Americans die in huge numbers because of a minority's cultlike obsession with guns, and because our broken political system makes reform almost impossible.
My son is in kindergarten, and he knows what to do if there’s a shooting at his elementary school.
The teacher closes the blinds and locks the door, and the kids get under their desks, trying not to make a sound. He doesn’t know exactly why they practice this. His school calls them lockdown drills. But what they are is school shooting drills.
When he told me about this, it felt like a punch in the stomach. I wavered between an absurd feeling of gratitude—at least they want to make sure the kids are prepared—and weary anger that it’s necessary. It was a jolting reminder that there are dangers I can’t protect him from. Something is deeply broken in our country when the most we can do about gun violence is battlefield survival drills for 5-year-olds.
I’m not especially afraid for his safety, or mine. We live in a very safe neighborhood of a safe city, in a blue state with strong gun laws. But that’s the thing—you never know. It only takes one angry person with a deadly weapon. As we’ve been reminded, again and again and again.
In just the past two weeks, there was a mass shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, committed by a white supremacist who wanted to kill Black people. And then, before we even had time to catch our breath, there was a bigger massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. The taking of any innocent life is horrible, but what kind of inhuman monster sets out to kill children?
This is what America has come to. Mass murder is a nonstop spectacle in our country. It’s a steady flow of atrocity after atrocity, like raindrops on a windowpane.
How can we hold onto our humanity in the face of so much slaughter? Righteous anger is the energy that fuels change, but how can we keep our outrage alive when change seems more out of reach than ever? How can we keep our conscience from becoming numb, from shutting down out of sheer self-preservation?
Put the blame where it belongs
The first step in keeping those coals of anger alive is having a clear view of who’s to blame. When we think of mass shootings as unpredictable eruptions of evil, like natural disasters, it’s easy to surrender to fatalism. But gun violence isn’t causeless. There are reasons why people take up a weapon and choose to kill. Eliminate those causes, and we cut the problem off at the root.
One frequently-heard suggestion is that America needs better treatment for mental illness. I’m not against that, but it’s not the solution to this problem.
Many mass shooters aren’t mentally ill in the clinical sense. They don’t have a diagnosable condition like schizophrenia. They’re just angry men (98% of mass shooters are men), most of them isolated, bitter, and resentful. They’re steeped in a toxic brew of aggrieved entitlement and honor-culture masculinity. They’re convinced that the world owes them something, and because they haven’t been given what they think they deserve, they lash out.
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Another proposal is that we need more police and armed guards. In Uvalde, that theory was put to the test, and it failed catastrophically.
The police did come, but because they were afraid of being shot, they milled around uselessly while parents begged them to do something. The one time there was a reason to charge in with guns blazing, they sat on their hands like cowards. The courts have said that police have no duty to protect us, and they’re acting accordingly. They’re choosing not to risk themselves when they don’t have to.
The most obnoxious prescription comes from right-wingers who say that we need to repent and turn back to God. But the rest of the world refutes this self-serving hypothesis. Other countries, Western and Eastern, that have higher rates of atheism than the U.S. don’t suffer from this epidemic of slaughter. It’s America and America alone where routine mass death is treated as inevitable.
There’s only one explanation that makes sense: it’s the guns. More guns in more hands means more violence, more bloodshed, and more death. Period.
The science overwhelmingly backs this up. Study after study has found that higher gun ownership correlates with higher rates of murder and suicide. This relationship remains after controlling for poverty and mental health.
Americans kill each other, and themselves, in huge numbers with guns. In 2020 alone, more than 45,000 died. This includes rare and spectacular mass shootings, as well as ordinary murders and suicides—violence so dreary and mundane that it rarely gets reported.
If we want to stop gun violence, we need fewer guns. We need to ban semiautomatic weapons, cheap handguns, high-capacity magazines, armor-piercing ammunition, and other weapons whose only purpose is to kill people. We need strong red-flag laws, universal background checks, rigorous registration, buyback programs, and requirements for trigger locks and gun safes.
More sensible countries, like the UK, Australia and New Zealand, proved that this works. They all enacted sweeping gun reform after mass shootings, and they’ve had little or no gun violence since. Even in America, there’s a marked difference between blue states with strong gun laws and red states that hand out deadly weapons like candy. But we need a federal solution, because it’s all too easy to bring guns across state lines.
This leads into the second major problem: America’s broken-by-design political system allows a small minority to frustrate reform. Huge majorities of American voters support common-sense ideas like background checks, banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and getting rid of permitless concealed carry. Congressional Democrats have proposed measures like this again and again. But Republican politicians, who are in thrall to a sick cult of gun worship, stop them every time.
The Senate is the biggest culprit. It was intended to be an anti-democratic institution, and the filibuster makes it more so. It confers disproportionate power on a minority of voters in sparsely populated, backward, mostly-white states. This article by Ronald Brownstein describes the depth of the problem:
After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut, the Senate in 2013 voted on a measure backed by President Barack Obama to impose background checks on all gun sales. Again assigning half of each state’s population to each of its senators, the 54 senators who supported the bill… represented 194 million Americans. The remaining senators who opposed the bill represented 118 million people. But because of the Senate’s filibuster rule, which requires the backing of 60 senators to move legislation to a vote, the 118 million prevailed.
…Senate Republicans have represented a majority of the U.S. population for only two years since 1980, if you assign half of each state’s population to each of its senators. But largely because of its commanding hold on smaller states, the GOP has controlled the Senate majority for 22 of those 42 years.“The Real Reason America Doesn’t Have Gun Control.” Ronald Brownstein, The Atlantic, 25 May 2022.
I wonder how the Republican enablers of slaughter really feel about the votes they cast. In public, they have a well-practiced script, with boilerplate language about God and patriotism and rights and freedom. When the cameras are rolling, they say whatever their Fox audience expects.
But when the microphones and the lights are shut off, how do they justify it to themselves, in the quiet of their hearts? Do they fear for their own children and what kind of future they’re creating for them? Do they sleep easy, in beds bought with NRA dollars? Are they tormented by the demands of their self-chosen role, or are they true believers who regard a steady drumbeat of massacres as a price worth paying?
We need to reclaim “pro-life”
We need to repurpose a phrase coined by anti-abortion groups: America is a culture of death.
I’m not referring to tiny embryos with no brains, but living, feeling, thinking human beings. Children and adults. This nation treats their lives—our lives—as disposable commodities, to be ground beneath the wheels of capitalism or religion or tribalism. Our collective acceptance of gun death is just the latest manifestation of this anti-human outlook.
The Second Amendment arose from a historical recognition of the role that state militias played in independence. But pro-gun conservatives have turned it into a bloodstained idol of human sacrifice, fed from the altar of more guns, everywhere, all the time. They worship this principle with a zeal that borders on obsession. To judge from their public statements, it’s more important to them than any number of lives. Even their own.
We also saw this death culture with COVID, early in the pandemic, when right-wing politicians clamored against lockdowns and said out loud that the elderly should be “sacrificed” to keep the economy humming. We saw it in the ugly selfishness of Americans who insisted that wearing a mask or getting a shot was an intolerable infringement on their liberty. They loudly asserted that they wouldn’t accept even the slightest inconvenience to protect others.
Because of these attitudes, a million Americans are dead. Almost a third of those deaths were after vaccines were available to the public.
Where were the pro-life groups in all this? Why don’t we ever see them picketing gun shops?
If “pro-life” means anything, it should mean supporting measures that save the lives of actual, existing-right-now humans. If you’re against abortion, but you oppose vaccines and gun control, you’re not pro-life. You’re just pro-forced-birth.
Progressives need to reclaim this language. We’re the pro-life ones: the party that wants Americans to have health care when they get sick, to get vaccinated against disease, to offer asylum to refugees fleeing war and persecution. We’re the ones who want to take deadly weapons out of killers’ hands, to stop the slaughter of the innocent. None of that should be controversial, but here we are. Any political party that stands in the way of these goals represents the true culture of death.