I grew up in rural Georgia. Some of my best friends were hunters and gun enthusiasts. All my life, I’ve had an appreciation for the place of guns in America’s unique culture of robust personal liberty and responsibility. The longer I live, though, the more I understand that things cannot continue the way they have since 1789.
For me, it started in 2008. That March, two thugs forced a girl with the brightest future I knew into her car a few weeks before she graduated from college, took her to an ATM, forced her to withdraw $1400 from her bank account, and then, after she complied with every one of their demands, shot her in the street in a residential neighborhood in Chapel Hill. It was barbaric and senseless. I had a feeling the day I found out she’d been murdered that I’d glimpsed the primitive, savage side of humanity. Guns didn’t instill those vicious instincts in her killers, but they made them immeasurably easier to actualize.
This morning, on the other side of the world, a man stormed a school in China and stabbed twenty-two children during a brutal knife attack with no apparent reason–only one in a spate of recent public school attacks in China. The victims will be permanently scarred, both physically and emotionally. For them and their families, life will always be a little different. Aside from these alarming similarities to recent tragedies in America, today’s attack is notable for one very salient reason: every single one of the victims is alive. Each of them will finish school, or not, go to college in Beijing, or become the first person to spend a year on Mars, or take over their family’s farm, or become panhandlers selling little red books of Chairman Mao’s quotations. But the options remain open to them, today and for the rest of their lives, because their attacker was wielding a blade instead of bullets from a gun.
Guns are made to kill people.
Let me repeat that. Guns are made to kill people. It was their intended use at the time of their invention, and like most things humans set their minds to doing, we’ve gotten remarkably good at making them over the centuries. They are incredibly destructive machines, by their very design. If we can’t agree, based on their reason for being, that access to them should be limited, then you and I would prefer to live in two very different worlds–and yours is one where life is certainly very nasty, brutish, and short. Just as we sanction nations such as Iran and North Korea for even the perceived pursuit of nuclear weapons, shouldn’t we sanction individuals for the possession of certain kinds of weapons? What happened in Connecticut today, and in Aurora a few months ago, and in Tuscon last year, and in Blacksburg a few years ago, and in Columbine before that, can without exaggeration be called a crime perpetrated by weapons of mass destruction.
“But the second amendment!” I hear people cry. The constitution is a venerable and durable document, one of the crowning achievements of the enlightenment, and a bedrock of American civilization. It is a testament to this fact that our constitution is the second-oldest still in force. But that durability has been made possible by one of its defining features: its adaptability to the hazards unknown by its framers. When they drafted it, they knew that no matter how pristine their creation, its chief limitation was, and always would be, the passage of time.
In 1787, murder on the scale of what we’ve seen, several times this year, was possible only by a well-armed contingent of men acting with a plan and purpose. One man could never do such harm. Death tolls like the ones wrought in Aurora and Newtown would have made Francis Marion blush. Consider this: in the first battle of the revolutionary war, the entire American military force lost forty-nine men. In other words, a contingent of over a thousand Redcoats succeeded in taking forty-nine American lives–a total that may have easily been surpassed today had the gunman not left a second “legally-purchased,” (as if that phrase can have the slightest shadow of sincere meaning after today) assault rifle in his car trunk. Can you imagine Jefferson or Franklin’s horror at the infamies their constitution is being used to make possible?
The National Rifle Association is the product of a similar era. Founded in the nineteenth century by civil war veterans, this organization takes its name, logo, and motto from a more pastoral time. Even the word “rifle,” instead of the numerous alternative names for the firearms they now defend access to, evokes a quixotic picture of an America where a hunter tracks his gently slain Bambi for a quarter-mile, carries it home over his shoulder, holds a “Don’t Tread On Me,” flag in his other hand, and disappears into the sunset as he treks toward his little house on the prairie.
Unfortunately, that is no longer the America we inhabit. Or rather, it is not the only America we inhabit. The other America that now exists, the one that escaped the foresight of the founding fathers, is one we caught view of today on our television screens, and one that is played out daily on the streets of inner cities in America. How many members of the NRA, I wonder, might change their absolutist views on the second amendment if they lived in South Los Angeles for a year? Or if they were the parents of one of today’s victims?
Consider the depraved lengths to which the NRA could take its mantra if it chose. These lengths are implied, but never mentioned, for fear of exposing the ludicrous nature of the “freedom,” they propound. If the NRA were named the National Uzi Association, or the National Armalite AR-15 organization, or the National Anthrax As Self-Defense Organization, or the National Organization Supporting Our God-Given Right to Bear Any And All Arms Including But Not Limited To Tomahawk Cruise Missiles and Minutemen ICBMs, would we really consider their cause so justifiable? After all, nuclear weapons don’t kill people, the men pushing the buttons in the missile silos do. Does that mean we should permit Jared Lee Loughner to them just because he isn’t a felon (yet)?
I’m not calling for the repeal of the second amendment. You call yourselves the NRA? Then keep your bolt-action Remingers and have fun in the fall. Rifles are your namesake, after all. But don’t you tell me, for one minute, that your right to bear other kinds of firearms is more sacrosanct than the lives we lost today and the futures they will never know because of your insipid obstinacy. It is an insult to the fundamental values of humanity that the document you’re blindly hugging so beautifully defended–and an insult to the spirit of its law, if not to its strict letter.
It is time to yet again confront the ways in which the constitution (and the NRA) have aged gracelessly–and fatally. It is time to stop hiding behind the second amendment, the NRA’s lobbying power, and even your religion, and to take action before one more life is lost. You may have complete faith that “those twenty angels,” are in a “better place now,” but all you have is faith, when what we could have had is action that would have prevented your well-meaning but mistaken platitudes from being necessary in the first place. I’ll take your help in preventing another Newtown over your dogmatic assertions of Jeremiah 29:11 every day.
I don’t understand people who fault gun-control advocates for “politicizing the tragedy.” If we could ask them to examine their empty phrasing for a moment, we’d see an important truth being twisted by their word-dodging: we politicize issues BECAUSE they are tragedies, BECAUSE they are important, BECAUSE we are outraged, and we’d rather not wait to see this scene repeated literally ad-nauseum for the rest of our lives. Tragedies like this are the reason politics exist at all: one of the chief duties of the state is the protection of its citizens. You know we’re in trouble when China, a country which executes more of its citizens than the rest of the world combined, has a clear advantage on us here. A comparison to countries with similar development levels is even less favorable: “Among the world’s 23 wealthiest countries, 80 percent of all gun deaths are American deaths and 87 percent of all kids killed by guns are American kids.”
We have to settle this issue. I’m reminded, perhaps inelegantly, of the words Tony Kushner in Lincoln: “Shall we stop this bleeding?”