The despair of America's gun debate

America is the most powerful country in human history. How can we be so powerless to stop our epidemic of gun violence?

President Trump's brief remarks to the nation on Thursday morning about the horrific school shooting in Parkland, Florida, confirmed what informed observers of American politics already knew perfectly well: Nothing whatsoever is going to change.

More than five years after 26 elementary school children and teachers were gunned down in Newtown, Connecticut; four months after 58 concertgoers were massacred (and an astonishing 500 were injured) in Las Vegas; three months after 26 churchgoers were slaughtered in Sutherland Springs, Texas — after all of those deaths, all of that suffering, and so much more, the country will do nothing significant to ensure that such shootings become less frequent.

A nation that willed itself to the moon, that led the way in developing technologies that are transforming (for good and bad) social and political life across the world, that projects its military might into every corner of the globe — this nation gazes at its bloodied face in the mirror and finds itself impotent, stunned, paralyzed, like a hopeless victim of an endless series of natural disasters whose causes completely elude us and whose power utterly overwhelms us.

At least hurricanes and tornadoes give us a modicum of advance warning; at least we've learned enough from past experience to build stronger structures against the onslaught, to designate evacuation routes, to seek shelter in bathrooms and basements. What do we do to protect ourselves from murderous rampages that could happen at any place, at any moment? We lock the doors to our schools and require that visitors show their IDs — as if a maniac who enters a school to commit a massacre with a semiautomatic weapon will be stopped or even meaningfully slowed down by such procedures. We instruct our teachers and students on where to hide in silence during the assault — seemingly oblivious to the possibility that a former student will know exactly where those hiding places can be found.

The liberal response to these wrenching events — and their accelerating pace — is always the same: furious outrage at the National Rifle Association, the Second Amendment, America's gun culture, and the political party that stands up for all three. "Take away the guns and the killing will stop!" come the cries, over and over again.

This is indisputably true. A country with vastly fewer firearms would be a country with vastly fewer massacre victims. But how to get there? It's true that most countries in the world, especially in the developed world, have a lot fewer guns and so also a lot fewer gun deaths than the U.S. does. But neither do those countries have a Second Amendment or America's gun culture or the resulting several hundred million guns already in circulation — a number that rises every time a mass shooting takes place, sows fear and a desire for self-defense, and provokes calls for greater regulation and restriction of guns.

Don't get me wrong: I think America's gun fetish is incredibly self-destructive. I wish the overwhelming majority of those guns could disappear in the blink of an eye. But that doesn't mean there's a plausible path from here to there. Most of the more realistic (meaning: modest) proposals floating around public policy circles — ban this type of gun, make it harder to purchase a firearm in this or that place — might make a bit of positive difference. But how much?

If AR-15s were banned, the Parkland shooting suspect (who apparently purchased his weapon legally) would have needed to use … one of the countless other guns on the market, including dozens of semiautomatic pistols and rifles. Maybe in that case he would have succeeded in killing 13 people instead of 17. For the four spared lives, and their loved ones, this would be all the difference in the world. But the country would still be mourning a mass shooting today, liberals would still be railing against the NRA and calling for more gun control, and the president would still have given a blandly consoling speech.

Which brings us to the other side of the equation.

If liberals instinctively reach for regulation and restrictions in the hours and days following every mass shooting, conservatives increasingly talk about "mental health," as President Trump did this morning. They aren't wrong to do so. It's possible to imagine an America in which every household owned an AR-15 and yet no one chose to use it to mow down defenseless human beings in a grotesque display of psychopathic misanthropy. Yet this happens over and over again, and more and more frequently.

If that isn't a mental health issue, nothing is. And it's a mental health issue afflicting white men almost exclusively — usually, but not always, young white men — whose mental illness and anger leads them to lash out in murderous, nihilistic rage at the world around them, using some of the most powerful weapons ever placed in the hands of civilians, which our culture makes easily available to them.

Should we try to reach out to these men to figure out what is leading so many of them to declare war on civilized life and their fellow citizens? Absolutely. I certainly hope it makes a meaningful difference. But I also certainly don’t expect it to.

Something about modern American life — something rooted in the violence that has always permeated the American soul but now merges in newly pathological ways with a complicated assortment of modern trends — has flipped a switch in the minds of these men. Finding the switch and figuring out how to prevent it from being flipped in the first place won't be easy. It would be a challenge even for people who understood far more about human psychology than we do. For us? We can try. We must try. But that doesn't mean we'll succeed.

This is what it means to be an American in 2018: To live in a country armed to the teeth in which a not-inconsiderable number of white men opt to use the abundantly available weaponry to commit acts of barbarism and savagery for no discernable reason at all.

No wonder the president sounded so powerless on Thursday morning.


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