There was a mass shooting the other day. You’ve probably heard about it.
But then again, we might be thinking of different events. One of us might be thinking of the Navy Yard, where thirteen people died. The other might be be thinking of Chicago—a three-year-old boy was among the eleven people shot there.
There have been on average one mass shooting per day, somewhere in America, in 2013. In each case some lives changed forever, in unimaginable ways. For each survivor, for the rest of their lives, there’ll be just one 2013 mass shooting that has real significance, and spawns ever-recurring nightmares.
That pattern will continue tomorrow, when gun violence flares again. And the day after. Most of those incidents will register barely a blip with most of us, no matter how life-changing they are for a few. One day, too soon, there will be yet another outsized, dreadful, unspeakable event. It’ll cut through the mental fog with which we ignore everyday violence. We’ll talk about it for a few days, alternatively brooding over it or empathizing, or trying to make it fit some agenda. And then for all but the most unlucky among us it will fade from memory. To make way, perhaps, for the inevitable next one.
Because there will be a next one. There always will be. America’s gun violence is an ingrained public safety problem that is prevented, politically and culturally, from being solved. It was woven into our national fabric from the very beginning. It’s a poisoned inter-generational legacy written into our foundational laws.
It’s almost a requirement, these days, for any self-professed American patriot to offer nothing but praise for the wisdom and foresight of our Founding Fathers. I try not to fetishize them, but I call myself a patriot and I am in awe of much of their work. That enlightened band of philandering patriarchs and self-excusing slave-holders did indeed formulate a radical but fundamentally promising new form of government. And they were far-seeing enough to build into it most of the flexibility needed so that the nation, and the nation’s government, could adapt and grow over time in response to and in pace with a changing world.
But they weren’t infallible. One of their most egregious mistakes comes in the form of one convoluted sentence, 27 words, which appear just after the blessed clause that grants unprecedented freedoms of speech, press, and assembly:
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
The meaning and intent of the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights is elusively obscure, even though it seems clear enough at first glance. From an eighteenth-century perspective, it probably was. The militia was, after all, the citizens’ primary bulwark against chaos. And with so much of the country untamed and close to the frontier, the right to keep and bear arms was usually a matter of survival. Infringing upon that might condemn a man, his family, perhaps nascent American democracy itself.
Where the Founders failed was in not foreseeing changes to those circumstances. They didn’t foresee modern-day population densities and the preeminence of cities. They didn’t guess how the gun would become far less a tool for citizens’ well-being, and much more a way for us to destroy ourselves.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m well aware that our nation doesn’t consist entirely of cities. I know there are still frontiers, shrunken though they may be, and that keeping and bearing arms in such places is a necessity. And I don’t issue a blanket accusation against all gun owners, wherever they dwell, that they’re culpable for the damage that gun violence is doing to our society.
The culpable ones are criminals and the criminally insane. They’re not a large population, not when compared to all the responsible and lawful gun-owners. But they’re so dangerous, and they’re killing so many of us, that inaction is inexcusable. Yet inaction is inevitable, because those maddeningly vague 27 words make it almost impossible to put the guns beyond the reach of the dangerous and the guilty.
Pragmatically, we’re stuck. Stuck with a deadly problem we don’t have the will to solve.
I don’t know why but when it comes to political and cultural change, I’m a pragmatist. I can’t even force idealism on myself. So even though ideally, I might imagine a cure for this problem…pragmatically, I can’t entertain it. Because pragmatically I know that the constitutional tinkering and societal mind-shifting it would take to get the guns away from those who are dangerous (while protecting the rights of those who aren’t) cannot happen. Not for generations. Not soon enough to save thousands upon thousands of lives.
But we’re nothing without hope, and I hope we can find a way to help ourselves, with or without the aegis of law. I think it’s up to each of us, all of us, to enforce our own kinds of gun control. We have to have the will and the means to intervene, in whatever effective ways we can, to separate the guns from the people who aim to do harm with them. This calls for every law-abiding gun owner to go above and beyond the law in how they lock up their weapons, and in the precautions they take to keep them safe from those who have no business touching them. Might even call for some of us to voluntarily forgo gun ownership altogether, if we can’t be sure our guns won’t end up in unsafe hands.
That’s at best an incomplete solution, that at worst will mean far too many Americans will still die from gun violence every year. There’s a slim hope, though, that it could save some lives. And here in our gun culture, slim hopes will have to do, because they’re really all we have.