Not with a Whimper but a Bang

candlesThis is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

-T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

Something about the slaughter of twenty first graders and seven adults in Newtown, Connecticut makes me want to state the obvious rather than striving for eloquence. The dead deserve eloquence, but they will be honored more by a thoughtful response to our country’s dysfunctional relationship with guns.

Massacres of innocents with semiautomatic weapons have become so frequent that recent articles on the Sandy Hook shooting haven’t even had space for them all in their ledes. Grisly greatest hits like Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, and Aurora usually get a mention, but so far there have been eight mass shootings in 2012, not including a bow and arrow attack at Casper College in Wyoming last week or a man who opened fire this morning at a hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. Also left off most lists of past shootings are Kip Kinkel, a depressed 15 year-old who killed his parents and two classmates and wounded 22 others in Springfield, Oregon in 1998 – yes, before Columbine – whose story was featured in Frontline but has been all but lost in the crowd of other shooters.

An objective observer might conclude that we have a problem.

It’s not a some-people-are-evil problem, a constitutional problem, or even a mental health system problem. It’s a gun problem.

How many times have you heard that the mass murderer of the moment was “always polite,” “perfectly normal,” or “doing well”? Kinkel’s parents were dimly aware of his psychiatric problems and tried to help him; Seung-Hui Cho and Jared Lee Loughner had attracted the attention of school officials who were unable to compel treatment; James Eagan Holmes had been seeing a psychiatrist. In most cases, the guns used in mass shootings were legally obtained. The overwhelming majority of people suffering from mental illness are not dangerous and never will be. However, the overwhelming majority of people, period, are clueless about what is going on with other people, period; and those who are not clueless are often reluctant to intervene, unsure of how to intervene, or helpless to intervene.

Meanwhile, shots continue to be fired. Firearms in the home significantly increase the risk of death from domestic violence, crime, suicide, and accidents. Gun-rights advocates rightly say that gun owners who are careful, properly trained, and law-abiding can safely use guns and that Second Amendment rights trump the risks. But since when are humans consistent about being careful, properly trained, and law abiding? There are more than 17,000 car accidents per day in the U.S. with a crash-related death, on average, every 13 minutes.

With cars, though, the driver who makes the mistake is roughly at as much risk as the other drivers and passengers involved, which theoretically acts as a counterbalance to carelessness and stupidity. Not so with guns. Also, cars have keys, meaning that it is difficult for anyone but the lawful owner to use them. Again, not the case with guns. In a perfect world, only people kill people, and on purpose. But our world, the real one with routine violence and accidental death, is filled with rampant imperfection and frequent errors in judgment. It’s nice to think that only responsible people will use guns, or that these good citizens can somehow deter killers who have abandoned civility or reason, but reality is not on the side of idealism.

The gun control topic has come up regularly in my classes since I started teaching. At first, I adamantly opposed all guns in all circumstances, and I regarded the fiery psyches of my gun-owning students with suspicion. From talking with students, though, I realized that in cities, guns are used overwhelmingly for violence, but that in rural areas, they were necessary for protecting and euthanizing livestock and sometimes for defending humans against large predators. When I moved to DC and commuted on a highway to work, seeing so many deer disemboweled by cars even made me sympathetic to hunting: Which is more cruel, a clean shot or a painful and terrifying evisceration by accident?

But semiautomatic weapons? Seriously? In Newtown, the six- and seven-year-olds were shot multiple times, presumably because the guns Adam Lanza used continued to fire after the children were hit. In this as in so many other things, the bullets are speeding towards their victims much more rapidly than a shooter can think.

We’ve had almost fourteen years to think about Columbine, though, and as the gratuitous death toll has mounted, the political environment has become more hostile to gun control. So many families will go through the holidays missing loved ones who died for no reason – or, rather, who died because skewed notions of self-defense and the right to hunt have overshadowed the reality of the world we live in, in which the killers right in front of us are far more dangerous than the ones from which we imagine guns will protect us.

Reality is on the side of reinstating the ban on semiautomatic weapons, keeping guns out of schools and other public places, requiring robust background checks and review of owners’ continued ability to use guns responsibly (we do it for driver’s licenses!), and considering possession of lethal weapons as a factor in judging whether a mentally ill patient is a danger to him/herself or others.

According to the ancient Mayans (or at least catastrophizers crediting the ancient Mayans), the world is supposed to end on 12/21/12. If the world really ends, I may die regretting my blithe attitude – another day, another apocalypse that hasn’t materialized – but really I’ve hardly given the date much more airtime than it takes to roll my eyes.

In the case of guns, on the other hand, it’s time to stop pretending that we can do nothing to prevent another apocalypse like the many others that have unfolded in the past year. For every family dealing with the aftermath of the dozens of shootings that have cumulatively caused hundreds of avoidable murders, the apocalypse has already come and gone – and any of the first graders who were killed at Sandy Hook, if they had lived, could have told the rest of us what we should do to stop the next one.

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