“Public tragedies can serve as catalysts for soul-searching and deep reflection by society. They also typically lead to a policy response as leaders craft reforms designed to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future – except in the United States, it seems, when the tragedy involves guns.”
I wrote those words just four months ago in the wake of the massacre that took place at the movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado. I am heartbroken that they are relevant again.
Once more, America is in anguish after a senseless mass shooting. And this time it is even worse, because so many of the victims are mere babies – young school children murdered with their teachers and their principal in their classrooms. If Fyodor Dostoevsky were alive and writing today, then the events at Newtown would fit neatly in Ivan Karamazov’s litany of real horrors catalogued in his rebellious remarks on theodicy.
As the identities of the victims appeared on Twitter and in the media, each name fell like a hammer blow on a grieving nation. Tragedy is followed, inevitably, by a search for answers and explanations. With Newtown, a number of likely contributing factors can be easily identified – including our nation’s scandalously poor treatment of adult mental illness (adult mental health services in America are, in general, a barren wasteland).
But all societies have mentally ill individuals, and many others do – relatively speaking – a poor job of treating and addressing them. And yet they do not experience the sort of mass murders that occur all too often in the United States. In the end, the primary factor that distinguishes America from the rest of the world, and explains why mass shootings take place more frequently here, is easy access to firearms due to our nation’s loose gun laws.
In 1996, Australia experienced a horrible mass casualty shooting at Port Arthur, Tasmania. Afterwards, Prime Minister John Howard’s government moved quickly to tighten Australia’s gun laws and instituted a mandatory federal buy-back program designed to remove banned guns from private ownership. In the years prior to Port Arthur, Australia experienced several mass casualty shootings. There have been none since.
Other nations that have faced the horror of mass casualty gun violence have reacted in similar ways by tightening gun control laws. The United Kingdom’s response to the school shooting at Dunblane, Scotland, which also occurred in 1996, is but one example. Globally, the enactment of strict gun control measures in the wake of mass shootings seems to make a difference: they either eliminate, or dramatically reduce the incidence of, these types of events.
And yet this is a lesson that has been ignored in the United States. Remarkably, we’ve experienced several Port Arthur-type shootings this year alone – at movie theaters (Aurora), places of worship (Oak Creek, Wisconsin) and elementary schools – and politically, we have done nothing in response. We seem to love our guns more than the lives of our fellow citizens.
This is a stinging indictment of our political process, and a sobering rebuke of our society. And, in the wake of the massacre of the innocents at Newtown, such indolence must end.
Today, America is in the throes of an epidemic of gun violence. We reject the ploughshare, and arm ourselves with swords. Indeed, we have almost as many guns as we do citizens. Together, this massive arsenal accounts for more than 30% of the privately owned firearms in the world. Tragically, we turn these weapons far too often against each other – roughly 30,000 people are killed by guns annually in America. As a result, we have more gun deaths per capita than any of our industrial democracy peers.
Commonsense gun control measures are blocked, however, by the powerful voice of the gun lobby. The well-funded National Rifle Association (NRA) has convinced many people that gun control proposals, however limited and reasonable, are just the beginning of a slippery slope that will lead inevitably to the confiscation of most privately owned firearms.
For example, Wayne LaPierre, the CEO and Executive Vice-President of the NRA, has publicly warned that Barack Obama intends to “erase the Second Amendment from the Bill of Rights and exorcise it from the U.S. Constitution” and, in league with George Soros, turn “Americans’ guns into international soup cans and park benches.” LaPierre’s various statements suggesting that a conspiracy exists to disarm American citizens as a precursor to eliminating civil liberties and tearing up the Constitution help create and nurture a climate of fear, suspicion and anxiety – a perpetual state of emotional emergency, a constant crisis.
At the same time, the NRA and the rest of the gun lobby have been waging a successful campaign dramatically to weaken America’s gun laws at both state and federal levels. They have pushed for legislation expanding the right to carry concealed weapons, including in bars, schools and even churches, and making it easier for people charged with violent crimes to legally purchase and carry guns. The NRA and its fellow-travellers have also been the primary force behind the “Stand Your Ground” laws made infamous in the Trayvon Martin case.
Clearly, people of faith have a critical role to play in any discussion about reducing the levels of violence in American society. But while we focus primarily on the root causes of violence in America – the disintegration of the family unit, the lack of educational and economic opportunities, a culture that glorifies aggression and too often treats violence as a form of entertainment – we must not neglect the instruments of violence, including guns.
There is a long tradition of religious support for gun control measures in the United States. In 1993, for instance, many religious denominations, groups and leaders publically supported the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which mandated background checks for people purchasing guns. The United States Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has also spoken out in favour of gun control measures on numerous occasions. For example, in 1975 the USCCB called “for effective and courageous action to control handguns, leading to their eventual elimination from our society” – a position they reiterated in 2000.
Today, given America’s high levels of gun violence and crime, and the repeated mass casualty shootings that are occurring across our nation, the need for a regulatory response should be clear. It’s long past time to break the NRA’s stranglehold on the debate.
We must re-establish a clear link between gun violence in our society and public policy. Passing an updated, and stricter, version of the old Assault Weapons Ban (which also prohibited high capacity magazines), coupled with a vigorous voluntary buy-back program targeting existing lawfully-purchased assault weapons already in private hands, as well as legislation closing the Brady Act’s gun show loophole, are critical first steps.
At the same time, we should also enact legislation applying strict limitations on the number of guns that people are permitted to purchase at one time – no more than one gun every three months sounds like a reasonable limit to me – coupled with mandatory waiting periods of a meaningful duration after any purchase is made before an individual can actually pick up their new weapon.
Finally, we should ban .50-calibre rifles. As George Zornick has noted:
“According to a Congressional Research Service report, these weapons – freely available at most gun retailers – ‘could be used to shoot down aircraft, rupture pressurized chemical tanks, or penetrate armored personnel carriers’ and ‘have little sporting, hunting, or recreational purpose.'”
We ought to take these extremely dangerous guns off the market and out of private hands.
Regardless of the specific measures selected, this much is clear: we cannot vow “never again” without also saying yes to gun control.