Parade of Coffins

Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to support a bill that would impose a ban on some assault weapons along with other measures aimed at reducing the likelihood of another tragedy like Sandy Hook. That bill, in all likelihood, will now die in the Senate. Even if it somehow survives the Republican tantrum that will inevitably come, it has zero chance of passing a House of Representatives held hostage by rabid constituents and lobbyists like the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre.

I struggle to find words to capture the abiding sadness of this state of affairs. Each new massacre seems like it must be the final straw — that at last, we will come together and decide that even if we cannot agree on the exact prescription, something must change. Instead, we just watch a parade of coffins while we salivate over every twisted detail of the lives of the monsters that fill them with children. And when those lives have vanished into the dirt we do nothing but shout at each other as we buy even more weapons of war for our personal collections. We debate the mental status of the Aurora shooter while we do nothing and expect different results — the very definition of insanity.

Of course he was insane, as is any person who buys his 15 minutes with the blood of others. But at this point, who are we to judge? So we trot out poor Gabby Giffords, applaud her condescendingly and then ignore the plea that she has no choice but to deliver in simple, difficult bursts because the bullet hole through her head robbed the former Congresswoman of her power of speech. Continue reading

We do not have a unique mental illness problem in this country

We do not have a unique mental illness problem with this country; other countries also have people who suffer from mental illness. But you wouldn’t know it from listening to NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre, who supports the right to carry a gun at the cost to any other right. He seems to think that the problem of gun violence in the United States would best be solved by putting the mentally ill in institutions, a suggestion stuck in the 1950s. We are not alone in the world attempting more humane solutions to mental illness than institutionalization. Yes, we could do much more as a nation to help these people, but I seriously doubt that anyone who supports unrestricted gun ownership also supports an expansion of government spending on the type of health care programs needed to have a serious impact. At the same time, many of the people who have taken the airwaves in the weeks after Newtown to decry gun restrictions also oppose the types of background checks that would actually help to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.

Including suicides, guns were a factor in 30,000 American deaths last year. In cities like Philadelphia, eighty percent of the victims of gun violence are young men from minority groups. Obviously, not all of these people or their murderers are mentally ill. They’re the victims of rash decisions, poverty, distrust in the police to solve crimes and accord punishment. All of these are major problems that we should attempt to deal with as a nation. But other nations have these problems, too. There is poverty in Britain. Australians don’t particularly trust the police. But neither of these can access deadly firearms with the unique ease of Americans. Continue reading

Kids are Dead

On May 5th, 2009, in the last month of my last year of high school, a former cross-country teammate of mine walked into the building with a sawed-off shotgun. Earlier that day he had brought in a duffle bag containing thirty extra shotgun rounds and some molotov cocktails and stored it in his locker. He planned to use these to take the lives of his fellow students, but for some reason that I can never learn, he instead went into the bathroom next to the new gymnasium, sat down in one of the toilet stalls, turned the gun on himself, and pulled the trigger.

I can’t hear the news of the 28 dead in Connecticut without being transported back to that day, almost four years ago, waiting behind locked doors in the library, with little information other than that shots had been fired and no contact with the outside world, certain that somebody I loved was going to die and wondering whether one of the tables in the room, flipped on its side, would shield me from bullets. I remember the police leading us out of the building with our hands on our heads. And then I imagine if I’d been six instead of eighteen, or if I’d been a teacher in charge of the children. I imagine the kids running and screaming as the gunman came into their classroom. Or I imagine them sitting quietly under their desks, shaking, crying, hoping and praying that they wouldn’t be noticed. This was real; this is no political or media construct:

Kids are dead in Newtown, Connecticut. Continue reading

The Dead, the Bad, and the Ugly

There are more than 10,000 gun-related homicides in the United States each year. This year, one of those was a seventeen year old boy in Florida, shot by a grown man who followed him around the neighborhood despite a police dispatcher’s specific instructions.

Just because George Zimmerman has been charged with second degree murder for the killing of Trayvon Martin does not mean that he’ll be convicted. Normally, the case would be pretty straightforward: no one disputes that Zimmerman pulled the trigger on the pistol that he proudly carried like an over-imaginative twelve year old might carry a cap gun. No one disputes that the bullet he fired took the life of a teenage boy. In almost every other Western country in the entire world, he would be convicted of the murder that he clearly committed. In Florida, the outcome is less clear.

Continue reading

“A Well-Regulated Militia”

am not going to write about what happened in Tucson two weeks ago. Obviously the events are tragic — although we can take a small measure of hope from the survival of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) — and enough has been said about the shooter.

Nor am I going to try and lay this at the feet of the Tea Party; Jared Loughner was not inspired by the violent rhetoric they toss around casually without fear of reprisal. While we can probably all agree that it is unwise to pray for the death of your opponent or to shoot a human-shaped target with your opponent’s initials written on it, Sarah Palin’s crosshairs on a map were not the reason for this incident.

What the tragedy at Tucson does show is that we need to seriously question our societal obsession with firearms.

The saying that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” is — to put it bluntly — a load of crap. A disturbed individual could never show up at a rally with a concealed bow and arrow or a butcher knife and kill six others.

What kind of private citizen needs to be able to fire 30 rounds without reloading? If someone breaks into your house, and it takes 30 shots to either shoot the intruder or scare them away then there is a fair chance you have also accidently hit your dog, your neighbors and — if Mr. and Mrs. Smith was any guide — every piece of antique china in the dining room. Despite what you might think from playing Call of Duty, bullets are not easily stopped by sheetrock and two-by-fours. The only reason for carrying such a dangerous weapon is if you’re Jack Bauer, repelling an entire team of enemy commandos. In that case, an M-4 or MP-5 would be more effective anyway and have the added benefit of being unable to be concealed in public.

The second amendment says that “a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Even though Justice Antonin Scalia and the NRA insist otherwise, this text does not allow an unlimited right to carry more guns than Neo in The Matrix. The key phrase of the amendment is “a well-regulated militia.” This phrase does not refer to the crazies training to combat their impending relocation to FEMA concentration camps. It can only refer to the National Guard or a similarly organized and regulated group. Should you be able to carry a weapon if you’re not serving? Sure — a shotgun or a hunting rifle seems both reasonable and consistent with the founders’ intent.  But you don’t have a constitutional guarantee allowing you to carry an Uzi to work.

I almost cried when I read Gail Collins’ column about Tucson in the New York Times.  I’m no John Boehner, bawling into my designer sleeves at the first sight of pathos, but I do have a ten-year-old sister, so when I read that a little girl, only nine, was shot in the chest that day because she had just been elected President of her class and wanted to learn more about democracy, I understood why we still have the death penalty.

If, as a society, we cannot agree to keep handguns and automatic weapons out of the hands of the deranged, to ban extended magazines and to forbid the practice of carrying a pistol under one’s jacket, then we must prepare to accept more tragedies like Tucson, Virginia Tech and Columbine. The nine-year-old victim, Christina Taylor Green, was born on September 11th, 2001. More children and teens are killed by gun violence every year than perished on that awful day. How many more must die before we learn? Guns by themselves do not kill people.  But people with guns sure as hell can.