Will this time shame us?
A confession: When the news of Thursday’s mass shooting in Oregon broke, it did not occur to me to write about it.
I was thinking about Planned Parenthood and Benghazi; about Bernie Sanders’s fundraising and Hillary Clinton’s e-mails; about Vladimir Putin and Syria. Another shooting is tragic and enraging, but what is left to say? What is the point of saying anything when it will change no minds?
Still, nothing else was working, so I took the dog for a walk, during which Twitter erupted— first, with news that the president would be making the inevitable briefing room statement; next, with the inevitable criticism that he was seizing the moment to change the subject from the mess in the Middle East. Seriously, he’s the president of the United States. If he didn’t speak out, he’d be slammed for his uncaring silence.
Then the president’s grim words shamed me into writing.
“Somehow this has become routine,” he noted, bristling with anger and frustration as he made his 15th such remarks. “The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. We’ve become numb to this.”
Or perhaps simply despairing. The saddest interview I ever conducted was with three of the mothers whose children were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School. We sat under the cherry blossoms outside the U.S. Capitol, four months after the killings.
They cried, and I cried, as they described the anguish of losing their babies, and the determined lobbying, complete with glossy postcards of their impossibly beautiful murdered children, that had managed to dislodge the usual gridlock and propel a measure to expand background checks for gun purchasers to the Senate floor.
Not to limit the size of ammunition magazines, or to reinstate the assault weapons ban. Just to apply the existing background check requirement to gun shows, in-state gun sales over the Internet and other commercial transactions. Not transfers from fathers to sons, or buddy to buddy. Just commercial transactions.
And even this was too much for the Senate. The tears of grieving mothers could get the measure to the floor but not over the 60-vote threshold — and, certainly, if the missing six votes had miraculously materialized, not past the House of Representatives.
Since Sandy Hook: Washington Navy Yard, 12 killed, three wounded. Fort Hood, again, three killed, 16 wounded. Isla Vista, six killed, seven wounded. Charleston, nine killed. Now Roseburg, another nine, and “another community stunned with grief,” as the president said.
Of course, enacting reasonable gun measures would not have stopped all of these. Still, you tell the parents of 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, killed in Tucson, that limits on oversized ammunition magazines are not justified; Jared Loughner got off 31 shots before being stopped when he paused to reload.
“We are not the only country on Earth that has people with mental illnesses or want to do harm to other people,” Obama said. “We are the only advanced country on Earth that sees these kinds of mass shootings every few months.”
Australia, which adopted sweeping anti-gun laws in response to a 1996 mass shooting, had 1.4 gun homicides per million people in 2012, Vox reported. Canada had 5.1. The United States? 29.7.
More American exceptionalism: We are the only country that responds to such carnage with straight-faced proposals to make gun ownership easier. Look at the Republican front-runner, Donald Trump, whose otherwise paltry policy positions include expanding concealed carry rules to make a permit from any state valid nationwide.
As Obama observed, our inaction is un-American. “When Americans are killed in mine disasters, we work to make mines safer. When Americans are killed in floods and hurricanes, we make communities safer. When roads are unsafe, we fix them to reduce auto fatalities. We have seatbelt laws because we know it saves lives,” he said.
The Second Amendment protects a right to gun ownership. It does not forestall reasonable regulation. The sorts of small steps that now appear unachievable would not interfere with the needs of responsible gun owners.
It is too soon to know how the Roseburg killer obtained his weapon or weapons; how evident was his mental illness; whether he could have been stopped. It is not too soon for all of us, myself included, to feel ashamed by our willingness to accept the status quo as bloody but immutable.
Flowers decorate a sign at the entrance to Umpqua Community College.