It has been nearly a century since the New York Times published an editorial on its front page. It didn’t do so during the Great Depression, the Holocaust or the Vietnam War. Today, in the wake of the lethal San Bernardino terrorist attack, the Times called for an end to the sale of certain kinds of weapons and ammunition, instruments of war not self-defense or sport, and even the confiscation of those killing tools.
As a cri de coeur, the piece is right on target, but it’s not as if an editorial, even on the front page of the nation’s self-described newspaper of record, will change anything. It’s just words, and tomorrow will be used for puppy training or wrapping fish. They’re almost as meaningless as the words of politicians who say, “Our hearts go out to the victims and their families.” Or perhaps “our prayers are with them.”
The only words that matter are the opinions of the Supreme Court and the ayes and nays uttered by members of Congress when it comes to banning assault weapons, certain semi-automatics and magazines that permit mass murders without the shooter having to reload. Or the words of Senators, mostly Republicans, who voted last week to defeat a bill to bar gun sales to people on the no-fly list. How can they who posture on their muscular stance on terrorism look at themselves in the mirror every morning?
The same majority voted yet again against universal background checks, something favored by an overwhelming majority of the American people. Just four Republicans were on the side of gun safety, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Susan Collins of Maine, John McCain of Arizona and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. Shamefully, Democrat Senator Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) voted with the Republican majority.
Meanwhile, the insanity goes on, with the highest ever Black Friday gun sales and the FBI’s struggling to process record numbers of background checks (more limited than those envisioned in the failed legislation). The NRA chants that guns don’t kill, people do. That criminals will still find a way to circumvent laws. That the problem is mental illness. Those factors won’t go away. But making it more difficult for criminals, the deranged and the terrorists to create arsenals of weapons with which to pursue their wished-for carnage would surely save some lives.
Academics and others who follow these violent events are divided on whether or not mass shootings are on the rise or it just seems that way thanks to the 24-hour cycle of cable news. Resolving that difference of opinion is irrelevant. There has been more than a mass shooting (the killing of four or more people) every day this year. But more than half of all shooting deaths were from domestic violence. They don’t figure into the mass killing statistics. America has gone ballistic, as Wisconsin commentator Rick Horowitz observes.
On Friday, an American woman living in Amman, Jordan wrote a letter to the editor of the NY Times, wondering if she and her husband and daughter aren’t safer living there than returning to the United States. Written from the chaos of the Middle East, she understood that this might sound crazy but also was well aware that in Jordan, at least “children don’t get shot at school.”
The terrorist attacks are horrific, but we mustn’t forget the 30,000 annual deaths in the United States from garden variety gun violence. We are off the rails. In 1996, in the wake of a mass killing of 35 people, with 23 others wounded, Australia banned semi-automatics and rifles and instituted a huge buy-back. Shootings went down by about 60 percent, and there hasn’t been a mass killing since the law was implemented.
Would that work here? Perhaps not. I have a sense though that, if we expect failure, that’s exactly what we shall get. We have to continue speaking out for gun safety. For us, as for the NY Times, that starts with words. But the words must translate into political action. We need to defeat candidates and elected officials who are more afraid of losing NRA backing than they are of homeland terrorist carnage. We need to help elect those who are willing to make standing up to the NRA a priority. This is hard work, and only over time can we change the national mindset and put common sense and safety first.
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