In his latest post-massacre speech, Barack Obama asked the most haunting question on gun violence I think I’ve ever heard from a president.
The question, he said Sunday at the Navy Yard, was not “whether as Americans we care in moments of tragedy. Clearly we care. Our hearts are broken again. The question is, Do we care enough?”
The answer, heartbreakingly, is No.
We don’t care nearly enough. The real question is, Why not?
Some of the answers are obvious. Once 20 six-year-olds are slaughtered in Sandy Hook, everything else pales. Once 20 six-year-olds are slaughtered and Congress does nothing – absolutely nothing — to try to ensure it never happens again, you become resigned to the fact that this is a kind of new normal.
And yet, the reason people don’t care enough is not because, in fact, they don’t care enough. Our hearts do break every time. My guess is that people don’t — can’t — care quite enough because they don’t see a way out. The game, after all, is rigged. Legislators are either in thrall to the gun lobby or in fear of the gun lobby. And in our post-Colorado-recall world, in which the gun boys picked off two senators, we should expect nothing to change.
The story goes this way: Nothing happens. And so nothing happens. And how much emotion can you invest in another mass killing if you know nothing will be done?
In some ways, the Navy Yard shooting is the saddest of all the recent mass murders because we have to ask ourselves the question why we’re not more shocked, not more outraged.
Mass murders are the anomalies in the gun violence story. They’re the lightning strikes. Most gun violence doesn’t make headlines, unless a 3-year-old is shot in Chicago. Aurora and Columbine and Sandy Hook and Tucson don’t actually define the issue. That people argue about the exact number of gun deaths is no surprise. In 2010, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there 11,078 gun murders. The rate, along with the crime rate, has been falling since, but gun violence remains an every-day phenomenon.
But that’s not the whole story. These mass murders are the shocks to our system. With each new horror, they bring the story back to the intersection of disturbed young men and easily accessible guns, and they make us look again.
In Colorado, we looked and we saw what happened. Angela Giron, one of the recalled senators, wrote a piece in the Washington Post saying that the state legislature had beaten the gun lobby by passing basic, common sense gun legislation. Nothing radical was passed, of course — a strengthening of background checks, a limit on large capacity magazines, limits on domestic abusers possessing guns.
But, of course, the gun lobby had won. And it was not just the NRA and its allies making it happen. The voters with the real passion in this issue — the one who do care enough — are mostly on the so-called “gun-rights” side. Giron was beaten badly in a heavily Democratic district, and the story of the Colorado gun legislation became the danger that had come with passing it. Watch the legislature next year, and you’ll see that all the gun legislation will come from the right, with the hope of forcing the Democrats to vote again it.
There are other stories, though. The Guardian (of London) had a weekend piece wondering, only slightly tongue in cheek, whether America’s gun violence calls for international intervention. The author, Henry Porter, makes a sadly funny comment on American priorities in a country generally obsessed with safety. At Starbucks, he writes, there have long been rules as to how hot a cup of coffee can be (not scalding hot) and rules on where you can smoke (you must be 25 feet away from the store), and yet it was well within the rules to bring your gun with you when ordering your mocha latte. Starbucks has finally decided not to be home to the make-my-day crowd, but let’s just say it took a while.
For that matter, it took a while for Obama to get into the game. It was not until after his 2012 re-election that he would choose to become the voice of sanity on gun violence. And even then, people were surprised that he took on the issue so directly.
The issue is obviously difficult, with all its cultural implications, but I wonder why it has to be quite so hard. There should be some way to agree that this won’t be about gun grabbing — I, for one, couldn’t care less how many guns, say, Sen. Greg Brophy owns — but about finding a way to keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of dangerous people.
Speaking at the Navy Yard, Obama said of the murders, “It ought to be a shock to all of us, as a nation and a people. It ought to obsess us. It ought to lead to some sort of transformation.”
But he didn’t call for any new laws this time. The country doesn’t seem to be obsessed or transformed. Maybe next time.
[ Image: President Obama at Fort Hood, Texas, memorial service, honoring victims of the Nov. 5 shooting rampage there that left 13 dead and 38 wounded. (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Released) ]