It didn’t happen when a dozen students were shot and killed at Columbine High School in 1999. It didn’t happen after 32 students were murdered at Virginia Tech University in 2007.
But perhaps it may happen now that 20 first and second graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. have lost their lives at the hands of another deranged gunman, along with six adults at the school who tried to protect them.
In the immediate aftermath, talk turned to whether the federal ban on large ammunition clips and semi-automatic rifles like those used in the elementary school shootings – enacted in 1994 and allowed to lapse by Congress in 2004 – should be restored.
But what needs to happen is something far broader and deeper – an honest discussion about the roots of violence in this society, and how we might begin to change things. What we need is not another round about “gun control” and the NRA’s presumed political veto, but consideration of why Americans are so dependent on guns in the first place.
In my lifetime, Americans have initiated at least three major wars, in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and none have produced benefits even remotely equaling their costs. You have to go back to World War II, when most Americans alive today had yet to be born, to find a conflict where one can say, yes, this war had to be fought.
And yet, every Memorial Day we hear speeches claiming that it is our military prowess that keeps us free, that keeps us safe from harm. I haven’t believed this in a good long time – but it isn’t easy to say that in the public square.
At home, we tolerate what the citizens of every other nation with which we’d like to compare ourselves consider horrendous levels of gun violence. It’s not unheard of in other countries, just rare. Nowhere else, it seems, would the gun deaths of 30,000 citizens a year, many of them by suicide, be considered “normal.”
Even in relatively peaceful Maine, more than half the homicides every year involve domestic incidents where, almost invariably, men shoot women and children, and often themselves, to death. What, really, would do more to create freedom and public safety? Continuing to produce and sell millions of firearms or taking an entirely different course?
Gun advocates have long insisted that homeowners can best protect themselves from the dangers of life by arming themselves against intruders. Many of them also advocate carrying weapons everywhere, so that when someone like the Newtown shooter comes along, he can be shot first.
This has always seemed a cruel fantasy, and for it even to work we would have to insist that all adult, qualified Americans carry guns – and this, certainly, is too much even for gun advocates to push. It doesn’t sound much like freedom. So violence is amplified, not diminished, by the prevalence of guns.
No amount of firepower, in my experience, can create safety. Safety and freedom from fear, are far more likely to come from the absence of tools of lethal violence.
All other peer nations recognize this. Their systems vary, but almost all involve bans on private use of handguns and all high-power weaponry. Long guns for hunting are generally allowed, though rifles usually must be registered. Gun clubs, where weapons must stay on the premises, are another option.
It’s true we have to start somewhere, and perhaps revival of the semi-automatic weapons ban is such a place. But if we are truly serious about preventing the deaths of small children by gun fire in our classrooms, then we will have to delve down to something much more fundamental about our society and ourselves.
A human propensity to violence may well be part of our nature. That doesn’t mean it should be unquestioned or unchallenged – or tolerated under the guise of “freedom.”
President Obama has been decidedly cautious on this issue. But in the time between the school shooting and his visit to Newtown to be with a grieving community, his words underwent a small but significant change.
At his news conference, Obama said the nation needs “to take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this.” At the candlelight vigil in Newtown, he said, “These tragedies must end.”
For that to happen, all Americans must lower their voices and begin to talk to each other, without preconceptions, about what is possible and necessary. Peace on earth is the dream we must make real.
Douglas Rooks is a former daily and weekly newspaper editor who has covered the State House for 28 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.