A thing is surely troubling when it brings the President to tears on live television. Undoubtedly, the widespread gun violence in America challenges the depths of our human sadness–no matter how you feel about guns in general. We think we’ve seen the worst, and then some new tragedy forces us into more grief and disbelief. In a speech to announce executive action on gun policy, and implore Congress for new legislation, recalling the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting of 2012 that killed twenty children and six adult staff became the emotional tipping point for President Obama. The tears came rolling down his cheeks, and it wasn’t Bengay in his eyes. If ever a gun massacre would galvanize everyone to fix the problem, the shooting in Newtown should have been it. The murder of twenty children, and the six adults overseeing their budding lives, should have been the end of political inaction. It’s still hard to comprehend three years later.
Yet here we are at the start of 2016 with gun violence in America still to be reasonably addressed. Yet to be addressed at all, really. The executive action by President Obama is not completely meaningless. But as grade school taught us (and for non-Millennials, Schoolhouse Rock!), it is the legislative branch of the government that passes meaningful laws. And they’ve done an appalling job with guns so far–whether you’d prefer to talk about “gun rights” or “gun control.” In 2013, for example–just after Sandy Hook–an assault weapons ban and an amendment to expand background checks on gun purchases were passionately introduced, only to be later defeated in the Senate.
But perhaps even more depressing was the pervasive, antagonistic response to what amounts to a very minimal amount of change from the recent executive action. Before the Tuesday speech even happened, a number of conservatives and gun lobbyists were decrying the President’s effort as illegal, unconstitutional, power hungry, and more. It was reflexive in the worst kind of way. Rhetorically trigger-happy. Constructive conversation in Congress is dead, and now a possible small step forward can’t even be stated in the public square before it’s assaulted. The politicians and lobbyists barricading all progress, for violence incomparable to nearly any other developed country, really need to do some soul-searching.
Because we can’t fix this problem without them. If that’s you, we can’t fix it without you. People who already want new legislation don’t need to be persuaded. I’m preaching to the choir for many of you reading this. 86% of Americans favor a law requiring universal background checks for all gun purchases in the United States, with a centralized database across all 50 states. Statistically, if politicians were merely representing their constituents (as they’re supposed to do), 86 out of 100 Senators and over 370 Representatives in the House should get behind such a law. The only explanation at this point is that many of the politicians who make and vote for the laws that we need are the very obstruction to progress.
Is it because they’re evil incarnate, or dumb? I don’t think so. If anything, they’re probably too savvy. They’ve figured out how to appease special interest–the NRA most of all–and deflect public pressure at the same time. Complaining about constitutionality, legality, and the President’s supposed self-aggrandizing, makes it appear on the surface that a politician is working really hard for preserving a traditional version of America. But as Obama wondered in his executive action speech, “How did we get to the place where people think requiring a comprehensive background check means taking away people’s guns?” This is not about the 2nd Amendment–it’s about sensible policy for those guns so that possession doesn’t infringe on safety and freedom.
But if you shut down the conversation before it even starts, nothing’s ever going to change. We need a real conversation that includes everyone–gun collectors, hunters, victims of gun violence, academics, politicians, and even lobbyists if they’re willing to dialogue with reason and empathy. We need everyone to talk together about the guns, ammunition, and gun features like automation and magazine capacity that no citizen should possess. We need everyone to discuss the kinds of gaps that enable guns to be sold–legally or illegally–when they shouldn’t. We need everyone to have a thorough, thoughtful dialogue about the mental illness that should prevent some people from having a gun, and how to provide them with the support they need to get well. (Nearly ⅔ of gun deaths in America are suicides. Do most people even know that?) We need everyone together to have an honest conversation–not one-sided defiance–about whether more guns is actually a solution to current gun violence problems or not.
Everyone–you, me, them, us–needs to be part of the conversation, and solutions. The more anyone avoids it with rhetorical posturing, the more they appear complicit with the status quo. No one can possibly be OK with what’s happening now–no matter how much money they receive.