There is no catastrophe so ghastly that America will reform its gun laws
I started writing this essay last week, about the next mass shooting. It hadn't happened yet, but we all knew it was going to. We didn't know then whether it would be in a school or a workplace, a mall or a theater or a military base, in Maryland or Idaho, Chicago or some small town we'd never heard of before, suddenly elevated to infamy. We didn't know the killer's name or how many people would die. But we did know some things for certain.
We knew there would be grief: genuine on the part of relatives and friends, professionally simulated by media personalities, journalists, politicians, spokespeople, and pundits. There would be anguished calls to understand how this could have happened. The question "Why?" would be posed. There would be outraged calls for gun control by liberals, and pro forma calls for better monitoring of the mentally ill by gun lobbyists. The Culture of Violence would be decried. The word tragedy would be used, and the word senseless, and, within minutes, politicize, and, after a few days, the phrase come together as a community, and the word healing. Ultimately, nothing at all would be done and we'd forget all about it again, until the next one.
I didn't write fast enough. The next mass shooting has already happened. Over the holiday weekend, some guy went on a petulant killing spree in California, killing a half dozen people, three by stabbing and three with guns, because girls didn't like him. A senseless tragedy that will all too soon be politicized. I personally deplore the culture of violence that leads to such acts. We cannot help, at such a time, but wonder Why. But I, like you, have faith that Santa Barbara will soon come together as a community and begin the process of healing.
Look, we've collectively decided, as a country, that the occasional massacre is okay with us. It's the price we're willing to pay for our precious Second Amendment freedoms. We're content to forfeit the lives of a few dozen schoolkids a year as long as we get to keep our guns. The people have spoken, in a cheering civics-class example of democracy in action.
It's hard to imagine what ghastly catastrophe could possibly change America's minds about guns if the little bloody bookbags of Newtown did not. After that atrocity, it seemed as if we would finally enact some obvious, long-overdue half-measures. But perfectly reasonable, moderate legislation expanding background checks and banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines was summarily killed in the Senate for no reason other than that a sufficient number of United States senators are owned by the NRA. It made our official position as a nation nakedly explicit: We don't care about any number of murdered children, no matter how many, or how young. We want our guns.
I realize we are not all equally complicit in this indifference; there's a spectrum of culpability. I don't even bother to hold the NRA or the politicians they own accountable for the deaths they allow, any more than I blame deer ticks or herpes for doing their jobs. Gun lobbyists are just engines of greed, businesslike and efficient as HIV. Politicians will do whatever will get them re-elected. And gun owners are simply frightened; anyone who buys a handgun is, self-evidently, afraid of something. Plenty of them are decent, fun, likable, kindhearted people, but fear can make normal people behave vilely. And as an electoral bloc they've made the calculation that placating their own imaginary terrors is more important than the lives of what will probably, after all, be some stranger's kids. And luckily kids don't get to vote.
The coalition of Greed and Fear seems invincible. No appeals to reason or decency can affect either of those factions; it's like arguing with addicts or bacilli. They will never modify their position because their position isn't rational — it's driven by deep feelings of impotence and fear they can't even admit to, and funded by cemeteries full of money. If gun laws are ever going to change in this country, it'll have to be because people like me, people who care except not quite enough, quit their bitter impotent griping and actually do something about it. We care in the way that carnivores care about the screaming in slaughterhouses or that pro-war voters care about families accidentally blown apart in Iraq. Which is to say, sorta — just not enough to change our minds or habits or do anything hard or inconvenient.
An annoying thing about living in a republic is that you can't feel completely blameless for the ruinous state of your nation. But the happy loophole is that responsibility for decision-making is so broadly diffused across millions of your fellow citizens that you can always tell yourself that you did what you could but the Other Guys steamrolled you so it's all their fault. My own contribution toward ending gun violence so far has been to feel sick with rage and loathing toward the NRA. Occasionally I'll draw a mean cartoon about it. It's easy and fun to mock gun fanatics, because they're so selfish and scared and weak and mean. It's also pointless, an exercise in frustration and helplessness. Seeing the NRA repeatedly defeat any gun legislation, brutally effective as the Soviets crushing an uprising, has incrementally demoralized me and given me an excuse to give up. As Ernesto Cortes Jr. wrote: "powerlessness also corrupts."
So how about let's actually do something for once? Write your senators or congressman, your state representatives, your governor. Become a single-issue voter. I'm sorry to say it, but the most effective thing you can do is probably to send a check to a gun-control lobby group, since it should be clear by now that the only voice that matters in American governance is that of money. We need to buy up and bully some senators of our own. Why not do it right now? Because it's too late for the victims in California, but we don't know when the next mass shooting might happen; I haven't seen the news yet today, so for all I know it already happened this morning. If not, it'll happen next week, or two or six months from now. But we do know it's going to happen. Some parents out there reading this and shaking their heads in vague sorrow are already doomed to unimaginable grief.
If we're not going to do anything again, I'd just like to make one request: given that we've all agreed, if only by our passive acquiescence, not to keep this from happening, can we please quit pretending to care? Let's just skip the histrionics this time: no pro forma shock, condolence photo ops, somber speeches, flags at half-mast, meaningless noises from liberals about legislation, meaningless counter-noises from the NRA about armed guards in elementary schools. Why bother going through the motions of soul-searching when we know very well there's nothing to search? If we can't be brave we might at least be honest: when we see the familiar helicopter shots of ambulances outside a school, the clusters of classmates hugging, the sobbing parents being led away, the makeshift shrines of candles and plush toys, instead of looking stricken or covering our mouths or saying "Oh my God" or "How horrible," let's just all look each other in the eye and say: "Shit happens."
Editor's note: This article originally incorrectly attributed the quote "powerlessness also corrupts." It has since been corrected. We regret the error.