"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." --Wayne LaPierre, Vice President and CEO of the National Rifle Association, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting.
And what if the bad guy with a gun is wearing body armor?
Mass shootings have become so frequent in the United States that the aftermaths are utterly predictable. Speculative news reporting, Democratic hand-wringing, empty Republican platitudes, and rapid-response gun lobby spin flood the media. By the time accurate reporting is possible, the nation has moved on--all to frequently to the next shooting. Numb, shell-shocked, unable to process the sheer magnitude of the national gun pathology, our minds seize on distractions, flail about for something, anything that will keep us from imagining our friends, our families, our children on the receiving end of the next barrage.
The most recent of these shootings appears to have had a connection to ISIS, the most recent incarnation of a Middle Eastern terror state. It came just days after a Christian radical shot up a Planned Parenthood clinic, and just in time to preempt discussion of whether "terrorism" should be applied to perpetrators with white, as well as brown, complexions. The Planned Parenthood shooter spoke of "baby parts," a reference to an agitprop video that, while wholly discredited, continues to inspire the right wing of the Republican party.
The San Bernardino shooting amped up GOP calls for tightening border restrictions, turning away Syrian refugees, and bombing ISIS strongholds--measures which would have in no way prevented this attack, which was undertaken by an American citizen and his green-card-carrying wife. The weapons they used were legally obtained (though illegally modified) from gun stores in California, a state that has some of the strictest gun sales regulation in the America--although those regulations are far less strict than the most liberal gun laws in Europe.
For all the commonalities of American responses to these shootings, there is extraordinary variability in the identities of the shooters. Shooters have been Muslims, Christians, white supremacists, soldiers, civilians, goths, nerds, immigrants, citizens. Their motives, when discernible, have also run the gamut, from anti-abortion activism to vengeance to promoting the interests of an overseas terrorist organization. They have been executed with both skill and ineptitude. The perpetrators have sometimes turned the guns on themselves, at other times died in a shootout with police, and occasionally have been taken into custody. Some wish to be martyrs, others want to live long enough to parlay their new found notoriety into a platform for proclaiming their virulent ideology. No, there's really no common thread uniting all these killings--except for this one: they've all involved guns.
That's the elephant in this living room, the part no one really wants to address. Yes, many Democratic politicians readily acknowledge that gun laws are entirely too lax, may even call for tightening them in a few symbolic ways--before conceding defeat in the very next breath. Meanwhile, Republican politicians turn quickly to blaming victims: perhaps if someone in that group had been carrying a gun, or had had the nerve to rush the attacker, lives might have been spared. More insidious is the suggestion that, to some extent, victims may have had it coming. Some even use these massacres as evidence for the need to multiply gun ownership, claiming that a storm of bullets could save lives by taking out the attacker more quickly--and conveniently ignoring the likelihood that more guns in the hands of panicked victims means more of them will die in the crossfire.
All the platitudes, all the accusations, all the spin and counter-spin, all the blizzard of analysis and debate skirts the central issue, the elephant we'd all like to pretend isn't really there: there are simply too many guns in this country. Too many people own them. More than 30,000 Americans a year die from gun shots. Two-thirds of those deaths are suicides, an act rendered irreversible when it is carried out with a gun.
The shooters in San Bernardino were wearing "tactical outfits," not armor; but armor is as available for purchase as the weapons shooters carry. An armored shooter would likely survive attack by a handgun-carrying defender--who would be far less likely to survive the encounter with a well-prepared shooter.
So no, good guys with guns are not the only thing that will stop bad guys with guns; in fact, their presence is far more likely to increase the body count. The only thing that can really stop bad guys with guns is taking away their guns.
This is what the American public--or rather, the gun-toting public--doesn't want to hear. The right to bear arms is costing this country 30,000 lives a year. It's a right I don't care to exercise, and would be quite happy to give up. The problem, of course, is the millions of Americans who jealously guard their right to put the rest of the nation at risk, and who shield their gun lust with the Second Amendment to the Constitution. The ambiguous wording of that amendment--which is, ironically, in the most passive voice of any piece of legislation I've read--seems aimed at promoting the National Guard, rather than putting a vigilante in every home, but that's irrelevant, as the Supreme Court has backed up the NRA's pro-gun interpretation of the text, using it to overturn sensible gun laws.
So if the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is to take away everybody's guns, and the only way to do that is to amend the Second Amendment right out of the Constitution, then that's what has to happen. But how can that happen? How can the American people be convinced to do something so radical as to remove a few words that are killing 30,000 of us every year?
I find hope right here:
The Daily News is a conservative tabloid, as likely as any newspaper to jump on the anti-immigrant, pro-gun bandwagon of the GOP. And yet, in two cover pages this week, the Daily News has acknowledged that gun violence in America is a problem that must be addressed. Neither prayers nor immigration restrictions will save lives when the root of the problem is not the identity of the killer, but the lethality of the weapons he or she employs. Depending on how the question is phrased by pollsters, as many as 80% of Americans favor stricter gun laws.
I'm not saying this will be easy. This elephant is huge, and we've gotten quite accustomed to just pretending it's not there, no matter how difficult it is to function with it taking up most of the living room. The headlines in the Daily News--as well as the first front-page editorial in the New York Times since 1920--are, at best, small indicators that the tide is turning.
But considering how quickly the marriage equality tide turned once it reached critical mass, this could very well be the beginning of an avalanche of public opinion. If the American people cry "Enough!" loudly enough, and back up their cries at the ballot box, this could well be the beginning of the end for terrorists like Wayne LaPierre and his gun-obsessed constituents.
A final, personal note: last Thursday, I noticed that the flag outside the school where I teach music was at half-mast. My mind went instantly to the San Bernardino shooting--which was, in fact, the reason for this symbolism--and from there to a time just eighteen months ago when that half-mast flag was there because of a shooting much closer to home, in my district's high school. Two months ago, the flags were at half-mast because of a shooting at Umpqua Community College, a hundred and fifty miles south of here.
Like any school, Margaret Scott has fire drills. We also have lock-down drills (and yes, I've experienced these in other districts, too), when we turn off the lights and have the children hide somewhere away from windows, so they'll know what to do if there's a shooter on campus. A few years ago, in Banks, we had an incident when it wasn't a drill: there was a shooter at large in town.
This hits me where I work. I don't want to find myself in the position of the Sandy Hook music teacher who hid her students from a teenager on a bloody rampage. The right of anyone to bear one of these deadly weapons is, in my mind, worthless next to just one of the five hundred children I teach at Margaret Scott. And if you think any differently--if you can really continue to defend your right to own lethal weapons in the presence of all the innocents sacrificed to that right--then you and I had better part company.
Either that or just go on pretending there's no elephant between us.