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America Is Sacrificing Its Children at the Altar of the Gun
Mass shootings are a political problem. A democracy problem. A uniquely American problem.
Three young children and three adults were just murdered at Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee. A heavily armed 28-year-old attacker stormed into their school, opened fire, and killed them. They all had a right to be safe, to come home to their families, to live their lives with all their hopes, expectations, and dreams. America has taken that away from them.
Another day, another mass shooting. Here it is, the true face of that much-vaunted American exceptionalism.
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I will not pretend to have anything particularly new or illuminating to offer. This happens so often in this country, with such outrageous predictability and infuriating regularity, that I assume most of us have said almost everything we have to say. I believe the last time I addressed America’s gun violence publicly was after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. That was almost exactly ten months ago. Nineteen students and two teachers were killed that day. I don’t even know how many mass shootings there have been since, how many children have been murdered in similar fashion. So many.
Not much has changed. What else is there to say?
This, at least: Much of this is the result of deliberate political choices, much of it could be remedied by political action. There are people responsible for what we are putting our children through: The ones who are committed to preventing that political action – and the party that elevates them to positions of power and influence. It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s not like this anywhere else. This is American exceptionalism in its true, abhorrent form.
I am writing this just hours after the shooting. And you know what is so utterly depressing about this situation? That there is just no realistic expectation this might generate the type of political response that is commensurate with the problem. Should I add a disclaimer: “Who knows, maybe/hopefully this time things will be different…”? After all, theoretically, a lot is possible.
But in the reality through which we are suffering, we all have a pretty clear understanding of what’s actually coming. First, we will get the fake-outraged “How dare you politicize this?!?” nonsense - yes, how dare anyone “politicize” an issue that ranks as one of the leading safety and health concerns in the country, a uniquely American problem for which *every other comparable country* has enacted a political solution?
Next, the Republican Party will keep embracing the gun cult, will only double down on the gun-toting militancy it has made a key element of its political identity. And the same lawmakers who are constantly reveling in the imagery of using guns to fight off those insidious “Un-American” forces, who preach paranoid self-defense against all kinds of “Others,” will insult us with their “How dare you insinuate that this has anything to do with us?!?” fake-indignation.
If you can stomach it, scroll through this collection of current or former GOP elected officials who are enthusiastically sacrificing at the gun altar, embracing this violent cult that is tearing American lives and bodies apart – or just look at what Andy Ogles, who is representing the district in which Covenant School is in Congress, thought was an appropriate Christmas message to send out:
Republicans will inevitably offer their fundamentally unserious pseudo-explanations. Definitely not the problem, according to the Republican Party: Guns. Nope, can’t be the guns. In their world, this has nothing to do with the fact that the shooter in Nashville was, of course, running around with assault rifles. But “wokeism,” yes, that might be it:
Obviously, if you can use a mass shooting to push a reactionary moral panic or two, you gotta do it - and so conservatives are jumping on the chance to stigmatize “transgenderism” as a mental illness and demonize all trans people as an acute threat.
We always get the same “It’s the mental illness” obfuscation from these quarters - and from the party that steadfastly refuses to take mental illness seriously as a public health issue and does whatever it can to prevent the funding of better mental health services.
Republicans will also offer a slew of fake-solutions, old and new. There will be the usual calls for *more guns* - completely removed from empirical reality, when all the available evidence from around the world so clearly shows that more guns just means more violence.
After Uvalde, some prominent Republicans were fixated on the idea that schools should barricade every entrance but one, and post heavily armed guards in front of that one remaining door – boom! Problem solved.
What’s it going to be this time? Florida senator Rick Scott has already suggested a very typically American idea: Harsher punishment after the fact! Not that there is *any* evidence that it might work, but at least it’s in keeping with the overall Republican vision for a society that is unbearably brutal and unforgiving towards anyone who is not a wealthy white Christian man.
All of this is utterly deranged. These suggestions and statements are clearly meant to obstruct any real attempt to tackle the problem via sensible public policy measures and distract from any serious discussion about the underlying issues. It is the most perverse form of bad faith, drenched in blood.
I don’t want to be unfair. Not every Republican lawmaker traffics in such deranged nonsense. But the problem is that even the more serious, more thoughtful ones have little to say but “We must find answers,” as senator Mitt Romney put it after Uvalde. But we know some of the answers. They may not be perfect. But every comparable country in the world has demonstrated that they work. The problem is not that we lack answers. The problem is Mitt Romney’s party.
It’s one of the most bizarre features of the American political discourse that it demands we pretend these are serious suggestions, coming from serious political actors, instead of acknowledging that one side, one party, is dominated by people who are entirely uninterested in protecting American lives. In a healthy political culture, a functioning democracy, anyone trafficking in such deranged more-guns/only-one-door/death-penalty-for-all nonsense would be shunned and ostracized, the party that elevates them would have to pay a hefty political price. In the U.S., that party just retook control of the House of Representatives and certainly has a realistic shot at winning the presidency in 2024.
This is how the gun problem and America’s violent pathologies more generally tie into the broader struggle over democracy. The reason why the public policy interventions that are so desperately needed aren’t coming is not a lack of resources, as America is among the wealthiest nations in the history of humankind; it’s not that there aren’t any obvious political measures that would alleviate the problem, as all other comparable countries have demonstrated that some of this is fixable. And the reason is, crucially, not that a majority of the American people is opposed to stricter, more effective political interventions.
If the U.S. were a functioning democracy and its political leaders had to answer to the will of the majority, the country would move forward – in this as in so many other public policy areas. America, however, is not a functioning democracy, but a system in which severe anti-majoritarian distortions and a deeply unhealthy political culture conspire to give disproportional power to a radicalizing minority devoted to a reactionary cause. Until that changes, nothing changes.
This is why the struggle over democracy is not just one among many issues: It defines the political conflict, it is an overarching concern that transcends and permeates nearly all areas of public policy, setting the conditions for how – and in the interest of whom – the nation’s collective action problems are being tackled. America’s gun violence is a democracy issue.
I’d like to end by sharing a personal story. I don’t do that very often, and I promise it will remain the exception. But it feels important here. A little over two years ago, my wife and I decided to bring our family over to the U.S. and raise our two little boys in America. Some days, it feels very hard to justify that decision. About eleven months ago, on 22 April 2022, there was a shooting in the Van Ness neighborhood in northwest DC - just a few blocks away from where my kids go to daycare / preschool. I was actually on my way to picking them up when I suddenly heard shots being fired, police sirens, yelling…
For a few moments, while I had no idea yet what was going on and only knew that someone was firing shots, somewhere close to where my babies were, I felt fear, panic almost. I was on my bike, trying to find a way around the area the police had cordoned off, hoping to find a path to my kids’ school through the noise and the chaos, police officers yelling, cars honking, helicopters in the sky… and that horrible, inevitable thought in my mind: What if it is my kids this time? I got to the school about fifteen minutes later. The teachers had brought all the kids to the basement. Shelter-in-place. My older one came running out: “Papa, there’s an active shooter situation!” He was not even five years old at the time. “Active shooter situation” had become part of his world. I hugged him and his baby brother, got them home as quickly as I could, kept hugging them that night, and more tightly than usually, I guess – and my wife and I tried not to let them see that their parents were deeply shaken. They were fine. We were all fine. But I kept thinking: It could have been my kids. The next morning, the first thing my then four-and-a-half-year-old said was: “Papa, did they get the shooter? Are we still in an active shooter situation?” There, again: active shooter situation. It makes me so angry and sad that kids in America have to grow up in a society that demands they know what that is.
I am not in any way equating our experience with what the families of the victims of gun violence are going through. My kids are safe, and I understand how lucky we are. But as a parent, I feel this almost unbearable sadness and anger. I compartmentalize. And block it out most of the time. I couldn’t function otherwise. But we must not forget that it doesn’t have to be this way. What an “active shooter situation” is has become part of our kids’ lives at a brutally young age because of deliberate political choices. It’s simply outrageous. All the pathologies of American political culture, all the dysfunction of the political system, all the radicalization of the Republican Party on full display. And people paying the price for it all with their lives. Children paying the price. Day after day after day.
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