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‘The Empty Rituals of a Gun Massacre’
Four themes we've seen again, and again, and again, and again.
A post one week ago on this site began with a reference to the racist gun massacre in Buffalo, New York. This one begins with a reference to the gun massacre of little children and teachers today in Uvalde, Texas.
My purpose tonight is simply to collect in one place themes that, appallingly, I have had occasion to write about again and again over the decades. Also appallingly, they become more and more true.
I hope some day they all seem out of date.
1. This does not happen anywhere else.
Ten years ago, after the gun massacre in Aurora, Colorado, I wrote this, called “The Certainty of More Shootings”:
Like everyone, and I'd say especially like every parent, I am of course saddened and horrified by the latest mass shooting-murder. My sympathies to all.
And of course the additional sad, horrifying, and appalling point is the shared American knowledge that, beyond any doubt, this will happen again, and that it will happen in America many, many times before it occurs anywhere else.
Recently I visited the site of the "Port Arthur Massacre," in Tasmania, where in 1996 a disturbed young man shot and killed 35 people and wounded 23 more. The site is a kind of national shrine; afterwards, Australia tightened up its gun laws, and there has been nothing remotely comparable in all the years since.
In contrast: not long after that shooting, during my incarnation as news-magazine editor, I dispatched reporters to cover then-shocking schoolyard mass shootings in West Paducah, Kentucky, and Jonesboro, Arkansas.
Those two episodes, coming back to back, were -- as always -- supposed to provoke a "national discussion" about guns and gun violence. As always, they didn't; a while later they were nudged from the national consciousness by Columbine; and since then we have had so many schoolyard- or public-place shootings that those two are barely mentioned.
And a few years later, after another gun massacre:
There are things that can be done to reduce the frequency of gun massacres. We know that because in every other developed country on Earth they have been done, and have made a difference. Australia, Scotland, Norway, Canada, Germany, Finland—these and other countries have had occasional horrific mass shootings.
These countries have just as high a proportion of mentally ill people as the United States does, just as many with pent-up grievances. But only America has an endless series of gun killings.
We hear a lot about prayers after events like this. I pray some day to be proven wrong.
2. America was not always so heavily armed.
The “originalist” conceit that Americans’ birthright is to be armed with AR-15s is lethal bullshit. You don’t have to have been around at the time of the Founders to know that. You only need to have been a working reporter, or sentient human being, as recently as the 1980s, when I happened to have done a hugely long Atlantic article on how the AR-15 was designed.
You can read the article here. Its central argument is that the AR-15 is an even more effective weapon-of-death than the U.S. military’s M-16, which was derived from the AR-15 and first put to serious use in Vietnam. Don’t believe it? Read the article, and the Congressional hearings it cites. Or check the footnotes in this recent post.
Or ask anyone who was around in that Vietnam era or the preceding decades, when ordinary households didn’t own this kind of military-grade equipment, just as they didn’t own household bazookas or howitzers.
My own father—a Navy veteran, a member of the local auxiliary police force, a doctor who carried a loaded pistol in his medical bag when he went on late-night house calls—kept his only weapon in a safe at home. In Boy Scouts I got the Marksmanship merit badge—using a BB gun. The merit-badge instructor, a Marine combat veteran of World War II, had several shotguns and pistols in his house, but nothing that could be confused with military issue. People outside the military didn’t have AR-15s.
Here’s something more: The famed weapons designer known as the father of the AR-15, Eugene Stoner, always intended it as a tool exclusively for soldiers. Don’t believe me? This is what his family said after the gun massacre in Orlando:
"Our father, Eugene Stoner, designed the AR-15 and subsequent M-16 as a military weapon to give our soldiers an advantage over the AK-47,” the Stoner family told NBC News late Wednesday. "He died long before any mass shootings occurred. But, we do think he would have been horrified and sickened as anyone, if not more by these events."
According to his family, Stoner—a Marine, a gun enthusiast, an avid shooter—never owned an AR-15 or had one in his house:
And though he made millions from the design, his family said it was all from military sales.
"After many conversations with him, we feel his intent was that he designed it as a military rifle," his family said, explaining that Stoner was "focused on making the most efficient and superior rifle possible for the military."
3. Gun control hasn’t ‘failed.’ Specific people have blocked it.
Many people have played their part. But none has mattered more than Mitch McConnell. I made the case in detail here, after the Parkland gun massacre.
The crucial moment [in McConnell’s influence] came after Barack Obama’s reelection victory over Mitt Romney, in 2012.
Five weeks after the election, on December 14, a disturbed 20-year-old with an AR-15 went to the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and shot dead 20 little six- and seven-year-old children, plus six staff members.
At the time, it seemed unimaginable. At the time, it seemed that this atrocity might be the one that finally changed the public mind and thus public policy about dealing with guns. At the time, it seemed that pictures of these children and their families might have an effect like that of horrific images from the Vietnam era, for instance 9-year-old Kim Phuc running in terror, naked, after a napalm attack.
Associates of Barack Obama say that he considered the day he got the Sandy Hook news the worst day of his presidency. And two months later, in the first State of the Union address of his second term, he made the case for gun legislation with a passion and intensity quite rare in these big, formal speeches.
The ending of his speech was built around the phrase and concept that people devastated by gun violence deserved at least the respect of a formal up-or-down congressional vote on gun-control laws. He said, with a cadence I noted at the time and will illustrate with italic emphases:
“Of course, what I've said tonight matters little if we don't come together to protect our most precious resource—our children.
“It has been two months since Newtown. I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence. But this time is different. Overwhelming majorities of Americans—Americans who believe in the Second Amendment—have come together around commonsense reform—like background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun…
“Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress. If you want to vote no, that's your choice. But these proposals … deserve a vote. Because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun.
“One of those we lost was a young girl named Hadiya Pendleton. She was 15 years old. She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. She was a majorette. She was so good to her friends, they all thought they were her best friend. Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house.
“Hadiya's parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote.
“They deserve a vote. They deserve a vote!
“Gabby Giffords deserves a vote.
“The families of Newtown deserve a vote.
“The families of Aurora deserve a vote.
“The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence - they deserve … a …. simple …. vote.
“They deserve a simple vote.” [This was the end of the quote from Obama’s speech.]
They deserved a simple vote—up or down, yes or no, on gun-control measures that had support of more than 50 senators and of a much larger proportion of the public in opinion polls.
They deserved that vote, and didn’t get it, because Mitch McConnell led a filibuster of the measures Obama had proposed and a majority in the Senate supported. Those measures couldn’t get 60 votes to break the filibuster, and they died.
McConnell didn’t do this on his own: The money and ferocity of the NRA were behind him. But he was the face, instrument, and leader of the effort to say: No, not even these murdered little children “deserve a vote.”
The children and teachers of Uvalde are the latest who deserve a vote. As do the families of Buffalo, and of hundreds of other places.
Will they get it? Mitch McConnell is still there, with 50 members of his bloc, to say No.
4. The rituals we are about to see.
Four years ago, after the Parkland gun massacre, I wrote about the deflection steps that were likely to keep any mass killing from affecting gun policy. The sequence was this, slightly updated from what I had written after the gun massacre in Aurora, Colorado six years before.
Please use this as your guide in the days to come:
As news of the killing comes in, cable channels give it wall-to-wall coverage.
The NRA ducks its head down and goes dark for hours or days, in its Twitter and other social-media outlets.
Politicians who have done everything possible to oppose changes in gun laws, and who often are major recipients of NRA contributions, offer “thoughts and prayers” to the victims, say they are “deeply saddened,” praise the heroes of law enforcement and of medical treatment who have tried to limit the damage, and lament the mental-health or cultural problems that have expressed themselves via an AR-15.
“Thoughts and prayers” are of course admirable. But after an airline crash, politicians don’t stop with “thoughts and prayers” for the victims; they want to get to the bottom of the cause. After a fatal fire, after a botched response to a hurricane, after a food-poisoning or product-safety failure or a nursing-home abuse scandal, “thoughts and prayers” are the beginning of the public response but not the end. After a shooting they are both.
These same politicians say that the aftermath of a shooting is “not the right time” to “politicize” the tragedy by talking about gun laws or asking why only in America do massacres happen week after week after week.
The right time to discuss these policies is “never.”
The news moves on; everyone forgets except the families and communities that are forever changed.
The next shooting comes, “thoughts and prayers” are offered, and the cycle resumes.
As I wrote four years ago, “If this summary sounds too cynical, think back to what has happened since a gunman killed or wounded more than 600 people in Las Vegas less than five months ago.”
That was a more innocent time.
“When in God’s name?” Joe Biden asked this evening. When in God’s name.