At least twice, now, in 2012, we in the United States have been subjected to two mass shootings in a two-week span. The first was mere days ago, when 22-year-old Jacob Tyler Roberts donned a hockey mask and an assault rifle, and began firing into a crowd at a Portland, Oregon shopping mall. By some small mercy, he killed only two. But somehow, I can see no comfort in that fact.
And then there was yesterday in Connecticut. Yesterday, armed with four weapons and draped in a bulletproof vest, 20-year-old Adam Lanza gunned down twenty-seven people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, including twenty young children and his own mother, who was a teacher there.
This may sound like a crass question at this particular moment, but: is it time to talk about gun control, yet?
I ask because White House Press Secretary Jay Carney says no. Faced with the question at a press briefing after the Newtown shooting, he responded: I think that day will come, but today’s not that day, especially as we are awaiting more information about the situation.
But here’s my question to Mr. Carney: what more information do you need, beyond that pre-pubescent body count, to know that there is a problem?
Do you need to be reminded, for example, that the last four years have seen the pretense of limits to the Second Amendment gutted in the United States? Do you need to know that a Federal court, earlier this week, struck down a law in Illinois that banned the possession of concealed firearms in public? Do you need to know that Michigan passed a law — yesterday, as the Newtown shootings were taking place — that will allow the carrying of concealed weapons in … schools, churches, day cares and sports stadiums?
Maybe you need to take a trip, way back to 2010, when President Obama signed a law allowing loaded guns into national parks. Or back just a little bit further, to 2009, when a Federal court struck down a 32-year-old firearm ban in the District of Columbia.
Does it give you pause, Mr. Carney, that D.C.’s ban on handguns was older than either of these two most recent mass shooters? And older than Jared Laughner and James Holmes, too?
Or perhaps the information you need is less historical than demographic. Maybe this will help: in 2009, the last year for which there is data, the United States had a total of 9,146 gun-related homicides. Canada, by comparison, had 173. And the United Kingdom had 18. To offer some perspective, Mexico — in the midst of an all-out drug war — had 11,309 gun-related homicides during that same period. That’s more than the in United States, but not that many more.
But — I can hear you saying — raw numbers like that don’t make for statistically sound comparisons. So lets put it another way. In that period, in 2009, the United States had 2.98 gun-related homicides per hundred thousand people. Canada’s rate was 0.5 deaths, and the United Kingdom’s was 0.03. By this reckoning, our closest neighbors are Argentina and Barbados, each of which had 3.0 per hundred thousand. Neither of those places are backwaters, exactly. But at the same time, I don’t think that they are the kind of company we’d optimally like the United States to keep.
I do want to be fair, here, though. I recognize that gun control isn’t a very popular subject, and that even its mere mention is enough to send legislators on the Right into a froth. It has always seemed to me that progressive Democrats should have an obvious ally in anti-choice Republicans who are, as they say, concerned with the sanctity of every life. But sadly, this is not so.
In the wake of Newtown, folks in Republican politics have turned to faith, not policy. Indiana Senator Dan Coats tweeted:
While Fox News personality and values conservative Mike Huckabee took it one step further. We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools, he opined. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?
Again, though — to be fair — Democrats aren’t exactly beating down the door for gun control, either. Representative Jerrold Nadler, from New York’s 8th district, came out forcefully for immediate action in his statement:
Yet another unstable person has gotten access to firearms and committed an unspeakable crime against innocent children. We cannot simply accept this as a routine product of modern American life. If now is not the time to have a serious discussion about gun control and the epidemic of gun violence plaguing our society, I don’t know when is.
But Nadler has been the exception, not the rule. Neither Harry Reid nor Nancy Pelosi had anything to say about policy, yesterday. And though President Obama said in his official statement that we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, that’s as far as it went. As with the mass shootings from earlier this year, the thrust of his words offered sympathy, and little else.
So here’s the deal, Mr. Carney — and all the rest of you public officials out there who think that now isn’t the time to talk about gun control: I recognize that it is hard. I know that it is difficult to strike a balance between policy and sympathy, especially in the face of horrors of a scale and kind that are difficult to even comprehend. I know that it is difficult when powerful special interests — America’s behemoth gun lobby — are surely circling the wagons and whispering in your ears: guns don’t kill people.
But as President Kennedy said in a very different context: there are things that we must do not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Reforms to our national gun policy may be unpopular, but they are essential to preserving the peace — essential to the public good. It is unfathomable to me that anyone could look at recent events, or at a number like 9,000 homicides, and not see a dire problem. It is equally unfathomable that anybody with any kind of honesty — anybody not in the pocket of the NRA — could look at all this and say: we need more guns, not fewer.
And so now is the time. Over the bodies of slain children, when sympathy is highest and resistance is lowest, now is the time to do gun control. Gun control will never be a politically easy fight. Nor, I think, will it ever be a political winner for whichever party is in power. But it must be done — because the alternative looks like an American landscape dotted with Sandy Hook Elementaries.