America’s mass murder crisis is a terrifying phenomenon. It’s gotten to the point at which the supposedly freest country in the world has become, in some horrifically depressing ways, a 300 million person prison. When our schoolchildren and their teachers, mall and theater employees and government workers must, increasingly, make preparation for the sudden appearance of heavily armed sociopaths bent on mass murder a regular part of their daily lives, something has gone tragically wrong in society.
The New York Times got it right last Friday in the paper’s first front page editorial in 95 years, “End the Gun Epidemic in America”:
“All decent people feel sorrow and righteous fury about the latest slaughter of innocents, in California. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies are searching for motivations, including the vital question of how the murderers might have been connected to international terrorism. That is right and proper.
But motives do not matter to the dead in California, nor did they in Colorado, Oregon, South Carolina, Virginia, Connecticut and far too many other places. The attention and anger of Americans should also be directed at the elected leaders whose job is to keep us safe but who place a higher premium on the money and political power of an industry dedicated to profiting from the unfettered spread of ever more powerful firearms.
It is a moral outrage and a national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed specifically to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency. These are weapons of war, barely modified and deliberately marketed as tools of macho vigilantism and even insurrection. America’s elected leaders offer prayers for gun victims and then, callously and without fear of consequence, reject the most basic restrictions on weapons of mass killing, as they did on Thursday. They distract us with arguments about the word terrorism. Let’s be clear: These spree killings are all, in their own ways, acts of terrorism.
The Times editors went on to offer the following common sense conclusion:
“It is not necessary to debate the peculiar wording of the Second Amendment. No right is unlimited and immune from reasonable regulation.
Certain kinds of weapons, like the slightly modified combat rifles used in California, and certain kinds of ammunition, must be outlawed for civilian ownership. It is possible to define those guns in a clear and effective way and, yes, it would require Americans who own those kinds of weapons to give them up for the good of their fellow citizens.
What better time than during a presidential election to show, at long last, that our nation has retained its sense of decency?”
But, of course, the response thus far from the champions of unfettered gun ownership has not been at all encouraging. In the days since last week’s latest mass killing in San Bernardino by a sick and delusional couple with an apparent affinity for the ideology of the deranged theocrats in ISIL/ISIS, conservatives in Congress have rejected the notion of even limiting the right of individuals on the government’s “terror watch list” from purchasing guns. This from the same people who have regularly and relentlessly pummeled the Obama administration for not doing enough to aggressively pursue the “war on terror.” Conservative politicians in North Carolina have been no better.
(As an aside, it’s worth noting that there are many legitimate civil liberties concerns with respect to the genesis and maintenance of such a government list in the first place. That said, it’s hard to understand why it’s worth having such a list at all if we’re not even going to ask some questions when those who are on it attempt to purchase weapons that can readily be used to commit mass murder.)
And still there is hope
In such an environment, it would be easy to abandon hope that the United States will ever again implement any semblance of reasonable and effective gun control. Two decades ago, after their country experienced a horrific mass murder, the people of Australia enacted strong laws that greatly restricted gun purchases and put in place a gun buyback program that removed roughly one out of every five guns in the country from circulation. The country has had no mass murders since.
Here, such simple and common sense solutions seem fanciful. Indeed, if some Second Amendment absolutists had their way, the country would be awash in vastly more weapons than it already is – assault weapons, machine guns, bazookas, bombs – you name it.
And still, as hopeless as the situation may seem at times, there is reason to believe that the current spasm of gun madness is more likely to be the last loud and prolonged gasp of a dying culture of death than the onset of a long, dark chapter of perpetual terror. Here are five reasons for optimism – some obvious and familiar but worth reiterating and some you may not have considered:
#1 – Public opinion – Despite the wealth and power of the gun lobby (the gun industry and its confused allies in the NRA and other such groups), Americans remain overwhelmingly in favor of stronger gun laws. Even here in the South, where gun ownership is more deeply embedded in the culture, polls show that large majorities favor stronger laws. This is true even of gun owners. As Public Policy Polling reported just last month:
“86% of North Carolinians support background checks on all gun sales, to only 9% who are opposed to them. There’s 91% support from Democrats, 82% support from Republicans, and 82% support from independents for that expansion in gun laws.”
Even in the corrupt, pay-to-play, post-Citizens United world of modern American politics, such numbers cannot be resisted indefinitely.
#2 – Changing demographics – Things do not figure to get any better for the gun absolutists in the years ahead. As the U.S. becomes a majority-minority and ever-more-urbanized nation, public opinion is sure to bend more and more toward support of sane regulation. Add to this the simple fact that, despite the mad paranoia of some Obama haters, overall gun ownership rates have been trending downward for some time (and the fact that young people and people of color tend to own fewer guns) and there is still more reason for optimism.
#3 – Global trends – As more and more people are becoming aware, the United States is an extreme outlier when it comes to guns and mass killings – especially amongst the major industrialized countries. In a shrinking and ever more closely connected planet in which national borders matter less and less, it strains the imagination to believe that it will remain this way in perpetuity – especially if the U.S. wants to continue to claim moral authority as a global leader.
#4 – Modern communications technology and shifting public attitudes toward violence – One of the most important and positive results of the explosion in the availability of smartphones and the video recordings they produce in recent years has been the widespread public revulsion it has generated toward several police shootings. The same is true of modern communications technology generally. Simply put: When people see the horror of murder in living color, they are sickened by it and demand action. This cannot be good for opponents of sane gun laws.
#5 – Advancing weapons technology – The Second Amendment was written more than two centuries ago when “bearing arms” meant keeping a musket by the fireside. Soon, technological advances will, absent sane regulations, make killing machines that would have once been imagined only in science fiction (machines that will make assault weapons seem quaint) readily available to the masses. Unless Americans want to embrace some kind of horrific, post-apocalyptic, Mad Max on steroids existence, this is clearly not a sustainable path for society.
The bottom line: Desperate as the current situation seems, all hope is not lost. There’s a heck of a lot of hard work (not to mention a lot more senseless tragedy) ahead, but if Americans want to preserve civil society as we know it, they can, must and will eventually act to end the gun madness.
For more information on efforts to promote sane gun policies in North Carolina, including a special vigil this Thursday evening, visit the website of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence at www.ncgv.org.