Archive for the ‘Guns’ Category

Packin’ in the Classroom

o-TEXAS-GUNS-CARS-CAMPUS-facebookIn more than 35 years of observing the Idaho Legislature I am hard pressed to remember another time when really controversial legislation – in this case the “guns on campus” bill – became law in the face of such wide-spread opposition from the people and institutions most directly impacted.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s signature on the contentious legislation was no surprise. He signaled his support early but, given the unanimous opposition from college and university presidents, the Otter-appointed State Board of Education (SBOE), an array of student leaders and many in law enforcement, it can be counted as a mild surprise that the bill ever got to the governor. Similar legislation has died in the past.

University presidents argued that allowing concealed weapons on a college campus would inevitably lead to more overall security concerns, greater costs for law enforcement and might well impact recruitment of faculty, students and athletes. Former Idaho House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, a conservative who is also a pragmatic guy, was known during his long tenure as Speaker for killing his share of crackpot ideas. Newcomb now manages government relations for Boise State University and he told the Boise Weekly, “I had one professor tell me, ‘All my kids are going to get A’s.’ I think it changes the whole climate.”

But back to the dynamic of a part-time, citizen legislature and a governor willing to ignore the wholesale opposition of the people closest to the kids and issues on the state’s higher education campuses. More than ever the state legislature considers itself a collection of the 105 smartest people in Idaho. They’re experts on everything and never in doubt on anything. The SBOE says on its website that it “is a policy-making body for all public education in Idaho and provides general oversight and governance for public K-20 education. SBOE serves as the Board of Trustees for state-sponsored public four year colleges and universities and the Board of Regents for the University of Idaho.”

That statement is clearly not true. Some trustee that can’t impact such a fundamental issue of campus policy and safety. Some oversight, particularly when the legislature is willing to substitute its “judgment” for that of the people legally and Constitutionally charged with that responsibility. The State Board was on record early opposing the guns on campus bill and the college presidents weighed in on this issue more forcefully than on almost any issue – including budgets – that I can remember. They might as well have been shouting down a dry well.

Answer this

In the wake of the horrific Virginia Tech shooting – the seven year anniversary is in April – where a lone, mentally-ill student shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others, attorney Brian J. Siebel, then a senior lawyer with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, suggested a variety of questions regard guns on campus in an article published in the George Mason University’s Civil Rights Law Journal. Siebel’s questions are as valid today as when the Virginia Tech shootings were dominating the news in 2007.

Do student want guns in classrooms, Siebel asked? Apparently not if you believe elected Idaho student leaders. Will students feel safer if the person next to them in chem lab is packing? Will parents be inclined to support a decision for their little Jennifer or Cameron to attend schools where guns are openly allowed, or given the attitude of the legislature, openly encouraged? What about the pressure, academic and otherwise, that many kids feel during those formative college years when grades clash with ready access to booze and worse? And will more guns on campus contribute to more suicide now the third leading cause of death among young Americans age 15 to 24? All those questions still apply to Idaho and the handful of other states that allow guns on campus. These are the kinds of questions higher education policy makers deal with every day as they worry about the welfare of young people in their charge, but these questions were largely ignored or certainly given scant attention in the recent Idaho debate. And why is that?

It’s impossible not to conclude amid the sober sounding claims that guns on campus is merely a straight forward Constitutional issue – it isn’t, that when the National Rifle Association shows up touting a gun bill the NRA’s legislative soldiers fall immediately in line. No phalanx of college presidents or concerned students can trump the political power of the gun lobby.

In year’s past the kind of opposition that came together to oppose the NRA-endorsed Idaho legislation may well have prompted a few sober-minded lawmakers to counsel a go-slow approach or, as some opponents suggested this year, a year of cooling off to really consider the ramifications of such lawmaking. But such is the lock (and load) hold of the NRA on legislators in many states that any departure – any departure at all – from the gun lobby line is considered gun rights treason.

Armed America

The Gun Report blog of the New York Times reports today that, “the executive vice president of the National Rifle Association (Wayne LaPierre) spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., last week, and after equating freedom and individual rights with gun ownership, he painted a dire picture of a country with no defense but its armed citizenry.

“Freedom has never needed our defense more than now,” LaPierre thundered from the stage, as the Times put it. “Almost everywhere you look, something has gone wrong. The core values we believe in, the things we care about most, are changing. Eroding. It’s why more and more Americans are buying firearms and ammunition — not to cause trouble, but because we sense that America is already in trouble.”

This is the rhetoric of a dystopic Hollywood movie where a handful of heavily armed super heroes hold off the evil invaders. The only sane people in Wayne’s world are those armed to the teeth, because in the richest country on the globe with a long-enduring tradition of representative democracy, we can no longer trust the police, the courts, and our elected officials to keep our freedoms. Such is the mind set of an armed America and those policymakers who keep marching in lock step with the gun lobby, while completely ignoring the bloody reality of what the NRA’s agenda increasingly means.

The Times gun blog today recounts some recent headline gun news:

“A 2-year-old boy accidentally shot and killed himself with a handgun he found at a home in Broken Arrow, Okla., Tuesday night. It is unclear how the toddler got hold of the weapon. No arrests have been made.”

“Wesley Pruitt, 13, was killed in an accidental shooting at a friend’s home in Rains County, Tex., Wednesday afternoon. The victim and his 15-year-old friend were in a bedroom when the older boy pulled the trigger of a 12-gauge shotgun, not realizing it was loaded. No word on charges.”

“A 57-year-old man was shot in the face during a home invasion robbery in Sandpoint, Idaho, late Monday. Three men were arrested after an 11-hour standoff with police.”

And so it goes day after day.

The Gun Violence Archive reports as of today 2008 Americans have died in gun-related incidents since January 1, 2014 and another 3,305 have been injured. We don’t know how many guns there really are in America, but various estimates say 270 million, at least. That number grows every day. Don’t you feel safer?

Rolling Stone magazine recently offered some statistics to back up a claim that just given the numbers regarding issues like health care, prison populations and gun violence, the United States more-and-more resembles a third-world, developing county.

“The U.S. leads the developed world in firearm-related murders,” the magazine reported, “and the difference isn’t a slight gap – more like a chasm. According to United Nations data, the U.S. has 20 times more murders than the developed world average. Our murder rate also dwarfs many developing nations, like Iraq, which has a murder rate less than half ours. More than half of the most deadly mass shootings documented in the past 50 years around the world occurred in the United States, and 73 percent of the killers in the U.S. obtained their weapons legally. Another study finds that the U.S. has one of the highest proportion of suicides committed with a gun. Gun violence varies across the U.S., but some cities like New Orleans and Detroit rival the most violent Latin American countries, where gun violence is highest in the world.”

In the America of 2014, with lawmakers in both parties in a perpetual defensive crouch to ward off any NRA-inspired assault should they dare question any element of the gun lobby’s agenda, such facts are not merely inconvenient, but more shockingly not even discussed. In the armed America of 2014, the only acceptable political answer is more guns in more places, including now in Idaho the college library and who knows were else next time.

What Will It Take

130916190249-32-navy-yard-shooting-0916-horizontal-galleryHere are two numbers to fix in your mind as the nation once again visits an aspect of American exceptionalism that has become all-too-familiar. The numbers are 8,261 and 29 and I’ll return to them in a moment.

In the 1950’s and 60’s it took a landmark Supreme Court decision – Brown v. Board of Education – the courage and dignity of a black woman who refused to go to the back, the murder of innocents in a Birmingham church, a March on Washington, much death and violence and ultimately the breaking of Senate filibusters to begin to erase a society’s legacy of slavery and inequality.

From the 1820’s until the great Civil War the subject of slavery could barely be touched in our nation’s political process, so national calamity came calling. The south’s domination of American politics from the 1890’s to the 1960’s meant that civil rights legislation, including anti-lynching laws, access to public accommodations and the ballot box were essentially denied to black Americans, but then something changed. The American people, at least enough of them, acting through their elected representatives decided that society needed to change. A black preacher and a president from Texas, one calling us to live out our creed and the other breaking with his own and his region’s history, began to move us, as Hubert Humphrey once said, “out of the shadow of states’ rights and…into the bright sunshine of human rights.”

The change was slow, too slow, and uneven. For decades our Constitution was interpreted to allow discrimination and thereby ignore and avoid our peculiar and exceptional history. Ultimately the Court had to change along with society and politics and change came.

The political process, paralyzed thanks to special interests, fear, tradition and the next election, had to change and finally it did. The little black girls who were murdered and the white woman who was killed represented a change that, to many Americans, seemed impossible, but wasn’t impossible, only hard and necessary. The passage of the landmark civil rights legislation nearly 50 years ago did not, of course, end discrimination or stamp out racism. Ending those evils remains a constant work in progress, but few would say that America is not a different place in 2013, with a black man in the White House, than it was in 1963 when the young black preacher wrote from his Alabama jail expressing “hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

A Too Distant Tomorrow

This morning Priscilla Daniels woke in Washington, D.C. under her own dark cloud. Her 46-year-old husband, Arthur, was killed Monday at the Washington Navy Yard in the most recent mass shooting in America. Priscilla Daniels’ 14-year-old son, Arthur A. Daniels, was shot and killed in 2009 – as his father was Monday – in the back while fleeing his murderer.

“The parallels between the deaths of her husband and son are not lost on Priscilla Daniels,” the Washington Post reports. “Aaron Alexis, the shooter in Monday’s rampage, had repeated run-ins with his military superiors and the law and was cited at least eight times for misconduct for various offenses, according to documents and Navy officials.

“The person who shot her son in 2009 — Ransom Perry Jr. of Northeast — had been arrested nine times before, including as recently as January of that year, on a charge of carrying a pistol without a license. He was sentenced to 24 years in prison. Friends say the family was just starting to come to terms with the loss of their youngest child.”

8,261 and 29

Back to those numbers I mentioned earlier: 8,261 is the number of Americans – at least 8,261 and likely more  – who have died as a result of gun violence in America since the Newtown school shootings last December 14. That is an average of more than 29 gun-related deaths in the United States every day since the death of the innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary.

I’ll leave you with this, the words of Chief Medical Officer Dr. Janet Orlowski at MedStar Washington Hospital Center where the dead and wounded were taken Monday:

“I may see this every day…but there’s something wrong here, when we have these multiple shootings, these multiple injuries—there’s something wrong. The only thing I can say is, we have to work together to get rid of it. I’d like you to put my trauma center out of business. I really would. I would like to not be an expert on gunshots…We just cannot have one more shooting with so many people killed. We’ve got to figure this out. We’ve got to be able to help each other.

“So I have to say, it’s a challenge to all of us—let’s get rid of this. This is not America. This is not Washington D.C. This is not good.”

You really have to wonder what it will take.

 

For ‘Em, Or Agin ‘Em

Normally there is something to be said for consistency in politics. No one likes a flip flopper. Just ask Mitt Romney. And when it comes to consistency, blind, unyielding, not one inch consistency, no one does it better than the National Rifle Association – the NRA.

As it has accumulated political power over the last 25 years and become the most feared lobby in the country, the NRA has been nothing if not brutally consistent. For the NRA there is no room for compromise on guns and gun issues – none. If you’re in public office you are either for the NRA down the line or you are soft on the Second Amendment and not to be trusted with public responsibilities and very likely a one of those willing to standby when the government comes for the guns.

Maybe, just maybe, in light of the horrors of Sandy Hook Elementary where some of the six-year-olds suffered 11 gunshot wounds, the NRA’s brutal commitment to consistency has, at last, become a liability.

My one direct and personal engagement with the NRA’s brand of no prisoners, no negotiation politics dates back to 1986 and the moment has left a deep and jagged scar where I once naively thought actions and intentions meant more than blind allegiance to an NRA that has clearly become little more than a front group for gun manufacturers.

For those old enough to remember the 1986 race for governor of Idaho was a tough, competitive and ultimately extremely close election. As a newcomer to politics – I’d covered the business, but not been of the business – the campaign and election were a graduate education in bare knuckles, character assault and, with regard to the NRA, old-fashioned smear politics. The candidates were my boss, Cecil D. Andrus, a Democrat and as big a hunter, sportsman and gun owner as anyone I have ever known and then-Lt. Governor David H. Leroy, a young man definitely on the rise in Idaho GOP politics. Andrus had an edge with experience – he’d twice been elected governor and served in the Carter cabinet – and he spent most of the campaign emphasizing his desire to boost economic development and improve schools. Leroy, who had already been a successful statewide candidate as both Lt. Governor and Attorney General, was smart, ambitious, both well-spoken and well-funded, and determined.

The candidates and their campaigns displayed many differences, one being that in a state where hunting and fishing defined many voters’ weekends, Dave Leroy wasn’t really a hunting and fishing guy. Andrus was and still is. Enter the gun lobby.

The NRA came close – very close – to playing the spoiler in that 1986 race and, as they are wont to do, they entered the contest at the absolute 11th hour with what seemed then, and still seems, a blatantly dishonest smear.

As I look back on the race, with some years of accumulated political experience, I can see clearly now that the campaign was a see-saw affair throughout the summer and into the fall. I distinctly remember a weekend of panic in October when Andrus quietly and determinedly disappeared from the campaign hustings for three long days in order to disappear deep into the Idaho hill for his annual elk hunt. I lived in fear that some enterprising reporter would demand an interview or insist on knowing why the candidate wasn’t campaigning given how close the race had become. Knowing now what I didn’t fully appreciate then, I should have issued a statement announcing that in keeping with annual tradition the Democratic candidate for governor was, for the next few days, only making campaign appearances at his elk camp.

Andrus had not missed an Idaho elk hunt for years and nothing, not even Dave Leroy breathing down his neck, would keep him out of the hills. He’s been known to joke – yes he filled his tag last fall – that with a full freezer and a little luck he might make it through another winter. (I called the former governor yesterday to check my recollection of the NRA’s involvement in the ’86 race and it took him a while to get back to me. He was in a goose pit most of the day.)

Some people live for work, or boats, or football, or skiing, or book collecting. Andrus lives for his hunting and is proud of his gun collection, but that didn’t keep the all-knowing, all-powerful NRA from branding him as “soft” on the Second Amendment doing so at a stage in a political campaign where he barely had time to refute such lunacy.

One of the major gun-related issues at the time involved a robust national debate over the legality of so called “cop killer bullets,” Teflon-coated ammunition that it was said could penetrate a bullet-proof vest, the kind of body armor police officers had begun to routinely wear. In responding to the NRA’s always over simplified and overly dramatic candidate questionnaire, the once and future governor allowed that he hadn’t much use for Teflon-coated bullets or rapid fire assault rifles for that matter. He would later joke that he had never “seen an elk wearing a bullet-proof vest,” but such a policy position, even one coming from a life-long hunter, gun owner and supporter of the Second Amendment was heresy to the “our way or the highway” crowd at the NRA.

On the final weekend of the 1986 campaign, anti-Andrus NRA propaganda started appearing in Idaho mailboxes. Radio ads told Idaho hunters that the hunter-governor had earned a “D” rating from the gun lobby and the political operatives at the NRA had endorsed his non-hunter opponent. I spent that last weekend of that campaign writing and slapping together response ads attempting to refute the smear. In the days before email and the Internet, getting a radio ad on the air on the Saturday before an election was no mean feat, but we did it and by a narrow margin Andrus won the election.

I’ve always taken some satisfaction in knowing – Idaho is a small state – that many Idahoans who might have been inclined to vote in that election solely on the basis of gun issues had firsthand knowledge that their once and future governor actually owned and used guns. In this case the NRA’s smear didn’t work, but it left an impression. These guys don’t know the meaning of nuance and they are blindly partisan. You’re either for ‘em, or agin ‘em.

In the years since, the NRA has, if anything, become even more dogmatic, shriller and less open to any discussion of policy. As we now see, even in the wake of the first grade massacre in Connecticut and even given the stark realization that more than 1,000 Americans have died at the barrel of gun just in the days since Sandy Hook, the NRA tolerates no deviation from its hard line in the dust. The suggestion that constraints on military-style weapons and high capacity magazines or that national firearms policy might include sensible background checks on gun buyers brings the immediate charge that the sacred Second is being trampled, the president ought to be impeached and the “jack booted thugs” are coming to take the guns. It’s a level of political paranoia and fear mongering completely devoid of reality and on par with theories that the moon landing was faked or that an American president was born in Kenya.

The Andrus Idaho experience nearly 30 years ago, as bitter as the taste remains, actually seems pretty tame compared to the NRA’s response to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary. The NRA leadership seems to believe that it can just ignore a moral issue that requires sober, reasoned, civilized response. Time will tell whether the real sportsmen who climb into Idaho’s hills every fall and crouch in goose pits in sub-freezing weather will continue to agree.

Americans have a way of coming around to change policy and even change society in ways that once seemed impossible. Moral questions from ending slavery to establishing child labor laws to ensuring voting rights of African-Americans took years – even generations – to be addressed and some of society’s big challenges clearly remain. But perhaps, just perhaps, a civilized, moral nation can come to the realization that a constructive debate about how to try and prevent a future Sandy Hook is a mighty low threshold for a decent people to step across.

The most feared lobby in Washington did not become so feared by being constructive, reasonable, rational or fair. The NRA amassed power the old fashioned way using the same kind of intimidation and arrogance that it accuses its opponents – and even its opponent’s children – of practicing.

Emerson famously said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” The NRA’s foolish consistency in the awful aftermath of the assault gun murders of 20 innocent children does not yet mark the end of the gun lobby hold on our politics, but it may – just may – mark the beginning of the end.

 

Guns and Guts

 

In 1963 when the young black activist, John Lewis, who later became the distinguished Congressman from Georgia, was nearly beaten to death during a civil rights march in Alabama, the cautious John F. Kennedy knew he could not fail to push forcefully for meaningful legislation that would attempt to bring blacks into the mainstream of American life.

Bending the curve of the epidemic of gun violence in a gun deranged society presents Barack Obama with the same kind of challenge. It has been suggested that the Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre will be Obama’s defining moment as president; more significant than being the first African-American president, more important than hunting down bin Laden or dealing with the worst economy since the Great Depression the aftermath of the awful school shooting will define Obama’s legacy.

Read what Kennedy said about civil rights almost 50 years ago and apply the same words to Obama’s defining moment today.

“We face…a moral crisis as a country and a people,” Kennedy said in a television speech on June 11, 1963. “It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is a time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives. It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say this a problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the facts that we face. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all. Those who do nothing are inviting shame, as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right, as well as reality.”

Right as well as reality. Kennedy immediately introduced civil rights legislation that he did not live to see enacted, but the important political fact is that he seized the moment to declare that the Nation faced a “moral” crisis. No less a crisis confronts Obama’s Nation on the cusp of 2013.

So much of the initial reaction to Sandy Hook seems so small, so completely fanciful or so focused on treating the symptoms of gun violence. The sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin suggests, amazingly, that armed guards should be posted in every school and every public place. Others tout arming teachers or bullet-proofing the backpacks of six-year-olds. Obama, already on record supporting reinstating the assault weapons ban, must know from reading the morning paper that such weapons are flying off the shelves as Americans beef up their arsenals in expectation that Congress might take a step that few really believe will have much impact. Thousands upon thousands of such weapons are already in circulation and even Sen. Diane Feinstein, the California politician with first-hand experience with gun violence, concedes that a new assault weapons ban won’t impact those weapons already abroad in the land. And the president’s one specific proposal so far, an interagency task force headed by Vice President Biden, seems so inside the beltway, so bureaucratic as to invite a Saturday Night Live parody.

A moral crisis, JFK knew, required more than a task force or a what will amount to a slightly better than symbolic ban on military-style weapons sitting in the corners of American closets. Obama must know this and that makes his Sandy Hook response his own moral crisis.

The assumption underlying all the small thinking about how to prevent the next school massacre is that our Nation cannot – ever – confront the real issue – too many guns and too few controls over who owns them and how they are bought. Australia, not exactly a nation know for its wild-eyed liberalism, decided to do something about assault weapons and launched a national “buy back” effort that has dramatically reduced the number of such weapons. Canada imposes a 28 day waiting period to purchase a weapon and then requires that two people vouch for the purchaser. We have certain requirements in place that require mental health reporting, but many states ignore the requirements. A serious moral response to Sandy Hook and Tucson and Columbine and on and on demands a serious and deeper look at what must be done to break the curve of violence.

As Adam Gopnik writes in The New Yorker, “Gun control works on gun violence as surely as antibiotics do on bacterial infections. In Scotland, after Dunblane, in Australia, after Tasmania, in Canada, after the Montreal massacre—in each case the necessary laws were passed to make gun-owning hard, and in each case… well, you will note the absence of massacre-condolence speeches made by the Prime Ministers of Canada and Australia, in comparison with our own President.”

In places like Idaho and Wisconsin all the disquieting talk about tougher controls on guns will be greeted with completely predictable outrage. The NRA will soon move from crisis management mode to Capitol Hill assault mode and the gun lobby’s champions in public office will fume against attacks on Second Amendment rights and, many American will hope, that the same old politics will replace images of funerals featuring tiny caskets. If such comes to pass Obama’s moral moment will recede and the belief that nothing can be done will continue to rule our streets and schools.

Serious – really serious – steps to control guns will be intolerable to many Americans. John Kennedy’s civil rights speech in 1963 carried just as unpalatable a message for many Americans in Alabama and Mississippi and many other places. Kennedy told his brother, the attorney general, that television images of police dogs attacking civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham made him “sick” and convinced him that the South would never reform short of strong federal civil rights action.

As TIME noted in a 2007 essay on JFK’s slow conversion to the cause of civil rights, “Although Kennedy’s assassination five months [after his civil right speech] deprived him of the chance to sign the civil rights bill into law, he had finally done the right thing. That its passage in 1964 came under Johnson’s Administration should not exclude Kennedy from the credit for a landmark measure that decisively improved American society forever. Although J.F.K. had been slow to rise to the challenge, he did ultimately meet it. That gives him a place in the pantheon of American Presidents who, in his own words, were profiles in courage.”

Civil rights became a bipartisan national cause, not for everyone, of course, with dead-end southerners like Richard Russell fighting to the bitter end, but a national cause nonetheless. Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen, for example, understood both the politics and the morality of the moment and stood on the right side of history with Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King. The current moment begs for such leadership from both sides of the political divide.

No single law, no task force, not even essential improvements in mental health will stop American gun violence, but Barack Obama must know, as Sandy Hook Elementary enters American history in the same way Selma and Montgomery and Birmingham did a half-century ago, that half-measures aren’t adequate to confront a moral crisis. Unfortunately racial divide still exist in America since no single law could end that moral crisis either, but after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the United States was a different and better place. Such a moment is upon us again.



It’s the Culture

The semi-automatic rifle used to unleash mayhem in a Connecticut elementary school last Friday is described as a civilian version of the weapon carried by our fighting forces in Afghanistan. The Bushmaster can accommodate a 30 shot magazine and the Newtown shooter burned through hundreds of rounds before ending his own sorry life with a semi-automatic handgun after a 10 minute killing spree.

The after massacre reports speculate that the mass murder of 20 six and seven year olds may prompt a serious national discussion of what a “civilized” society can do to reduce the epidemic of gun violence in the United States. Most of the discussion so far centers on two specific ideas: restore the long-expired ban on weapons like the Bushmaster assault rifle and get serious about mental health care in the United States. Both ideas are worthy of serious, non-ideological debate, which isn’t likely to happen since the real bedrock on which America’s proclivity for gun violence rests is more fundamental and ultimately just about as disturbing as a deranged 20-something walking into a school building and causing the kind of damage a U.S. soldier might rain upon the Taliban in the remote mountains of the Hindu Kush. A national debate about once again banning assault weapons or pouring more resources into mental health care is a fine start, but it falls short of understanding the American culture of guns and violence. Don’t hold your breath for that bit of national soul searching.

Hollywood owns a piece of this culture. Television, too. The sleazy video game industry owns a piece. The national political establishment owns a good chunk of this culture too, including the current occupant of the White House. The politicians gather us again around the national hearth of sorrow as they did when a Congresswomen, a federal judge and others are gunned down at an Arizona supermarket on a Saturday morning; or when an Oregon shopping mall turned into a shooting gallery; or when a deranged young man takes a gun into a movie theatre or a college campus. After a while, I admit, all the mass shootings and obligatory NPR interviews with behavioral experts run together like so many bad dreams endured again and again. When the bad dream finally begins to recede the gun rights folks will start to remind us that other countries with tougher gun laws than we have also experienced crazy people who kill with guns. The Second Amendment, we will be reminded, is a guarantee that each of us has a Constitutional right to pack what we want. Guns don’t kill people. The sorrow gives way to politics and myth and the deranged soul of a culture of guns moves on to the next outrage.

But why, you have to wonder, do we have this national fixation with guns? Why does an entire lobby exclusively devoted to guns and access to guns of every type dominate the national discussion of, well, guns and whether any type of control over guns is acceptable? Why do candidates live or lose on the basis of devotion to the National Rifle Association? Why do politicians vie for votes by posing with a shotgun and a promise never to do anything to weaken the holy orders of the Second Amendment? Why have thousands of Americans scampered to their nearest gun shop in the wake of President Obama’s re-election out of a silly fear that somehow this country will curb its enthusiasm for guns?

The historian-journalist Garry Wills suggests that the gun culture has become like the Old Testament God Moloch who, Leviticus reminds us, demanded blood sacrifice in an earlier culture that we can safely say with the perfect hindsight of centuries was tragically deranged.

“The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate,” Wills writes. “It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?”

As for Sandy Hook Elementary, Wills says, “That horror cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch.”

All societies are victims of their own myths. The Second Amendment, sorry you Constitutional revisionists, is not about carrying an assault weapon into a school or theatre. The Founders who wrote that amendment used weapons that required 15 seconds to reload after each shot was fired. Over time, the U.S. Supreme Court gradually gave rise to the modern myth that The Founders envisioned a culture where guns were more common that sense. As recently as 1939 the Court looked at the Second Amendment and saw a “well regulated milita” and not an armed society. But over time, with the Court’s willingness and thanks to generations of political expediency and a little dose of Charlton Heston, we have now fully embraced our gun culture and made it a singular feature of American life.

But why? Why does a “civilized” culture, a nation that tells itself over and over again that it is the last, best hope of earth, a nation of exceptionalism unlike any other, not attempt to end the slaughter of its first graders? The answer, to paraphrase Shakespeare, will not be found anywhere but in ourselves. We have fashioned a culture, deranged by guns and violence in the eyes of most of the rest of the “civilized” world, and at Sandy Hook Elementary we again reap the whirlwind of that awful reality.