Five years ago today, Adam Lanza shot and killed his mother in Newtown, Conn., then took two semiautomatic handguns and a semiautomatic rifle from her cache of firearms to massacre 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Of course, people declared at the time, such a tragic, senseless event would be a turning point. Surely a slaughter of innocent children would be too much even for the National Rifle Assn. and its adherents, and finally Congress would act to ban civilian possession of the guns of war.
Nope. Since the Sandy Hook massacre, there have been five more mass shootings in which at least a dozen people were killed, and 15 other attacks in which at least four people died — for a total of 273 killed and 645 wounded, nearly all with legally obtained semiautomatic weapons. Even the horror of a heavily armed man raining bullets from the 32nd floor of Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay hotel in October into a packed concert site has not moved the needle on what this nation will tolerate.
At the moment, we are at the sick juncture at which the mass murder of civilians with military-style weapons not only no longer surprises, but has become part of our national identity. We even market the grief. You can walk down the Vegas Strip and find souvenir shops selling T-shirts with the slogan “Vegas Strong,” echoing the “Boston Strong” meme that cropped up following the marathon bombing in that city in 2013.
What then will it take? It is shameful that we do not force our elected representatives to act on this, and instead allow them to do the bidding of the powerful gun lobby and the companies that profit from this endless scourge of bloodletting. On average, 42 people are killed by guns (not including suicides) and 86 wounded a day.
Today, when we see breaking alerts of an active shooter, we immediately track the body count while ticking down a list of questions: Was it terrorism by some religious extremist, or — more often, such as the massacre last month of 26 people in a Texas church — the lashing out by a hate-filled American male? Were the guns bought legally? How about the background check? We drill down into the minutiae — how many firearms did he have? How many bullets fired? Were there are any warning signs that might, had they been picked up on, averted the tragedy?
Such details are important, but the question that really needs to be answered is how such a wealthy, sophisticated country let itself get trapped in this cycle of madness. The body count includes children, parents, grandparents. Straight people. Gay people. Men. Women. White, black and Latino. All the ethnicities that compose America, and all shot dead going about their daily lives — school, work, church, play. These atrocities occur even as violent crime across the country has steadily declined for the last quarter of century.
The country needs a saner approach. There is no reason for most Americans to possess weapons designed for war. There is no excuse for gun manufacturers who engineer their way around regulations (through bump-fire stocks like the one the Vegas gunman used to fire his semiautomatic rifles as though they were machine guns and “bullet buttons” that undercut a law intended to slow down mass shooters). Congress needs to mandate universal background checks with no carve-outs for private sales or other dodges. There needs to be a program for removing existing weapons from people who can’t be trusted with them.
This is a public health crisis, but instead of responding, we let a strict interpretation of the 2nd Amendment guide our policy and we allow the NRA to define our political battles. We offer thoughts and prayers for the dead but nothing for the living so that they can escape a similar ending. We tolerate this state of affairs, which makes us all morally culpable for the slaughters of the future. We can’t keep on this way. We must do better.