killer to commit mass murder. We must be careful not to assume he had a mental illness. But at the very least he was mentally unstable and possibly prone to psychotic episodes. In a nation of 315 million people it is reasonable to expect there are individuals – usually young, disaffected males – who will be similarly unstable. Most grope their way through the darkness without doing harm to others. Occasionally, however, someone acts on his most violent impulses. America, these voices are now saying, is unique in its apparent determination to make it as easy as possible for such individuals to do so.
This is why these same voices are insisting their country toughen its gun laws. After this latest massacre, they appreciate more than ever that an endless proliferation of guns enables horrific violence, not deters it. There is, at last, the recognition that there is no good reason to own a rifle capable of killing many people in a matter of seconds and that eliminating them will prevent more tragedies. They are likely haunted by the question of what might have happened if the killer didn’t have three guns in his home. How would he have channeled his dark thoughts that led him to kill? It’s impossible to know but still worthwhile to speculate. Perhaps his weapon of choice would have been one not able to inflict so much carnage, so quickly. Perhaps he would have only killed himself or perhaps saner thoughts would have somehow won the day. What we do know is this: having his mother’s semi automatic rifle vastly extended the reach of his violent impulses. And so long as such guns are readily available it’s only a matter of time before there is another such massacre.
That much seems obvious. Yet America’s leadership has been tragically timid in the face of the pressure exerted by the National Rifle Association and others like them to eliminate restrictions on gun ownership. Indeed America’s leaders too often appear to be actively working against the voices of sanity. Whether that will change is an open question. Much has been made of President Obama’s speech at Newtown’s inter faith vigil on Sunday night. He expressed the nation’s sorrow and said that the country had to do better. Not once, however, did he utter the word ‘gun.’ Some thought the word’s absence was appropriate. It struck me as in keeping with his tendency of avoiding offending anyone. This has to change. He and his administration must resist the pressure of the NRA, must ignore their howls of derision and contempt. It is they who are contemptible. Obama must get passed meaningful gun reform. This is the only way the voices of sanity in America will prevail.