The murder and mayhem at the Aurora, Colorado movie theater took place five days ago, and since then, what we’ve heard from President Obama since has been mostly words of comfort and tales of courage. While the President was in Aurora visiting with victims, his press secretary offered mostly calculation when couching an assertion that the Obama administration would not push for new gun control measures in the wake of America’s latest massacre – not even a re-authorization of the federal assault-weapons ban which expired in 2004 – while offering up some crispy, fried bollocks about “[making] it harder for individuals who should not under existing law have weapons to obtain them.”
That stance has received a great deal of criticism, as has the President’s record (or lack thereof) on gun control. It’s a stance that in the immediate wake of the massacre in suburban Denver, before the White House even said a word, was already inviting its share of cynicism from media. There have been a number of variations on this sentiment, including Adam Gopnik’s moving take in The New Yorker – but no one wrote it as succinctly or perfectly as did The New Republic’s Timothy Noah on the morning of the shooting:
Innocent people will continue to die in random shootings as long as our society places less value in human life than it does in the untrammeled right of all Americans, including homicidal psychopaths, to purchase any and all deadly weapons…
We’re sorry that 12 people had to die in Aurora, Colo. But we aren’t sorry enough to lift a finger to prevent it from happening again.
As Noah notes, these are not original thoughts. Writing in 2007 for Slate, he asked the same question, “how sorry are we?”, after the Virginia Tech massacre, only to give the same answer: not enough. The political cartoon I placed above is from Denver Post cartoonist Mike Keefe. He drew it in 2009, almost 10 years after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold terrorized Columbine High School, and still well before the Tucson shooting which targeted former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords 18 months ago, and certainly well in advance of last Friday. (Mother Jones mapped out 56 total mass shootings in the last 30 years, most of which were committed by guns obtained by legal means.)
The lesson of these mass shootings continues to be unlearned, particularly by those making our laws, many of whom have bought into the gun-crazy culture in order to solidify their power base. And these are just the deaths we’re quote-unquote “shocked” by as a nation. What about those dying anonymously, at a record rate, in urban centers like Chicago? Yes, the National Rifle Association’s lobbying hand is strong. Yes, there are politicos and gun advocates saying silly stuff to cover the NRA’s tracks, whether it come in the form of haughty victim-blaming or misguided social science. Interviewed last night by NBC News’ Brian Williams, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney talked down to voters about guns as if he was speaking to a child about the bogeyman in the closet.
But it has been compelling is see Democrats, particularly a President who campaigned in 2008 on reinstating the federal assault-weapons ban, be similarly tone-deaf. When viewed broadly, perhaps it is to be expected. Not simply Democratic submission, per se; this administration’s global approach to violence and death, though productive as far as stopping terror and at least one war thus far, doesn’t seem to indicate that there will be much urgency to turn the tide. I would welcome being proven wrong, and right quick.
Speaking last night in New Orleans, President Obama lifted that proverbial finger. “I think a lot of gun owners would agree that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of criminals,” he said to those assembled at the National Urban League convention. He also added this, per NBC’s Ali Weinberg:
“I believe the majority of gun owners agree we should do everything possible to prevent criminals and fugitives from purchasing weapons,” the president said. “That we should check out a person’s criminal record before they can check out at a gun store. That a mentally unbalanced individual should not be able to get his hands on a gun so easily.”
The “mentally unbalanced” bit opens up another under-discussed topic in the Aurora aftermath – mental health – but that’s its own discussion. That the President took this step is encouraging, especially since he put it in the larger context of the “dozens gunned down on the streets of Chicago and Atlanta.” This is not a problem limited to the unique horror of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, or the Century 16 movie theater.
Whether it takes being sorry enough to address it, I’m not sure. I’m not sure being sorry, or even making laws, will change this gun-crazy culture. But if it makes for one less murderer – in a movie theater, in the home, or in a city neighborhood – it is worth talking about, and much more. It all depends on how much death we’re willing to tolerate.