So here we are again, my friends and fellow citizens, this time in the bloody wake of two mass shootings in a single weekend, each engineered by a solitary white male armed with a rapid-fire, military-style weapon legally manufactured and legally bought. The story is too familiar, too humdrum, to hold our interest for long, so let’s seize the moment, shall we?
Once again, the motive in the case of El Paso was ethnic hatred given wanton permission by soulless, unaccountable web presences and by the President of the United States.
Once again we are obliged to listen to Donald Trump read platitudes from a TelePrompTer with robotic, palpable insincerity, staring into the camera, looking like a truant dragged into the principal’s office. We all know when he really means something, and this is not how he says it.
And once again, across the land there are calls — no, screams; shouts of outrage and disgust — for some reasonable legislative response to the most obvious of the ingredients of this uniquely American poison: not mental illness, not video games, not the general degradation of public morality and private ethics, but rather, simply, the preposterously ready availability of weapons of a mass murder to every Tom, Dick and Harry (did I mention every dick?) with the whim to use them.
Couldn’t we all agree, as adults, as men (for it is mostly men who own them), that there is no defensible reason for any private citizen to own an AR-15 (or an AR-15 style weapon, as we are prissily required to say, lest gun aficionados point out our ignorance), much less a hundred-round ammunition drum to go with it? Target practice? Are you kidding? Self-defense? Against what army? Hunting? Unsporting, and little left of the prey when you’re finished. Civil insurrection? You and what army?
No, the most likely reason for a private citizen to own an AR-15 or its ilk is to indulge a nihilistic pleasure in sheer destruction that most of us outgrow — or find constructive outlets for — by the time we reach puberty. And that is not the sort of pleasure you want to pair with a weapon designed to mete out death as efficiently as possible.
Even if, for a few good men, there is a remotely plausible reason to own such at thing — historical interest, love of intricate machinery, empathy with the military — couldn’t we, as adults, as men, agree that the cost of having them freely available to every fool (or every suicidal depressive, deluded ideologue, or raging misanthrope) with access to WiFi and a credit card is much too high?
This shouldn’t even be debatable, much less debated on constitutional grounds, and yet the Second Amendment is the first, last, and only refuge of the gun rights absolutists who oppose every effort to limit the wanton (“free” is too mild a word) availability of military-style firearms. They have the sense to keep quiet for a few days after events like this, or at most mouth pieties about thoughts and prayers. But soon they will rise, as they always do, and explain to us how the more of us are armed the safer we’ll become (despite the fact that Dayton police took down their target in less than 30 seconds and still couldn’t limit the dead-and-injured toll to single digits), and how it’s not guns but sick people who kill, and how, in any event, gun ownership — any gun, anytime, anywhere — is a Constitutional right, up there with freedom of speech and religion.
To which there are at least two possible responses. One is that gun rights absolutism is based on a relatively recent interpretation of the Second Amendment that was met with derision by Constitutional scholars when first promulgated by an NRA-backed commission, and called by Chief Justice Warren Burger “one of the greatest pieces of fraud — I repeat the word fraud — on the American people by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.” It was not so very long ago that the NRA was nothing but a sportsman’s organization rather than a right-wing lobbying vehicle, and Richard Nixon could call handguns “an abomination” and be thought no less a conservative for it.
It took till 2008 for the late Justice Antonin Scalia to convince a bare 5-to-4 majority of the Supreme Court to rule, in D.C. v. Heller, that the Second Amendment was talking about an individual right to bear arms, rather than, as nearly everyone had thought, the right of the people to form armed militias when necessary (there being no standing army at the time). That regrettable and arguably incorrect decision is the shaky ground on which gun rights absolutists stand, and if overruling the 7-to-2 decision in Roe v. Wade is a moral imperative to some very vocal people, we might direct that same moral outrage at Heller and save as many or more lives. In fact, tell you what: you can overrule Roe if you’ll let me overrule Heller, and for once we’ll all be pro-life.
So the first possible response to the constitutional argument against gun control is that it’s deeply flawed. But the second response is more to the point, and that is that even if Heller, with all its tortured attempts to plumb the origins of the Second Amendment, was rightly decided, so what? That was then and this is now, and odds are the Founders would be appalled at what we’ve allowed to happen in the name of their little footnote about arms and militias.
May we yet again hope that this will be the tipping point, the moment when the rural hunter and the sport marksman and the open carry advocate and the urban liberal who never touched a gun all have the very same thought: enough is enough? Gun control legislation prohibiting the sale or possession of assault weapons can be carefully drafted to withstand Constitutional challenge. Or, to dare a heresy, the Second Amendment can itself be amended or repealed, as advocated by some leading conservatives.
No, not all mass shootings can be prevented by stricter gun control. But even a marginal reduction in the frequency or lethality of mass shootings means an incalculable number of lives saved and maimings prevented. Not all, but a significant number. It’s at the infinitesimal human margin where the success of gun control legislation should be measured. To do nothing because stricter limits on gun ownership won’t prevent even the majority of gun deaths is to allow the perfect to drive out the desperately needed good.
We must continue to believe it will happen, someday. Some day the tipping point will be reached, the sea change will occur. It could happen suddenly, without even the need for legislation. If we adults, we men who are the majority of gun owners don’t have the balls or the selflessness to do it, it could start with women, who tend to see less sense in guns of any kind or purpose and who bear the children being killed with them, and it could start not on the floor of some statehouse, much less in Washington, but in private.
Women could turn to their families and say, enough. They could cease to tolerate men who teach their sons and daughters how to operate an AR-15 just in case their county one day wants to secede from the union, or because they like to put on the trappings of bravery and competence as a substitute for the real thing. They might no longer find it amusing that their husband or lover or brother or child wants to keep guns in the house, and they could laugh in the face of anyone who tells them that it’s for their protection. We all could refuse to countenance a brand of masculinity whose emblems include machines of mass death.
The body politic is a slow learner, but one day our disgust with this self-inflicted carnage and our outrage at the slaughter of innocents will become too much to bear, and shame us into action. The only question is when, and that’s a question we must keep on asking.