No Silver Bullet

By Guest Contributor

On April 17, after America’s 113th Congress rejected a series of proposed gun-control measures, Barack Obama asked a teary-eyed, red faced crowd in the White House’s Rose Garden, “how can something have 90 percent support and yet not happen?”

Americans have debated the answer endlessly. The legislation’s advocates blame the NRA, convoluted Senate rules and political cowardice. Its opponents, like Director of Communications for Gun Owners of America Erich Pratt argued that “none of the policies [Obama] recently unveiled would have stopped Adam Lanza in Connecticut from killing his mother, stealing her weapons and carrying them onto school grounds to commit his despicable crimes.” A broken clock is right twice a day. Yet this statement’s technical validity does not make it a relevant or convincing argument against gun-control legislation.

Expanding background checks would not have prevented the Sandy Hook Massacre, but it might have saved some of 2,244 other individuals who have been killed by firearms since that day four months ago.

The Democrats have failed to articulate this point, framing these efforts as a mere gesture of condolence to Sandy Hook parents. Their failure to contextualize this dialogue into the larger picture of gun violence sealed its death wish. Representative Rand Paul’s argument that “none of the proposals would address the tragedy,” makes sense when the only tragedy discussed is Sandy Hook.

Vice President Joe Biden urged Americans to “think about how many of these children or teachers may be alive today had he had to reload three times as many times as he did.” This type of argument characterizes the failure of gun control. First off, Adam Lanza could probably replicate the killing capacity of his military-style firearm with an assortment of less deadly weapons. Second, inconveniencing mass murderers by simply forcing them to reload more frequently is far short of a victory for America. If I, a liberal who has never before fired a gun, can so easily rail against Biden’s claim, gun rights advocates must have had a field day.

Opponents of gun control would have faced a tougher challenge if forced to confront the overwhelming evidence that states with stricter gun laws experience fewer homicides. Paul and his fellow gun-rights advocates could not reasonably argue that expanded background checks would stop zero of America’s nearly 10,000 gun-related fatalities each year. Arguments by individuals like Charles E. Grassley, Republican senator from Iowa, that “criminals do not submit to background checks now … they will not submit to expanded background checks” weaken in light of the fact that perpetrators of gun violence are not often “criminals” in the conventional sense. Sixty percent of gun-related murders are impulsive acts of rage against a friend or love, not premeditated attacks. Red-state Democrats who cowered to NRA threats might have felt a stronger moral duty to vote “yes” if they understood that this bill was not just a response to the 20 teachers and students who died on December 14, but also the lives of 34 Americans (80 if you count suicides) killed by guns daily on average.

Gun control advocates never forced their opponents to face these details, insisting that the killings at Sandy Hook take precedence in this dialogue.

Of course, there is a single obvious reason that Americans imbibed this event with such significance. The slaughter of schoolchildren invokes a lot more anger and motivation than a mere statistic or series of breaking news stories. It motivated certain gun rights advocates like Representative John Yarmouth to switch positions. Why the numerous other gun-related fatalities that occurred while he was in office did not prompt the same response is of little concern.

Symbolism is important. The Boston Marathon bombings caught the nation’s attention last week while a blast that killed 50 Iraqis the same day did not even make the front page of the New York Times. The former was perceived to symbolize a distinctly resilient Bostonian spirit and the unrelenting specter of terrorism, the latter just another grim dispatch from a war-torn country. But the power of symbolism is lost when we focus so much on the symbol itself and so little on what it is meant to symbolize. How can we understand the importance of Sandy Hook or Aurora or Virginia Tech when we forget the full story of American violence and mental illness that underlies these tragedies?

Legislators like Senators Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia and Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania seem poised to restart their efforts for expanded background checks. Yet recent polls indicate that support for gun control has waned after an initial surge post-Sandy Hook. It would be wise for gun control advocates to remind Americans what gun control is really about before it is too late.

Obama concluded his speech to the crowd of Sandy Hook and other mass shooting victims by saying “I believe we’re going to be able to get this done. Sooner or later, we are going to get this right. The memories of these children demand it.”  Next time, he should mention the memories of more than just “these” children.

DAVID ULLMANN ’16 is from Brookline, Mass.

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