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.