The gun lobby and the freedoms of the quiet American monster
People who might otherwise be alive today, are dead because other people can so easily obtain guns. And that's the work of the National Rifle Association.
In Israel and all over the world this week, people shocked and yet no longer surprised by a bloodbath in a quiet American town, are trying to make sense of all this. Of American laws that seem more effective in protecting guns than people. Of a political culture that seems to view gun ownership as a sacrament, and a popular culture that often views violence more as solution than problem.
I don't have a sound explanation. I have only this:
When I was growing up in a comfortable section of the western United States, we had a neighbor whose sedan bore decals of the American flag and the National Rifle Association, which I'd not yet realized was also the gun lobby.
"Guns don't kill people," a sticker on his bumper read. "People kill people." I figured that I would understand this when I was older.
I was no different than other kids my age. Guns fascinated us. Armed with faithful replica toy handguns and rifles, we played soldier, detective, sheriff. We pumped tiny metal BB pellets 50 feet into Coke bottles until the green glass turned milky white with cracks and then, on the next shot, collapsed.
In those days, magazines about enjoying the outdoors and do-it-yourself home repairs enthused about the civilian version of the M-16 assault rifle, the submachine gun our soldiers carried into battle. It was called the AR-15. It never once occurred to me to ask why a civilian might need an assault rifle.
At the time, there was a certain air about cigarettes and guns that was supposed to make a male feel like a man. Part of it may have been the lurking knowledge that there was something fundamentally dangerous about both smoking and gun ownership.
There was also a sense that the dangers were immutable, part and parcel of the unfathomable mixed bag called life. Once, when a friend of the family was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, a cousin commented that when the friend, a heavy smoker, was young, cigarettes were widely considered attractive and even healthy. American culture and society had sealed his fate.
"It couldn’t be helped," the cousin said, grieving.
Part of what she meant, I now realize, was that the tobacco growers and cigarette manufacturers were so politically omnipotent, and the messages of movies and magazines so omnipresent, that there was nothing anyone could do to curb smoking and reduce its dangers to the population at large.
Until, of course, someone, many people, did.
On Friday, a man who neighbors said lived alone and kept to himself - and while doing so, legally purchased an AR-15 and other firearms and 6,000 bullets - slaughtered a dozen people and wounded dozens more in a Colorado town movie theater. In the words and the tone and in the candid exasperation of some of the experts that spoke about the murderer – and predicted more to come - I couldn't help but hear that same far-off sentence. "It couldn't be helped."
As if it was a natural disaster. As if it was an act of God. As if the next bloodbath was inevitable, wholly unpreventable.
It couldn't be helped, some said, because you can't know when an average guy is simply going to snap. It couldn't be helped, others said, because this is a free country, and, in any case, is it not a reflection of America's greatness that people are coming together over this?
Then there's this reason it couldn't be helped: The National Rifle Association believes that gun control is both morally and constitutionally wrong, deeply un-American, an infringement on the personal freedom of every citizen of the United States.
Freedom, the NRA will be the first to tell you, comes with a price. And if you're a resident of the United States, and the freedom to be protected is the right to hassle-free purchase of firearms, the price could well be your life.
Deep down, everyone who lives in America knows it. Everyone lives with the specter of gun accidents, fatal crimes of passion, drug-related commerce gone lethally wrong. Every year, nearly 100,000 Americans are shot or killed with guns, a total of a million dead since 1968.
Every single day in America, 87 people die from gun violence, 33 of the 87 murdered, eight of the 87, children and teens.
People abroad have come to know this as well. A study of 23 high-income nations found that the rate of homicide involving firearms was nearly 20 times higher in the U.S. than in the other countries. For the 15 to 24 age range, the U.S. rate was 42.7 times higher.
This is not a natural disaster. It can be helped. There are groups like the
Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, working for reasonable gun laws.
But the NRA, which outspends gun control advocates by a huge margin, is widely considered to be the most powerful political lobby in the United States.
Analysts credit the NRA with silencing both presidential candidates on even raising the prospect of new gun control legislation.
The NRA, which runs seminars titled "Refuse to be a victim," creates new victims with every gun control measure it defeats. Not a single victim in that movie theater on Friday was given the right to refuse.
No one outside of the military and police needs an assault rifle for personal protection, nor for target practice, nor hunting. No one needs a drum magazine that holds 100 rounds, and makes an assault rifle into an instrument of wholesale execution.
Sensible gun control will not put a stop to all mass shootings, maybe not even most. Nor will it ban gun ownership. But it can keep military killing machines like Uzis, AK-47s, and huge caliber sniper rifles out of the hands of people like the Aurora mass murderer. It can also keep firearms out of the hands of convicted felons and away from people whose mental illness may express itself in violence.
The lesson of the massacre in a Colorado town has directly to do with that bumper sticker I knew as a child.
Guns do kill people. People kill many more people when they have guns. The easier it is to get guns, the more they will be used for that purpose.
People who might otherwise be alive today, are dead for that reason, because other people can so easily obtain guns. And that's the work of the National Rifle Association.
From this distance, the message that the massacre sent me was that the gun lobby kills people: wrapped in stars and stripes, the work of the gun lobby leads to the deaths of Americans.
The lobby has effectively fought for, and won, the right of anyone to buy a weapon no one should be allowed to buy, a weapon that has no conceivable useful purpose.
The freedoms to be able to safely go to school, or go to the movies, ought to trump the freedom to buy a submachine gun. The freedom to live your life ought to trump the freedom of a quiet monster to end it.