The massacre this time

The evolution of a national ritual after mass killings with guns

December 14, 2012|Dan Rodricks

Look at what has become national ritual: A horrific shooting in some otherwise ordinary corner of the country — this time a town in Connecticut — with many dead and wounded, shock and grief, wall-to-wall television coverage.

The president and the governor ask us to pray for the victims and their families. A police chief, suddenly and reluctantly a celebrity, provides details of the killings, including the make and model of the weapons.

We're told to refrain from politicizing tragedy in its immediate aftermath — that's part of the ritual, too.

More grieving, more stories and magazine covers, a week of funerals. Then the rest of us slip back into the flow of life, whispering, "Thank God it didn't happen here."

Look at what we have wrought — a mountain of guns and ammunition, the highest degree of firepower ever seen in civilian life.

This didn't happen in the United States of the mid-20th century — not this kind of thing, not on this scale, and certainly not with the frequency we've seen.

The Greatest Generation endured wars and holocaust — somewhere else — but it returned to and handed us a generally civilized society. Young men did not open fire on children and kill them in mass numbers, not in the America our parents and grandparents knew.

They would not recognize this country today — with high-powered military-style weapons in the hands of just about anyone who wants one.

Look at what we've allowed to happen. Look at the America our children have come to know. Look at what the mixture of unpredictable human depravity and powerful guns has wrought — and this time, the dead are the innocent children of Newtown, their lives lost amid the holiday season and the greatest kid time of the year.

Imagine the nightmare of those parents.

"There is, I am sure — will be, rather — a day for discussion of the usual Washington policy debates," White House spokesman Jay Carney said after the massacre this time. "But I do not think today is that day."

Of course, that's what they always say.

And notice the choice of words: "the usual Washington policy debates." Catch the resignation and fatigue in that line — that Carney knows what we've all come to expect: A few days of TV talking heads, with one side calling for stricter federal laws and the other side holding up the Constitution and the right to bear assault rifles.

That's part of our national ritual now, too.

"I am stricken with a sense of disbelief that such heinous attacks could be perpetrated against the most vulnerable and innocent Americans, especially in a place of learning." That was part of the post-massacre statement of Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin.

All due respect, senator, but ... really?

How can you or anyone be shocked after Virginia Tech? Nickel Mines? Columbine?

Didn't someone walk up to a member of the House of Representatives in an Arizona shopping center a couple of years ago and shoot her in the head? Didn't the same gunman shoot 17 other people, killing six, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl?

The shooter had a Glock 19 pistol with 33-round magazines. He fired 31 shots in less than 30 seconds.

I think we need less shock and more honesty — and more anger. And no, I don't think we have to wait a decent interval anymore to talk about this.

At least President Barack Obama was willing, this time, to suggest that we "come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics."

That's a welcome thought — more than what's usually said by politicians — but there has been virtually no leadership in this realm of public safety for a long time. The gun lobby won, over and over again, and it enjoys a compliant Congress and sympathetic Supreme Court.

"We don't seem to want to make a priority of keeping guns away from dangerous people," says Daniel Webster, the expert on gun violence at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

From his office at the Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore, Webster plays a part in our national ritual now; reporters call him for comments after just about every mass murder with guns.

After this year's Aurora, Colo., cinema killings, Webster noted the capacity of one of the weapons used by the gunman to shoot 70 people within minutes — an assault rifle with a 100-round drum magazine.

There is no need for anyone in civilian life to own a firearm with that kind of capacity. But, says Webster, our gun laws are not about public safety.

"They are more about commerce," he says, "about making it easy for criminals, gun traffickers and sellers — not about protecting the public."

And, says Webster, there is little in our laws that demands accountability for those who own and sell guns. "You can buy guns and bullets online, no questions asked. And if we think that's logical and reasonable, then ..."

Then we shouldn't be so shocked.

And we should do something about it.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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