Let’s not talk about guns today. Let’s talk about gun violence.
We obviously can’t begin to agree about guns. That much is clear from every poll you see and every political and geographic and sociological divide that separates the country on a dozen other issues. But we can all agree, I hope, that gun violence is a huge problem.
We can look at the numbers — more than 30,000 gun deaths annually, 11,000 of them homicides — or we can look at our TV screens. If you’ve got a TV, you’ve probably spent more than a few hours in the past week watching as the most horrific gun violence played out. We watched as Colorado Springs was held siege for more than five hours. We watched as the day-long horror in San Bernardino ended as if it were a Bonnie and Clyde remake.
And if you’ve got a TV or access to the Internet or maybe even take a newspaper, you probably also saw this statistic: that if you count a mass shooting as one in which at least four people are injured, we have totaled more mass shootings this year than we have days.
So, the question is why, in the face of this carnage, we don’t do something about it. But, sadly, that’s not a serious question.
We know why. It’s the NRA. It’s politics. It’s the notion, one taken seriously in some quarters, that more guns make us safer. It’s the notion, once passed into law, that, when it comes to gun violence, we shouldn’t spend federal dollars to study what does make us safer.
If we were ever going to consider doing something about gun violence, you’d have to think that San Bernardino would be the starting point. As of now, the motive for the massacre remains uncertain, but the FBI is treating it as a possible case of home-grown terrorism, in which a husband-and-wife team – the husband born in America, the wife here on what is called a fiancee visa — may have had ties to radical Islam.
And in their suburban home, officials found thousands of bullets and a dozen pipe bombs. And if they were terrorists, or even if they were not, and we have to ask why terrorists would target a holiday party in an obscure setting in an obscure town, that’s a lot of bullets. In the headlines, they’re calling it an arsenal.
And in an answer to a question you probably don’t have to ask, the guns that the killers used — .223-caliber assault rifles and semiautomatic handguns — were all purchased legally.
Which leaves us here: Thirty governors have said they don’t want Syrian refugees in their states for fear there might be terrorists among them, even though these refugees have gone through a major vetting process. Meanwhile, in the worst case, potentially home-grown terrorists are able to buy military-style weapons they can use to kill 14 and injure 21 at a holiday party before shooting it out with heavily-militarized police in an exchange of hundreds of rounds of ammunition.
If you think any of that makes a difference, you should have turned to CSPAN and watched the U.S. Senate at work. It was a different kind of horror show.
There was a bill, a budget reconciliation bill that included, not incidentally, yet another shot at repealing Obamacare and also an amendment that would defund Planned Parenthood. Barack Obama has already promised to veto the bill, meaning that it was not about making new law, but making sure everyone is put on the record. And so the Democrats, playing the same game but with fewer players, offered up two gun-control amendments, both of which, of course, failed.
But here’s the thing: One amendment, which lost on a 54-45 vote, would have prevented those on a terrorist watchlist from buying guns, this a day after San Bernardino. In other words, it said if you’re on a list that prevents you from getting on an airplane, it also prevents you from buying, say, an assault rifle.
Republicans were forced not only to vote on this, but they had to actually defend voting against it. Paul Ryan, the new House speaker who will have to vote on it soon, defended it on MSNBC saying, “People are saying, you know, this no-fly list. ‘Don’t let a person who’s on a no-fly list get a gun.’ Well, there are people who are arbitrarily placed on those things. Sometimes people are put on there by mistake. And we would deprive of them of their constitutionally protected due-process rights.”
So, Donald Trump says he’s considering undoing a few constitutional amendments by forcing Muslims to somehow register while calling for more surveillance of mosques, and he’s leading in all the GOP primary polls.
If we’re unwilling to change the laws so that people on a no-fly list can’t buy a gun, what is the chance of, say, banning assault weapons again or mandating technology to make guns safer or punishing the few gun shops that willfully sell to criminals or expanding background checks or doing anything — other than pretending to talk seriously about mental illness — about gun violence?
The truth is that mass shootings are only a small part of gun violence in this country. But these are the shootings that force people to notice, as they did right here in Colorado, at least before the recalls. Still, as the shootings continue, they’ve forced Democrats, after years of cravenly avoiding the issue, to make it a centerpiece nationally in the 2016 campaign. Certainly the tenor of the conversation has changed. The level of gun violence has forced the issue. But will it actually force anything to change?
Photo credit: Tony Webster, Creative Commons, Flickr.