Mad About Guns


I was scrolling through Slate headlines on my phone last Thursday, as I often do while eating lunch in the staff room. I typically start at the bottom, and work my way up the menu to the most recent story, clicking on those that catch my attention. The last thing I saw, at the very top, was this: "Oregon College Massacre." I clicked on it, scanned the story, saw that a lone gunman had opened fire on a classroom at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, killing nine, then taken his own life after a standoff with local police. I did not visibly react: the staff room was full of teachers and EAs, cheerfully talking about the silly things their students were doing, what their weekend plans were, what they'd be having for dinner that night--standard stuff. I didn't want to rain on that lunchtime parade, didn't want to cast a pall over the rest of the school day. I knew this would hit uncomfortably close to home, and not just because of the Oregon dateline: our district had experienced a shooting of its own just fifteen months earlier, when a teenager opened fire in the boys' locker room at Reynolds High School two days before school let out for the summer. I couldn't erase what I'd just read from my own memory, but I could shield my colleagues from it, at least until they finished their days.

Turns out the school administrators had a different idea: 45 minutes before school let out, the secretary walked into the gym where I was teaching 4th grade music and handed me a sheet of paper. I opened it, and read a brief description of the shooting, followed by a request not to share the information with students. I maintained my own professional demeanor--the skills I learned as a pastor come in handy from time to time--but I have no idea how the other teachers took it. There was no impromptu meeting after school, and nobody I encountered on my way out that day brought it up, nor have I heard anything about it in the week since.

And yet, it haunts me, and I have to think it's the same for many of the others I work with.

I was pleased to hear President Obama say thoughts and prayers are not enough, that to really honor the dead, we must politicize what is happening repeatedly in this nation: disturbed individuals get their hands on arsenals and turn educational institutions into slaughter houses. I was appalled, but unsurprised, that the Republican candidates for president gave lame, NRA-parroting answers when asked about the shooting, some of them insisting, as always, that the answer is more guns. Tomorrow, President Obama will visit Roseburg to meet with grieving families, and just as surely as the Westboro Baptist Church will turn out its homophobic pickets at a gay rights event, the local gun nuts will be protesting his politicization of the mourning process. How dare he come here, with his gun control agenda? How dare he even suggest that keeping guns out of the hands of murderers would make it harder for them to commit massacres?

The President challenged news organizations to compare Americans killed by guns and Americans killed by terrorists in the last decade. The most accurate numbers are stunning: 301,797 have died from firearms in the United States, while 71 have died worldwide at the hands of terrorists in the same period. That's 4250:1. More than 4000 Americans die from domestic gun incidents for every one American killed in a terrorist incident.

Perhaps there's some false equivalency at work here: many of those gun deaths are crime-related, suicides, "accidental" (meaning an irresponsible gun nut left a weapon out, a child found it, and mayhem ensued)--and yet these are numbers are mind-numbingly high. 30,000 people a year are killed by guns in the United States. That's just slightly less than the 32,000 who die every year in traffic accidents.

There is definitely some false equivalency in that last statistic: those traffic deaths would be far higher if it were not for federal and local regulations. The design and construction of motor vehicles is closely watched by several federal agencies, highway maximum speeds are mandated by federal law, the privilege of driving is subject to strict testing and licensing, and driving while impaired by alcohol or other substances can result in stiff fines, jail time, and the forfeiture of one's driving privileges. While the automobile industry has been known to resist installing new safety equipment in cars, its campaigns have always fizzled: no serious person questions the importance of seat belts, air bags, and crumple zones.

The gun industry, on the other hand, has had an unbroken chain of victories going back many years. Attempts to regulate gun ownership, gun sales, gun licensing, mandating training or safety equipment, keeping guns away from children, running background checks, have all come up against the stone wall of the Second Amendment--a statute plainly designed to give states, no individuals, the right to an armed militia.

Whenever a new gun-related abomination is committed, the gun lobby turns out in force to insist it's not the fault of the guns that so many people were killed so quickly. The fact that nations with strict controls on gun ownership don't experience such massacres is ignored. The fact without a gun in hand, one must turn to explosives and poison gas--weapons far more difficult to obtain--to commit a mass murder is also ignored. These self-evident truths aren't just ignored, they are rejected, trumped by the savage love gun nuts hold for their weapons.

And the families of the victims? The NRA's "hearts go out" to them; they are held in impotent "thoughts and prayers"; they are to be comforted, embraced, mourned with; but God forbid anyone give a voice to their righteous indignation at the omnipresence of guns in American hands, or question the colossal fairy tale that guns make us safer. One comment thread I read this week included a remark suggesting that school campuses be turned into heavily defended compounds with high fences, metal detectors, and armed guards patrolling the corridors.

Or we could just get rid of some guns.

Why is that suggestion so controversial? Why are those who own guns so obsessed with the goodness of these killing tools? Why do conservative commentators always insist the problem is keeping guns away from the mentally ill, a cohort of society who are actually far more likely to die from gun violence than to commit it?

Could it be that gun ownership is, itself, a kind of cultural insanity?

That's where it's ending up for me. I've been using the words "gun nuts" intentionally in this essay. This rabid attachment to machines whose sole purpose is to wound or kill, even in the face of undeniable proof that the cost of their hobby is the death of 30,000 innocents a year, can only be explained by collective madness. America is crazy for guns.

And it's killing us.

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