As our understanding (if that word doesn’t overstate what we can ever comprehend of such events) of yesterday’s shootings at the Washington Navy Yard improves, we’re seeing a depressingly familiar picture: disturbed man with “anger issues” and “gun issues” gets hold of an assault rifle and kills a lot of innocent people.
At this point, it seems Aaron Alexis came onto the military facility with a shotgun and acquired the assault rifle by stealing it, perhaps after killing its licensed user. If we even begin to have a public discussion of the killings as another data point in favor of stronger gun regulation, the gun lobby will make that a big argument, along with D.C.’s almost uniquely strong gun laws and the availability of other culprits in the affair (e.g., lax security for, and excessive dependence on, defense contractors).
Since we’re talking about a military base, the gun lobby will not, at least, be able to use its favorite argument, that a more secure environment in which more people were heavily armed could have prevented the killings.
But before we even head down the trail of talking about gun laws, let’s just acknowledge that this isn’t a matter of convincing Americans we need tighter background checks for gun purchases. According to every imaginable poll, they’re already convinced. It just doesn’t translate into action, in part because the gun lobby and the Second Amendment absolutists have an iron grip on one our two major political parties, and in part because because their power is especially strong in rural areas where strategically situated Democratic representatives haven’t yet been hunted to extinction.
As WaPo editorialized yesterday:
Life does go on, through Columbine in 1999, through Virginia Tech in 2007, through Sandy Hook in 2012. Each atrocity provides a jolt to the nation and then recedes with little effect, until the next unimaginable event occurs, except each time a little more imaginable. Everything was supposed to change after a man with a semiautomatic weapon mowed down 20 elementary school children in their classrooms last December. But for the politicians, nothing changed. Now, another massacre, another roster of funerals. Again, again, again.
So long as a powerful minority of Americans think the individual right to bear arms–any arms–trumps every consideration of public policy, and is the Crown Jewel of the Bill of Rights, and is our bulwark against tyranny–it won’t much matter. Hundreds dead, thousands dead, tens of thousands dead–it’s all irrelevant to what is in effect a religious commitment to the almighty Second Amendment, a golden calf worshipped as the ultimate expression of an illusory personal independence and an imaginary America.
No, rational arguments and conventional politics may never prevail against people who will look you right in the eye and tell you they need to be heavily armed in case it becomes necessary in their view to overthrow the government and impose their will on you. The whole idea here is that their rights trump your arguments, your priorities, your votes, your democratic elections, your duly authorized representatives or law officers. That’s their understanding of a “constitutional” system, and of what makes America “exceptional.” Their guns are an ever-present reminder to the rest of us that we just don’t know what level of taxation or regulation, or which offense to “traditional” culture, will be the trigger for a “patriotic” resurrection. That, perhaps, will keep us in line.
So while it’s important to keep up the fight for sensible firearms laws, no one should be under the illusion that this or the next mass killing is going to make a difference.