“Typically American” has taken on a menacing tone in the wake of gun violence since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. Mass shootings happen every day and seem to be as American as apple pie.
Wikipedia defines a “mass shooting” as an incident in which four people are shot. Between June 1 and June 20 (the latest date listed as I wrote this), Wikipedia listed 50 mass shootings with 66 dead and 198 injured. On average, that’s 2.5 mass shootings, killing 3.3 and injuring 9.9 people, every day. In a list of 36 highly developed nations, our per-capita rate of violent gun deaths exceeds that of every other nation by a factor of at least six. Truly, America is “exceptional.”
Such statistics are essential to the gun debate, but we must be constantly mindful of the reality behind the numbers. Each of these shootings is a life-altering tragedy for victims, families and friends. As I write, a newspaper headline reads “Shooter kills 3 at Alabama church potluck.” In Vestavia Hills, a town of 40,000 just south of Birmingham, an occasional attendee at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church showed up at the dinner, pulled a handgun, and fatally shot three elderly participants. One of them died in his wife’s arms as she whispered words of love in his ear.
Why must America suffer so?
America’s gun problem is so enormous it’s difficult to grasp. Something is deeply and uniquely wrong with our nation. As Fareed Zakaria put it recently on his weekly broadcast, Americans know what’s wrong, and what we should do, but it remains to be seen if America will act.
What’s wrong is America’s gun fetish. Here again, America is grotesquely unique. America has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but over 40 percent of its civilian-owned guns.
We know what we should do: enact strong gun regulation. But America does not seem up to this task. Tiny (but worthwhile) measures, such as raising the age for purchasing semi-automatic rifles, have been proposed, and even these have been controversial in the Senate. It’s been 25 years since the federal government passed a law that limits the spread and use of guns. On Saturday, President Biden signed a law to toughen background checks for the youngest gun buyers, to help keep firearms from domestic violence offenders and to assist states to adopt red flag laws that make it easier for authorities to take weapons from people judged to be dangerous.
This is most welcome, but it’s a tiny drop in the bucket compared to what is needed.
Americans support stricter gun laws. According to a 2021 Gallup poll, 52 percent want stricter laws, only 11 percent want weaker laws, and 35 percent want no change,. Yet a fringe group of gun zealots backed by the National Rifle Association have doomed us to suffer these daily tragedies.
This must change. It seems to me that Americans need to put the gun problem into a larger, more permanent, perspective. The gun menace is not a small detail. It’s unfortunately central to what America is all about. It’s a cultural problem, similar to America’s predicament arising from its complicity with slavery. In other words, the gun problem is comparable to the civil rights problem that has broiled since America’s founding.
Just as there was a long struggle for civil rights, there must be a long struggle against gun violence. The solution will be cultural more than political. It will involve non-violence and peace: Peace within the family; peace between political rivals; peaceful understanding of the “other.” It could also help Americans to peacefully accept other governments who do not always agree with American global “leadership.” Most of all, Americans need to agree to disagree agreeably.
Many excellent national organizations support strict gun legislation. The struggle against gun violence should support these political efforts while keeping our eyes on the prize. In my view, the “prize” should be repeal of the Second Amendment. Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens supported this approach, and suggested that, alternatively, a few words could be added to clarify that the amendment refers only to those serving in a state militia.
The prize must of course include meaningful gun restrictions such as a ban on semi-automatic rifles and meaningful universal background checks. Cities and states should be allowed to enact restrictions including bans on handguns.
America is not a peaceful nation. A violent streak, originating centuries ago, runs deep among us. A modern peace movement, similar to the Vietnam War resistance, could significantly reduce violence at home and, hopefully, abroad.
America is indeed unique. We are deeply troubled, in ways that have become obvious recently (the Jan. 6 riot). Some of this is traceable to slavery, and some is traceable to a kind of militant, self-destructive individualism that runs deep in our culture. In a nation with such an over-abundance of personal weapons, this can lead to trouble.