On the day after the recent massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., police in Newport Beach, Calif., took a man into custody for allegedly firing more than 50 rounds from a semi-automatic handgun in the parking lot of a shopping mall. He aimed into the air and no one was hit, though one person was hurt slightly while running away. Police say 42-year-old Marcos Gurrola was destitute and frustrated with his circumstances. Firing dozens of rounds at the sky was his way of venting.
If there is a more apt metaphor for where this nation now finds itself than some fool standing befuddled as bullets rain down about him, one finds it hard to imagine.
Come, then. Let us weep for the 20 children shot to pieces by the young man who invaded their elementary school wielding semiautomatic weapons. Let us mourn for the six adults who could not save the children, could not save themselves, who died as the children died, shot multiple times at close range. Let us whisper our sorrows and shed our tears. Let us stagger against one another in our mountainous grief. Let us light our candles and leave them at makeshift shrines to be cared for by the uncaring sun and rain.
But let us also understand these as acts of moral masturbation, in that they satisfy some need, yet have no chance of producing anything of lasting consequence. Let us not pretend our sorrow in this moment means a damn thing or changes a damn thing, because it doesn’t and won’t. Not until or unless the American nation is finally willing to confront its unholy gun love.
The parameters of this argument have not changed for generations. On the one side are people who enjoy hunting for sport or sustenance and people who, when bad guys come through the door, want to have more in their hands than just hands. They are, by and large, decent and responsible individuals who know and respect guns and resent any suggestion that they are not trustworthy to own them.
On the other side are equally decent and responsible people who think we ought to take reasonable steps to ensure that children, emotionally disturbed individuals and violent felons have no access to guns, people who believe no hunter requires 30 rounds to bag a deer and no homeowner not expecting to be attacked by a band of ninjas has need of an AK-47 to protect her property.
There is, you will notice, nothing about one side of that argument that precludes the other. Reasonable people who had their country’s best interests at heart could have bridged the distance between the two many dead bodies ago.
Such people are, unfortunately, in woefully short supply.
What are rather more plentiful are lawmakers in thrall to the gun lobby and to an ideology that finds more to fear in a paranoid fantasy (jackbooted government thugs coming to seize your guns) than in an objective reality (innocent people repeatedly, senselessly, unnecessarily, dying).
Is this where that changes? Maybe.
Certainly the magnitude of what happened in Newtown seems to have imposed a rare lucidity upon the debate. One sees Sen. Joe Manchin, conservative Democrat from West Virginia and a staunch ally of the NRA, calling for gun control, and it is cause for hope.
Then one hears Sen. Joe Lieberman suggest that video games may have played a role in the shooting. And Mike Huckabee says maybe it happened because the government no longer mandates prayer in schools. And Bob McDonnell, Virginia’s Republican governor, suggests the teachers should have been armed (as if the problem is that there were too few guns in that school). And hope chokes.
We have paid and continue to pay an obscene price for this lesson some of us obstinately refuse to learn. We paid it in Tucson and we paid it on the campus of Virginia Tech. We paid it at Columbine High and at a midnight showing of a Batman movie in Aurora, Colo. We’ve paid it in Compton, Calif., and Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Norcross, Ga., We’ve paid it in Gilbert, Ariz., Bechtelsville, Pa., Prince George’s County, Md., Bay City, Texas, Copley, Ohio, Lauderdale Lakes and North Miami, Fla.
Now we pay it in Newtown, Conn., in the blood of teachers and young children. We have paid more than enough.
And our choice could be not be more clear. We can continue with acts of moral masturbation. We can harrumph and pontificate about how the problem is video games or the problem is a lack of prayer or the problem is too few guns.
Or we can finally agree that the problem is obvious: too many people who should not have guns, do.
Unless we achieve the simple courage to reach that consensus, nothing else we do will change anything. Let us weep, let us mourn. Let us whisper sorrow and shed tears. Meanwhile, frightened children return to school in Newtown.
And bullets keep raining down.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize winner and is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
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