The dramatic increase in violence, be it “collateral damage” overseas or the rapidly multiplying number of suicides here at home, be it holding innocent men for years without trial at Guantánamo Bay or executing innocents in mainland prisons, be it mass murders or acts of terrorism like the one that put a tragic end to the Boston marathon on Monday, all scream out for solution.
More attention to the desperate needs of our young people. Better health care and education. A reappraisal of our prison-industrial complex. Increased and better ways of caring for our mentally ill. And so much more. Pretty much an overhaul of our entire social structure. Impossible from the get-go.
On December 14, 2012, a young and clearly deranged gunman shot and killed the mother who had bought him guns and taught him to shoot, then walked into a primary school in Newtown, Connecticut and murdered 20 first and second graders and the 6 adults trying to save them. The shock waves ricocheted across this country. They sparked a renewed effort at gun control. Mothers and fathers of the dead children swallowed their grief and went to Washington, where they testified before sub-committees and held press conferences for the rest of us. Survivors of previous mass shootings—in Virginia, Colorado, Illinois, and many other parts of the country—joined the chorus demanding stricter gun control.
Along with her husband, ex-astronaut Mike Kelly, ex US representative Gabrielle Giffords, also shifted all their energies to a renewed struggle for gun control. Giffords had miraculously survived a bullet to the brain when a man killed and wounded a number of people at a rally she was holding in Tucson on January 8, 2011. She was still deeply immersed in the physical and emotional therapy that had necessarily consumed her in the two years since she’d been gunned down. Yet she and her husband put everything other than fighting for gun control on hold. They founded their own lobbying organization, raised money, and threw considerable credibility and full-time efforts into the fray.
The Newtown massacre, perhaps because its victims were so many and so young, seemed to offer the perfect backdrop for an intensified plea for national reason. If something positive could be created in the wake of so much pain, all sorts of people from all sorts of places were ready to step forward. In red states and blue. In the Wild West and more staid East. In counties with moderate protective law already in place and in those where it is not simply legal to own a gun but illegal not to. In areas heavily controlled by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and those whose local tragedies had led them to reconsider their (misunderstood) Second Amendment rights.
The arguments could be heard and read across this country. New and sometimes encouraging headlines dominated the evening news. Clearly a collective passion was fueling this fight. Politicians, religious leaders, and pundits on the Right or Left spoke out. Might gun-owners be satisfied with firearms appropriate for hunting or home protection? Would they be willing to do without assault rifles made for war and the high-powered ammunition clips that make it possible to decimate dozens in seconds? Could our elected officials at least agree upon universal background checks for people buying guns? Could they agree about anything?
The answer came this morning, April 18, 2013. And it is a resounding NO. Although a variety of opinion polls show 90% of Americans favor at least some measure of gun control, and although President Obama has made sincere pleas for changes to our retrograde laws, change proved impossible. When the US Senate voted on expanding background checks for gun sales—the only amendment left standing among the many introduced—neither Democrats nor Republicans were able to provide the 60 votes necessary to avoid a filibuster. US democracy doesn’t mean the will of the people. It means the vast majority of our elected officials consider their jobs first and public opinion a distant second.
It’s hard not to conclude that, at the national level at least, we are not witnessing some carefully orchestrated farce. We campaign and vote for people we hope will represent our needs. We want to take comfort from the sincerity of their discourse. But when the big issues are on the table, we have learned (some of us, at least) that power politics outranks real change every time.
Sometimes some watered-down version of a bill that started out with teeth actually makes it to a full House or Senate vote. When that happens, and a thin layer of progress becomes law, those who write its advertising copy generally paint it as more life changing than it is. When even this is impossible, our representatives come out with some version of the statement: “This is not the end of this fight, only the beginning.” And life, or death, goes on.
For those who believe democracy—US democracy at least—means overwhelming public opinion really can push law toward what people want and need, this most recent travesty demonstrates there’s a great deal more to it than that.