“A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all. Those who do nothing are inviting shame, as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right, as well as reality.”
– John F. Kennedy
I think I can write about it now.
I’ve been trying to write about it ever since it happened. I managed a couple of overly long Facebook posts but that’s not the same. I haven’t been able to put any real writing together about it.
I have to talk about it some time. We all have to.
We all have to talk about it because anyone associated with Sandy Hook Elementary School will never be able to talk about it. Twenty-six families from that community can scarcely bear thinking about it even though it must surely be on their minds every second of every day. Nothing will ever be good for them again. The sun will never shine as warm and as brightly as it does for people like me whose children are as I write this snuggled safely and peacefully in their beds. Each of those families had someone in them who died violently at the hands of a gunman. Many of them were little children. As a result their worlds will never be right, will always shrouded in darkness. At least a part of each member of that family will always be screaming.
We’re talking about a shooting that took place at a school. I’m a teacher and have four small children. Maybe I feel this a little more than others not directly affected by the events of last month in Newtown, Connecticut. I need to feel it even more than that. We all need to feel it more.
It’s not enough to, in the words of William Butler Yates, “mumble polite meaningless words” about thoughts and prayers, though thoughts and prayers are fitting. It’s not enough for us to just throw up our hands and wonder what the world is coming to, although that’s a very natural reaction to these events. It’s not enough to just hug our kids and tell everyone else to do the same, although hugging your kids is never ever under any circumstances a bad idea.
None of the usual and largely ineffectual things we do in the wake of deadly acts of violence like this will do. We have to do better.
At a certain point, we realize how awful it all is for so many of us. It all becomes too much of a waking nightmare and fills you with too much revulsion and finally, finally something begins to happen. Everything changes. We vow we’ll get it right from here on in and we actually manage it.
Segregation used to be widespread in this country. The right to do everything from vote to marry someone with a different skin color was denied to African-Americans. We’ll never know how many lynchings there really were or how many of those responsible for the “strange fruit” Billie Holiday sang about never saw one day behind bars for it. It all became too terrible.
Then Jackie Robinson happened. Rosa Parks happened. Martin Luther King happened. The whole of the civil rights movement happened. As a country we marched ourselves right over to the mirror and said “this is not who we want to be. We talk a real big game about all men being created equal and liberty and justice for all. Do we mean that or don’t we? If we do, we bloody well better start living it.”
We didn’t do it perfectly. It cost us the life of Dr. King and countless other brave men and women. We had riots and busing crises and it’s not like it’s all better now. But our national pastime finally represented our whole nation, segregation laws are dead and buried and an African-American is now President of the United States. What’s more we changed our very conscience as a country.
There was a time not all that long ago when drunk driving might have earned you a ticket. It was considered a naughty sort of lark. Then we started to notice how many teenagers were being killed in horrific and utterly avoidable car accidents. We went to one high schooler’s funeral too many. It all became too terrible.
Then MADD and SADD happened. The penalties for drunk driving became exponentially tougher. We started seeing DUI checkpoints and found out what blood alcohol content was and saw the drinking age go up to twenty-one. Once again we had a conversation with ourselves as a nation. This time we said “we don’t want to be a place where sixteen years old slaughter themselves or are slaughtered by drunks. There’s plenty we can do right now to repair this. We just need the will to actually do it.”
We didn’t do it perfectly. Drunk driving has not vanished from the nation. But there’s a lot less of it and there are a lot more safeguards against it. What’s more, drunk driving isn’t a naughty lark anymore. It’s rightly perceived as irresponsible and wrong and it’s a real good way to lose your license and serve serious jail time.
So there is precedent: we have indeed changed. We eventually realized there were certain things that couldn’t stand and they didn’t stand. Eventually enough was too much and we did better.
And sometimes we haven’t.
Back in late September of 2001, we endured as crushing a gut-punch as we have ever suffered as a country and it was forcing us to change. We were talking to our neighbors, realizing our diversity was actually a strength, hugging at candlelight vigils, and expressing long overdue gratitude to cops and firefighters and other first responders.
We had all that for a moment. Then that moment turned into the Patriot Act and the war in Iraq and warrantless wire-tapping and people absolutely flipping their lids just because some Muslims wanted to build a mosque in the same zip code as the World Trade Center.
Our response to September 11, 2001 was a failure in so many ways. The events of December 14, 2012 represent what could amount to the 9/11 of gun violence in the United States. We can’t screw this up this time. We need to do better with guns in this country.
We can’t slap down a prohibition on all firearms. We tried prohibiting alcohol, another inherently dangerous thing that’s legal but reasonably harmless in the hands of a responsible user, and it was a disaster. Banning all guns would feel good, but it probably wouldn’t work. We don’t have the luxury of just doing what feels good and doesn’t work.
Just because out-and-out prohibition won’t work, it doesn’t mean that leaving assault weapons out on the streets is a good idea. Alcohol is legal. Heroin isn’t. They’re both dangerous drugs. One is more dangerous than the other. Alcohol will still kill some people this year, but most people are smart enough and careful enough to be able to handle it. Heroin pretty much eats you alive the second it enters your system.
A shotgun to do a little duck hunting? I don’t get why you like shooting ducks, but whatever Elmer Fudd. A weapon whose only purpose is to wipe out a cave full of Taliban fighters? You’re a civilian. You’re surrounded by civilians where you live. Don’t be absurd.
If you’re a civilian, you also don’t need magazines of ammunition that are only appropriate for hunting if you’re hunting Osama bin Laden. There should also be some reasonable limit set on just how many bullets you can buy. Dear reader, no matter who are, the odds are enormously against you being a Navy SEAL. If you are, fell free ignore this. If you’re not, once again, don’t be ridiculous. One bullet is all that’s needed to subdue a theoretical prowler in your house and/or hypothetical raccoon in your garbage.
And you don’t need multiple guns. A limit of one per household is not harsh.
Since we’re talking restrictions on firearms and ammunition, let’s get the NRA involved.
We need the NRA in on the conversation if for no other reason than that they know a lot about guns and we need all the gun expertise we can get right now. We also need them because before they became the irresponsible belligerent loudmouths they are now, the NRA actually promoted gun safety. They supported the National Firearms act of 1934 and the Gun Control Act of 1968, two landmark pieces of firearms regulation legislation. If that NRA shows up to the table they can stay. If on the other hand they’re just going to throw their standard temper tantrum because they’ve once again convinced themselves that the mere suggestion that maybe it shouldn’t be legal for every yahoo everywhere to own everything up to and including grenade launchers is an indication that the Second Amendment is dead and the cossacks are coming any minute, they need to be treated like the wallpaper and ignored. Gun control must, absolutely must, be a conversation for grownups. The NRA of Wayne LaPierre does not qualify. If you want to blow smoke about how everything from Quentin Tarentino to Grand Theft Auto and pretty much everyone but you is to blame for the crisis of gun violence in this country, stand aside and let people who are actually interested in helping take the lead.
Since Wayne LaPierre guarantees the NRA can’t be taken seriously, perhaps we should try to seriously address some of the legitimate points they do try to raise but can’t since the NRA is such a moronic joke at this point.
Cracking down on illegal weapons needs to be part of the solution. We hear about all the “bad guys” who have weapons they shouldn’t. Maybe we ought to go get them. Maybe we ought to arrange it so that if some punk kid pulls out his unlicensed piece to impress his buddies he’s instantly looking at twenty years. Let’s not stop there. You can’t smoke on airplanes or drink in libraries. It shouldn’t be a big deal to put you in jail for having a gun in a school zone. Maybe we ought to license guns more carefully. We all had to take a written and practical test to legally drive a car. We have to get that license renewed every so often. Surely the requirements for the license for a gun ought to be more far more demanding: how about a written and practical test you have to take every six months? How about the background check you went through to obtain the license and gun in the first place has to be repeated with every renewal? Let’s make a psychological evaluation part of the process. If you don’t like that, you don’t get a license for a gun. A lot of people have to drive cars. You don’t have to own a gun. If we’re going to be tough on illegal guns, let’s really be tough. Let’s make reasonably tough licensing for gun ownership part of the crackdown.
Addressing mental health needs to be part of the solution. I’ve been hearing all about how mental health care is inadequate in this country. It probably is. All health care is inadequate in this country. This is all the more reason why universal health care is such a priority. This is also all the more reason to dial down the hysterical shrieking about the Affordable Care Act and start seeing as a starting point not something to be hamstrung at every opportunity. We already know it’s wrong for someone to go broke getting cancer treatment. We need to realize it’s just as wrong for someone to not be able to afford the therapy and medication they need to stay sane. Health care is all aspects of health or at least it should be.
Now at long last, we come to the hardest and of course the most important part. It was relatively easy to pass Civil Rights Act and to desegregate the classroom, the dugout, and the lunch counter. It was and is a whole lot tougher for people to see those of a different ethnicity or race as human beings just like them. It was relatively easy to raise the drinking age and pass some strict DUI laws. It was and is a whole lot tougher for people to think a few steps ahead and look at the consequences of their actions for themselves and those around them.
It will be relatively easy to legislate some reasonable gun control laws and crack down on illegal weapons. That should give you some idea of how monumentally difficult this other and essential part of the task will be.
We have to stop loving guns.
There are many who claim we in the United States live in a Christian nation. That’s a lie and really always has been. There are others who claim we are an atheist nation. This too is false.
We worship guns.
Not only do we not see a problem with the worship of guns, we actually think it speaks wells of us. We think of guns and we think of noble bank robbers of the Old West, honorable mafia hoods, and respected thugs immortalized in rap songs. These aren’t a bunch of lowlife criminals. They’re modern Robin Hoods, tough guys following their own rules, misunderstood rebels sticking it to the man.
We love guys who can shoot a gun. We love violence. We love bloodshed. Oh we say all the right things when something like Newtown happens, but we forget about that as soon as we feel it’s tasteful to do so and go back to who we really are. We are a country that can’t stop telling itself how hard-bitten and edgy and cool it is because it’s armed to the teeth. This is America, not some cissy European nation that bans firearms. This is bad-ass America.
We need to get over ourselves and we need to do it right now. We’re not bad-ass. We’re not edgy. Our fetish for guns makes us lunkheaded. It makes us backward. Most importantly, it makes us dangerous to ourselves and especially to our children.
We claim to love our neighbors and our children. What a crock. We love our guns far more than either. Why else would we be talking about how “complex” the issue of gun control is? Why else would we be doing some song and dance about how there are no easy answers to the question of gun violence? Why would we wuss out every single time we have an opportunity to bring some sanity to this issue? For God’s sake, why is it even an issue? Twenty children were just butchered by some lowlife with a gun. One month later and we’re still hemming and hawing. There are good people trying to bring about meaningful change and we keep hearing about how they don’t have much chance of succeeding. There’s plenty of sensible legislation being proposed by our Vice President among others and they’re going to have a fight on their hands getting it passed. Twenty children are butchered and it’s still not enough to make some civilized form of gun control happen.
Or maybe it is. It’s up to us. If we can stop treating guns like God. If we can realize how wrong we are to look at guns the way we do in this culture and turn that realization into legislation. If we can stop treating the Second Amendment like it’s the only important part of the Constitution and really revolutionize how we view guns and deal with gun violence in this country.
We’ve pulled off revolutions like this before. We’ve also completely botched them.
For the families that were destroyed in December and that can never be made whole again, for all the families that may yet join their ranks, we’d damn well better get this one right.