As with most of America, the massacre of 20 small school children and their care givers in Newtown, Connecticut, moved me to shock, deep reaching sorrow and anger. That a person can look a defenseless seven-year old child in the eyes and pump her full of bullets at close range, and then do it over and over again, sinks to depths that are so dark as to take us outside the category of what we understand to be human.
It shouldn’t, because it (and I mean by “it” mass murder by gunshot) has become all too common in American life. But the murder of children, so many in one place, seems to have finally awakened the American public from its long slumber about gun violence and gun control. I know it has awakened me. At the urging of my wife, Linda, we do make a contribution to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence every year. But as essential as financial support is, it is not enough. It a necessary but minimal form of activism that requires little of the self in terms of passion, dedication and work.
In the face of this horror, I plan for this to change. I hope it will for all of us and for the nation. We have been asleep for too long. We have slept while the gun nuts have taken over and have transformed our society into a madhouse of gun ownership, though “slaughterhouse” would be a better metaphor.
Through the extremist zeal of the National Rifle Association, too many in the society have made a fetish out of guns. The right to own a gun has become an idolatrous god that has taken on the power and the feel of a religious cult. The gun has become a sacred object and with the right to own a gun, a type of untouchability.
But the extremism of the gun zealots misunderstands what rights are. No right, with the exception of the right to be free of enslavement and torture, is absolute. All rights are constrained by the rights of others. The vaunted rights of free speech and religion, to which American society gives a very wide berth, are by no means absolute. My right to free expression does not protect my right to scream “fire” in a crowded theater (unless there is a fire) because the exercise of that right violates the right to safety, even the life of those crushed in the stampede of people rushing to the exits. My right to freedom of religion, though absolute with regard to belief, is not with regard to practice. I may believe as I choose, but may not engage in human sacrifice, even if my god commands it, nor may I lead my church choir in Gregorian chants on my neighbor’s front lawn at 3:00 in the morning.
So it is with regard to the right to own a gun. In a regrettable decision in 2008, the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 majority, did uphold the dubious idea that the Second Amendment allows for individuals to own guns for their personal use. We can forget about that nettlesome clause referencing “a well regulated militia.” But even Antonin Scalia noted that this right did not forbid reasonable restrictions on gun ownership.
It is commitment to such restrictions that has been thrown to the wind in the face of the triumphalist fear mongering tactics of the NRA. And is this juggernaut that we need to stand up to. Not just now, but next month, next year and into the foreseeable future, when the spotlight moves away from Newtown, and until America gets over its paroxysm of madness in the name of gun possession.
The data are well known: The United States is an outlier among the industrialized democracies of the world, in that an American child is 13 times more likely to die by gunshot than her counterpart is in Western Europe, Canada, Australia and elsewhere in the civilized world.
Second Amendment extremists will trot out the notion that abolishing automatic and semi-automatic rifles and magazine clips that hold massive rounds, which belong in war zones and not in apartments or suburban bedrooms, will do nothing to stem gun violence. I don’t believe it. The examples of other nations, including Australia (which like the United States also manifests a “wild-West” mentality) abolished such weapons after a massacre and in the 1990s, and its murder rates precipitously dropped . Moreover, there is no excuse for exempting background checks for those 40 percent of gun owners who purchase their weapons of death at gun shows than through currently licensed dealers. Nor carrying concealed weapons into bars and schools, no less, as some new legislation in some states allow!
We’re also told that guns are part of American culture, especially among hunters, and that those who do not hunt, simply don’t understand and should take a “hands off” approach. I don’t buy that either. First, few people are advocating prohibiting hunting rifles (as much as I personally despise hunting) or guns for reasonable recreational use. In addition, I am not persuaded by the “culture” argument. “Culture” is just another word for what people do. Cultures are fluid, cultures change, as much as a result of outside influences as they do from the inside. Moreover, cultures are not homogeneous. Indeed, many people who hunt also advocate for reasonable gun restrictions.
But, if we are in to changing cultures, here is a suggestion I have recently heard that I like. Through public pressure, our behavior around the culture of drinking has changed. When a guy is out with a friend to a bar or at a party, and the friend has had too much to drink, it is increasingly frequent that his companion will offer to drive on his behalf. Why not apply this to the gun culture? If you know your friend possesses firearms in the house, and he is going through a period of deep crisis or stress, or is manifesting signs of aggression or mental illness, why not suggest to him that you will remove his guns until the issue passes? Now there’s a cultural change we should begin to talk about.