Thursday, August 27, 2015
Gun apathy is un-American
I've noticed people on Facebook complaining about newspapers printing images of yesterday's murder of a Virginia TV reporter and camera man, as if that was the offensive part that demanded action. While I agree that the expression of horror on her face is disturbing, like Edvard Munch's "Scream," we do ourselves, or her family, or her memory, no favors by turning away. Frankly, I think it should be engraved on our currency, because Americans contemplate the reality of gun violence too rarely, not too frequently. It is an example of cowardice in a nation that once prided itself on courage.
It is distasteful to dip your fingers into the fresh blood of the latest victims of gun violence and try to sketch out a political point.
These are real people, or were. Alison Parker, 24, a reporter for TV station WDBJ7 in Virginia, and Adam Ward, 27, a cameraman, were gunned down Wednesday morning by a former station employee with "anger issues," apparently, who later shot himself as police closed in.
But this tragedy was not a random act of nature. They weren't struck by lightning. They were victims of gun violence, which has become an American folk illness, an epidemic we suffer from out of proportion with the rest of the world. The rate of gun violence in the United States is 40 times what it is in Great Britain.
Distasteful though it might be, this is the only time when Americans even pretend to pay attention. Typically this case would hardly bear notice — only two people killed, not the big death toll needed to spark public interest. But it happened on live TV, and a good video will snag our wandering gaze.
Why are we so hesitant to contemplate this problem? Maybe because we venerate guns as part of our national identity. Selling guns is big business, and the central narrative offered by the gun industry's champion, the National Rifle Association, is that any sane regulation of guns, even the smallest change to the status quo, say, requiring firearms to come with trigger locks, is a step toward the totalitarian state where guns are seized by our jackbooted overlords.
It's an extreme argument with no basis in reality. But people embrace it with passion. Because they are terrified of their government, terrified of our society, and arming themselves is a futile effort to allay their fears. Remember, the percentage of Americans who own guns is falling: in 1973, it was 50 percent. Now it's closer to 35 percent. Most households in America don't have a gun. The reason we have so many guns — 310 million — is the average gun owner owns eight guns.
Why own so many? Because it's hard to get enough of something that doesn't work.
Calls for action seem naive. Worse slaughters than Wednesday's occurred and nothing happened. If we didn't do anything after 20 children were murdered at Sandy Hook in 2012, the logic goes, we'll never do anything.
Perhaps. But let's review. We're still the United States of America. We have this terrible problem, one costing the lives of innocent American citizens. We could try to fix it, but we're not. Because we're frozen, stuck. We can't try or even talk about trying.
How does that stand with you?
I think what we need is a counter-narrative, a better story, another way to talk about this other than the NRA fairy tale. Something both truth-based and honoring a nation that tackles its problems or used to. Surrendering to gun violence is unpatriotic. The solution that the NRA offers — more guns, everyone should arm up so we could shoot it out — is insane and would make the situation worse. Buying a gun increases the chances that you'll be shot, that your children will be shot. The most common form of gun violence is suicide: when you buy a gun, the person you most imperil, statistically, is yourself. And then your family and friends. And then, way down the chart, criminals.
So what to do?
We are a country that defeated Hitler, that sent a man to the moon, that invented the Internet. To say that we can't do anything to keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people is the worst kind of defeatism. It's un-American.
How to start? We are so far from any kind of significant action, we must begin by wondering: Can we do anything about this problem? Can we even talk about it? Or is all hope lost, and our nation doomed to sit passively in the face of this worsening scourge? Because if one thing is clear, even though most Americans don't have guns and most Americans would like specific improvements in gun policy, most Americans also do not change their beliefs on the subject just because there is another shooting. We look up at the crack of gunfire, note the identities of today's victims, sigh, then go about our business unmoved. It is a peasant fatalism, a resignation beneath the spirit of a great country.