By Walter Shapiro
Sometime between the shootings in Columbine in 1999 and at a Tucson supermarket with Gabby Giffords in early 2011, Americans stopped uttering the pieties about “Never again.” Now we are heartsick, but somehow never completely surprised, when we hear the latest gruesome news bulletins from a movie theater in Aurora or a quiet elementary school in Newtown.
We are a nation of 311 million people and roughly a similar number of guns. (Since there is no central federal registry of firearms and a 100-year-old unlicensed weapon can be lethal, estimates are far from precise.) What we do know for certain is that there are almost as many legal places to buy guns (130,000 registered dealers) as gasoline stations (144,000). Through the end of November, the FBI conducted nearly 17 million background checks of prospective gun owners this year.
This is the Faustian bargain that comes with being a 21st-century American. We are a nation of stubborn individualism and lethal gun violence. These two characteristics are entwined in our national psyche. And—as much as I weep over the dead children at Sandy Hook Elementary School—I sadly know that nothing will change in my lifetime.
The last glimmer of hope for effective gun control in America died in 2008 when the Supreme Court (District of Columbia v. Heller) endorsed an expansive view of the right to bear arms. As Justice Antonin Scalia declared in the majority opinion, “The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia.”
It is hard to pin down exactly when Americans made the collective decision that periodic massacres of the innocent are the price that we supposedly pay for our liberties.
Maybe it dates back to the late19th century when Americans in peaceful communities embraced the myth of the Wild West and the gunslinger. Maybe it partially reflects the tabloid fascination that accompanied the gangster era of the 1920s and 1930s. Maybe it has something to do with the way that movies—that most American of art forms—have successfully turned mass violence into a mass commodity.
Politics also played a role as well. As Jill Lepore pointed out in a New Yorker article earlier this year, the National Rifle Association (NRA) only embarked on its modern crusade against virtually all gun legislation around 1970. Fully entering the political arena with its endorsement of Ronald Reagan for president in 1980, the NRA emerged as a key player in the conservative coalition that came to dominate the Republican Party.
It’s hard to remember that for a while in the 1980s and 1990s, a limited form of gun control seemed politically possible. Reagan’s press secretary James Brady, badly wounded in the John Hinckley assassination attempt on Reagan, became a courageous Republican symbol for sensible regulation of the most lethal weaponry.
But then too many on Capitol Hill (Democrats as well as Republicans) grew fearful in the face of the frenzied opposition from the NRA. And following the 2008 Heller decision, it seemed the height of folly for legislators to take on gun control since the Supreme Court had so narrowed the framework for permissible regulation. As a result, even though the Aurora shootings took place in a swing state (Colorado) in an election year, Obama and the Democrats at the time never even raised the possibility of new federal legislation.
This should not be portrayed in cartoonish terms as a story of the white hats (liberals with a visceral hatred of guns) versus the black hats (hunters and other Americans who enjoy owning firearms). There was an element of cultural superiority to the urban liberal disdain for gun ownership, just as there was a self-destructive stubbornness to conservative opposition to all forms of regulation.
The result is an America that no sane person of any political persuasion could have possibly wished for. Who in his right mind wants to live in a country where maybe twice a year a crazed individual guns down dozens of people in schools and theaters? There is no plausible remedy since we are neither going to disarm Americans nor are we going to pass out guns to elementary school teachers as a just-in-case precaution.
All we can do is mourn and mourn again. And think of the young children who died only because they went to school giggling over silly things and dreaming of recess. Such is the American way of life and, sadly, death.