|Bushmaster AR-15 Assault Rifle, the weapon used in the Newtown, CT massacre|
I have lived overseas for most of the past 16 years – a 3 ½ year stint in the UK, a nearly 8 year run in Ethiopia, and most recently I’ve lived in Kenya for the past 4 ½ years. During that time it has been one incident after another of mass murder mayhem in the US involving a man with a gun taking out his anger/frustration/madness on either those closest to him or on perfect strangers. Commentators have repeatedly mentioned in the sources that I have consulted that the actual number of mass murders involving guns in the US has remained constant over the past 20 or 30 years. This is supposed to be a comfort.
I am back in the States for the Christmas holidays with my family, just in time for the latest massacre in Newtown, CT. All of the others have been horrific, but this one has been almost unbearable, as the shooter intentionally targeted six and seven year old children, killing 20 children, each one the loved little girl or loved little boy in a Newtown family. Oh yes, and six courageous women attempting to protect the children in their care. This past week we have witnessed the sad funerals for these murdered children and their teachers. The pain has been raw, the sense of loss too deep to measure. For anyone with children, and even for those without, it has been a terrible week.
Alongside the shock then grief then outrage felt by many watching all of this unfold on TV or reading about in online has been an increasingly furious debate about the role of guns in our society, as well as a welcome discussion about the desperate needs of the mentally ill all around us. But I’ve been particularly struck at the response of those who seem to support the right to bear whatever arms at any cost. There seems to be this palpable fear that the government is going to come and take everybody’s gun(s) away. Aside from the fact that there are some people whose guns do need to be taken away, I am scratching my head at this uber-shrill response, because nobody that I have read or heard advocates that position. Nobody. And yet, somehow, gun control has become equated with gun confiscation in the minds of many who seem to be more prone than the rest of the population to conspiracy theories. There seems to be a complete inability for otherwise rational people to acknowledge that allowing citizens to arm themselves with military-grade weaponry, and allowing those citizens to carry such weaponry around wherever they might want to go with it – there seems to be an inability to conceive that this might not be a good thing, and that just because something can be made, it doesn’t mean that it is appropriate to have.
As I have listened this week, I have heard thoughtful, gun-owning individuals say that the time for placing limits on the firepower that is appropriate for citizens to have their hands on has come. Hunters that I know struggle to fathom why anyone would need an M16 equivalent to take down a deer, or a rabbit, or a squirrel. And why would one need an ammo clip of 30, 50 or 100+ armor piercing bullets? To bring down a duck? To deal with a moose? Something else is going on here.
I do not own a gun, but I am not ideologically averse to gun ownership. But the current situation, where it is perfectly legal to buy military-grade weaponry and to have force-multiplying automatic weapons with the capacity to fire scores of bullets without pausing to reload – this is madness. But even more outrageous, if possible, has been the response of some lobbyists and politicians during this week. The solution to all this easily available firepower and its tendency to fall into the hands of the 'bad guys', it seems, is more firepower. The NRA totally sidestepped the real issues in their ‘press conference’ yesterday and said that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun. And then they called on the government (!) (And I thought these guys were Republicans!) to put armed police in every school across the country. In the state of SC where I currently am visiting relatives, a state legislator has introduced a bill allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons into schools!! Evidently there are 11 other states where lawmakers have introduced similar bills. Talk about slippery slope! How much longer before we are allowing students to carry guns to school (legally, that is)! Bus drivers? Cafeteria ladies?
Personally, I think the problem lies with the US constitution, with the second amendment which is being interpreted by those on the right in such a way as to allow Americans to bear whatever arms they want. And to deign to draw the line anywhere is taken as provocative attack on our personal constitutionally-guaranteed liberties as American citizens. But these same people willfully ignore the fact that we as a country have always attempted to balance individual rights with corporate rights and responsibilities. We have often not gotten that balance right, which is why we have amendments to our constitution. Which is why we have a 2nd amendment to our constitution, because at the earliest stages of our nation’s history, coming out of our experience as colonies, the then governing power sought to restrict our ability to alter the status quo by forbidding militias and weapons. The second amendment as it stands was a good solution to that problem. But more than two hundred years on, our current problems are more complicated, and the blanket solution implied by the second amendment is not serving us as a nation very well any more. Constitutionally, machine guns at the mall, in church, at school, at the ball park, may be allowable, but I think one would be hard pressed to find anyone who felt it was a good idea. Given that no politician is going to lay a glove on the second amendment any time soon, the better solution seems to be not to make our schools into armed camps and our public gathering places into fortresses. In my opinion all sides need to recognize that for the public good, lines with respect to what sort of guns may be owned, must be drawn. And rather leaving this to the lobbyists and politicians to decide for us, get people who have the public’s interests in mind involved, and maybe those who are on the front lines of our gun carnage, our policemen and women, get them to have a say.
Presently, however, this discussion is controlled by people in whose interest it is that there be more and more guns in this country and by people whose views on this matter are on one extreme or the other. Until we stop allowing ourselves to be bullied by these ideologues, our country will increasingly be held hostage to gun violence and the fear of gun violence. At this point in the debate I have noticed that a blizzard of exceptions is always introduced – deal with mental health, deal with the bad people, because we all know that guns don’t kill people, people kill people… At a certain level, of course. But I also know that after the Dunblane school massacre in Scotland two decades ago, the UK tightened their already strict gun control laws, and their violent death by gun rate is a fraction of what it is here in the States. And in Australia after that person took 35 lives with an automatic weapon in Tasmania the conservative government of John Howard pushed through very strict gun control legislation. And Australia’s rate of violent death by gun is a fraction of what it is in the States. It would seem that having access to weapons that can kill give angry or deranged people the capacity to do just that. And having access to the force-multiplying weapon and ammo clips easily available at the local sporting goods store can rather easily multiply the number of casualties, be those casualties movie goers, high school students, Sikhs at worship, or 6-7 year old boys and girls. And where and when is this going to stop? Not until we address all of the factors that make these slaughters possible, and that includes gun control.
But until we get to that point, my original statement stands, that when it comes to guns and violence, I think my country has lost its mind.
A postscript. After I posted the above yesterday, I went to the local walmart to return a set of unused cookie cutters for my wife. As I was walking out, in front of me was a man and a woman pushing a cart piled high with just-bought toys. On the top was a toy M16 that looked just like the thing pictured above, only smaller. I played my share of cowboys and indians when I was growing up, and army as well. But after all that has happened this past week, this past year, this past decade, this sort of thing strikes me as basic insanity.