IN THE wake of the mass shooting at the community college in Oregon last week – the 994th mass shooting since Barack Obama’s re-election in November 2012 – the Los Angeles Times carried an editorial that began like this: “A gunman walked into a [fill in the blank] today and over the span of _____ minutes killed at least [number goes here] and wounded _____ more before [pick one] killing himself/dying in a shoot-out with police.” It went on: “Hang that sentence on your refrigerator so it’s handy for the next mass shooting. Will it be weeks before we learn of the next one? Days? Hours?”
This bleak opening paragraph perfectly captures the nihilism that is enveloping the country in the face of a cycle of violence it is powerless to break. From an outsider’s perspective, America seems to be caught in a state of psychological paralysis – sick with self-loathing, but unwilling and unable to take the steps that might lead to its rehabilitation. Almost three years ago, the Sandy Hook massacre (when Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults with an arsenal of semi-automatic weapons) proved there was no act so heinous it could force the pro-gun lobby into retreat; ever since, the country’s leaders and its citizens seem increasingly resigned to the rising death toll and its unassailable position as the spree killing capital of the world.
Certainly, Obama spoke of public resignation as he took to the White House lectern to lament the deaths of another nine students at the hands of another tooled-up loner obsessed with his own inadequacy and the infamy that can be achieved by pulling a trigger. Gone was the positivity he displayed earlier in his presidency when he still believed some measure of gun control might be within his reach. Now he talked of a country “numb” to the conveyor belt of tragedies, a country where such events have become routine and the reaction to them mechanical.
He was right, of course. For politicians, campaigners and journalists, campus massacres are now like an over-rehearsed play, where the actors have lost heart and are going through the motions. Everyone already knows the plot, how the main characters will respond and who will triumph in the end. The gun control lobby will say countries with tighter regulations over the ownership of weapons have fewer gun-related deaths and point out a bipartisan crackdown introduced in response to the Port Arthur massacre in 1996 saw firearm homicides in Australia drop by 59 per cent in the first decade. Then some people will get sidetracked by a debate on whether the real problem is a lack of resources for the mentally ill. But that won’t matter because all other voices will be drowned out by the National Rifle Association and its emotive and disingenuous citing of the 2nd Amendment. The line: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” will be repeated as if it were a profound observation as opposed to a facile cliché that crumbles in the face of the slightest scrutiny. Weapon sales will spike. And most depressingly, the name and face of the killer will lodge itself in our minds so we can call it up long after the names and faces of the victims have faded away.
Familiarity breeds contempt, they say; and it must be difficult for people to rouse themselves into a fresh state of fury every single time some loner vents his frustration on a roomful of innocents, especially when experience tells them such fury – and the articulation of it – makes no difference at all. But while the US as a whole may have reached an accommodation with mass shootings, regarding them as a regrettable but unavoidable part of its culture, the families bereaved by each new atrocity are entitled to national outrage. There is nothing routine about pushing through a police cordon to find out if your son or daughter has been shot or identifying their bodies on a mortuary slab. If the frequency of such events inures the country to individual pain – or if people have come to see such victims as collateral damage in the fight to preserve constitutional rights – the US is peering into a spiritual abyss.
Obama must shoulder some of the blame; he may have wept and railed at the NRA and tried, repeatedly, to drive through legislation, only to be blocked by Congress, but he has placed less emphasis on gun control than he has on the War on Terror. At the same time, at least the president keeps on talking about the problem. On Thursday he pointed out “there is now a gun for every man, woman and child in the country,” and urged the American people “to think about how they can get our government to change these laws, and to save these lives and let these people grow up”.
I have, in the past, thought Obama’s admission of his own impotence on gun control was disempowering; if the president lacked the vision and capacity to take on the NRA, what hope was there for anyone else? But, on reflection, I can see where he’s coming from. The only way the gun lobby can be defeated – and more mass shootings prevented – is through the willpower of ordinary citizens. Like an alcoholic or drug addict, the US cannot be weaned off or cajoled out of its firearms habit. Trying to force it into recovery only reinforces its self-destructive impulses. All Obama can do now is remind people of the damage guns are doing. And hope that some time soon the country will be ready to cure itself. «