Do we still feel it when 20 innocent children are gunned down in a kindergarten classroom or when a crazed gunman stands up in a darkened movie theater, raises an assault-style weapon, and indiscriminately shoots into the crowd? Do we still feel it when a mother rushes to an emergency room to see about her son, a middle school kid caught in the crossfire of a gang war? When a spurned lover stalks his ex-girlfriend and guns her down as she runs across a grocery store parking lot, do we still feel it?
We asked ourselves the question again this morning: Do we still feel it?
Every one of the thousands of families who loses someone to gun violence each year still feels it. This much I know.
Forty-five years after my father’s murder and more than 25 after my brother was shot in the back of the head as he played a video game, I still feel it.
That young woman in a Birmingham, Alabama, grocery store lot who begged for her life as her children wept in her car nearby? That was my cousin Brenda. It burns in my bones, leeches at my soul and, if I let it, sucks away my hope for something better. I still see my daddy’s face in my dreams, clear as the sunrise, unsullied by blood, muck, and malice.
In only four months’ time, in three separate incidents, 101 people lost their lives and dozens more were injured at the hands of three lone gunmen—58 at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, 26 in a Texas church and, now, 17 at a Florida high school. It was just five years ago, on Dec. 14, 2012, that Adam Lanza walked into an elementary school and fatally shot 20 children and six staff members after murdering his own mother. We felt it after that, or so it seemed.
Washington, they say, is broken. Not powerless, as some others would like to believe, but paralyzed by a blockade of NRA-backed lobbyists who keep the money flowing to our nation’s elected officials in the name of protecting Second Amendment rights. I used to believe that the gun lobby’s work was racially driven and, to some extent, I still do. Much of the conversation is still about the need to protect oneself from urban boogeymen and shadowy wall-jumpers, including within many of the supposedly “well-regulated militias” whose members see themselves as the the last bastion of hope against a tyrannical government.
The question now must be: Why are we, the people, once again allowing the carnage to continue—this time after a Valentine’s Day marred by this latest double-digit school-shooting death count.
In 1934, five years after Al Capone’s henchman slaughtered seven mobsters in a warehouse on St. Valentine’s Day in 1929, Illinois banned the private use of Thompson submachine guns—known as “Tommy guns.” The National Firearms Act (NFA) passed that same year, imposing a tax that effectively doubled their price. The ban on machine guns, a law vigorously opposed by the NRA, still stands.
As a nation, we have the right and the obligation to decide what kinds of weapons are made available to the citizenry, to whom, and under what circumstances. The right to bear arms is no more absolute than the right to stock my medicine cabinet to the gills with over-the-counter pseudoephedrine, a drug used by amateur chemists to manufacture methamphetamines. Federal regulations determine how it is sold, how much and who gets access.
But these arguments have been made before and by people more learned than me. It is the politics of appeasement, not the American Constitution, that stands between us and making sound public policy. Gun-rights advocates represent a vocal, highly organized, and well-moneyed sector of the electorate. That cacophony of noise overrides public opinion polls that clearly and overwhelmingly favor more restrictions on gun sales.
Gun safety laws are not the full solution, although anyone who tells you they are not part of it is dealing cards from the bottom of the deck.
We are, after all, the only civilized nation that grapples with 30,000 gun deaths each year—half to suicide, the other to violent crime.
Mostly, we bury the victims without much fanfare. With the evening news caught up in the Pennsylvania Avenue palace intrigue, it takes a high level of bloodshed to compel our attention.
Are we not ashamed?
I have begun to wonder if there is a magic number. Exactly how many bodies does it take to make a headline? Is there an age range, a limit on the race or social class of the victims? Does the religion of the shooter matter more than that of his victims?
With every violent shooting, the bar for caring seems to move up. I wonder if we are becoming so accustomed, so immune to the shock that we have accepted gun violence as a part of our nation’s fabric.
The shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, lit up social networks, sending news anchors scrambling to their seats and a congressman to the floor of the House to make an impassioned speech. In a few days’ time, I know we will move on—just as we did after 49 people were killed and 58 others wounded in an Orlando, Florida, nightclub. There will be flowers and televised memorials, just as there were after nine churchgoing saints were butchered in the basement of Emmanuel Baptist Church.
Do we still feel it? The answer is, in fact, knowable.
If 20 lunch box-toting, 6- and 7-year-old children did not bring us to our senses, if thousands of people fleeing for their lives at a country music concert is not enough, if video images showing high school students cowering under their desks as gunfire erupted in the hallways do nothing to move us, then nothing is too much.
We do not yet feel it enough to take an honest look at ourselves and demand a change in our gun laws.