Those of a certain age may recall the concept of American exceptionalism. It referred to the belief that the United States was unique among nations due to its values and the manner in which those values translated into noble policies and actions. Generally, this uniqueness referred to an economic system producing a high standard of living, a legal system based on due process of law, the freedoms embedded in our Constitution and even a foreign policy claimed to be both strong and peaceful. How accurate that belief was over time is, of course, varied.
I recently thought about the concept of American exceptionalism after reading about two mass shootings in Serbia. The day after the first shooting, many Serbians said that these were the kind of things one expects in the U.S. not Serbia. As Americans have suffered more than one mass shooting per day, often defined as four or more people killed or injured in one incident, the Serbian response is hardly surprising. Seven countries, including the United Kingdom, France and even Venezuela have issued travel advisories for their citizens thinking of traveling to the U.S. because of the prevalence of gun violence.
It is mass murder by firearm that makes us exceptional today.
Do you remember when we could easily call to mind the name of the places where horrific mass shootings took place, such as at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, or Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida? Now they occur too frequently to remember the names and places. A bank in Louisville, Kentucky; another elementary school in Uvalde, Texas; a mall in Allen, Texas; a concert in Las Vegas or a neighbor’s house in Cleveland, Texas.
It is time — no, way past time — to hold accountable those who created a climate in which mass shootings are more than everyday occurrences and the daily incidents of neighborhood gun violence grind on with inevitability. It is time to lay blame where it belongs beyond just the shooters, not to make a debate point but to educate ourselves so as to reject the continuing arguments of those who have proven so consistently wrong over the years.
Recall the catchy phrase “if we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns”? Well, that is certainly no problem as all sorts of people have all sorts of guns now. There are more guns than people in the U.S. now, and assuming even in Texas that toddlers don’t yet own guns, that just means more for the rest of us. But that’s good, we’re told, because good people with guns will deter the bad folks from committing acts like mass murders.
How’s that working out?
The gun lobby tells us that guns are not the problem and the causes of mass violence include, but are not limited to: mental health issues, people who anger too quickly, economic disparities and domestic violence. Undoubtedly all these factors and others play a role, but those conditions exist in the other countries in the world that don’t approach the level of gun violence we see in the U.S. What really distinguishes us is the volume of our guns, their lethality and the ridiculously permissive approach the misinterpretation of the Second Amendment and the advocacy of the NRA and other such groups has produced.
It does not appear that humans will soon be free of emotions (such as anger and jealousy) or better at controlling them; or free of health issues, such as severe mental illness, or the conditions that lead to criminal behavior or even just carelessness. And so, we desperately need to make manifestations of such behaviors less harmful. At least stop producing those firearms of no value, that make it far more likely that a shooting will be fatal or high-capacity magazines that do the same.
We must stop being dissuaded from saving lives by arguments that are either irrelevant or have been proven wrong time and time again. The alternative is to wait for the next massacre using firearms and the expressions of sorrow and sympathy that follow.
If we can meaningfully reduce gun violence in America, that would indeed be exceptional.
Steven P. Grossman is the Dean Julius Isaacson Professor Emeritus at the University of Baltimore School of Law.