Punished Innocence

I wish I could write that I was shocked or surprised by the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. But I’m not. Anyone in this country who is surprised by a mass shooting hasn’t been paying much attention the last thirty years. Mass shootings, and the grief and death they bring with them, are a part of American life now, occurring with more frequency than the Super Bowl. So no, I’m not shocked or surprised. I’m disgusted. But as the days go by, I’m more and more horrified at shooter Adam Lanza’s choice of victims. I would like to pretend that all life has equal value, that a mass shooting at an elementary school would be no more tragic than at a factory or retirement home, but that’s just not the case. Not one of the child victims of this shooting was over the age of seven. Most were six. The beauty of youthful innocence is not in its lack of sin, but in its capacity for unpunished naiveté. The hard lessons of life have yet to be learned for most children the ages of the Newtown victims. We look at young children and can’t help but remember how blissfully unaware we were at that age of the cruelty with which we dance as adults.

I had trouble falling asleep last night because I was picturing myself in Lanza’s place and my brain kept hitting a brick wall. There was a massive disconnect between what my mind’s eye was seeing and what I know about sanity. There’s no debate about the mental health of Adam Lanza. Only insanity makes a person capable of shooting twenty children multiple times with an assault rifle. It was a purposeful slaughter. Only two kids made it to the hospital, where they both died. The rest were dead by the time the police found them, along with six teachers and administrators at the school.

Every time one of these mass shootings happens, there are always accusations from the right about politicizing tragedy. Quite frankly, the days following a massacre like this is the best time to ratchet up the gun control debate, because people are listening, and they can see on their televisions the horrible toll exacted by this unique culture of guns that exists in America.

The raw numbers have been all over the news the last few days, but they’re worth revisiting in summary. There are 270 million privately owned guns in the United States, most in the world by over 200 million. That’s nine guns for every 10 people, by far the largest per capita guns to population in the world. Since Barack Obama was elected president, fears about his otherness have been used to advantage by the far right, with the side effect that a substantial percentage of the population is stocking up on weapons because they either feel they won’t be able to purchase guns soon, or that they will be needed when the country descends into an anarchic state brought on by nonexistent socialist policies in Washington. While this has been happening, the gun lobby has been successfully eroding gun control laws across the country, in some states making it legal to carry concealed weapons in bars, hospitals, churches, on university campuses, and elsewhere. Some states have enacted ‘stand your ground’ laws, removing the burden from a shooter claiming self-defense that they made every effort to escape before resorting to using their weapon.

If it weren’t for mass shootings, the most disturbing aspect of America’s gun culture would be that some people who own guns seem like they just can’t wait to use it outside of the range. It’s as if they go through life armed just looking for any small provocation that they can use, consciously or subconsciously, as justification for pulling out their weapon and using it for its designed purpose: shooting a person. Such is the mentality that possibly led to deadly shootings of teenagers in Florida and Minnesota this year.

This is now a country where, after a mass shooting, some gun advocates suggest that if someone in the crowd had been armed, they could have taken down the shooter and tragedy could have been avoided. This argument has been made about Newtown, offering the ludicrous suggestion that teachers should be packing heat in order to protect their students. Time and again it has been shown that an armed citizenry is not a safe citizenry. Rather, it results in more bullets flying through the air, creating more victims.

Recently, in New York City, police officers confronted a murderer on the street in front of the Empire State Building. He raised his weapon, and the two officers fired, killing him. Meanwhile, the other bullets the police fired struck and wounded nine innocent bystanders. These officers were trained professionals, yet in the heat of the moment, they almost killed nine people that had nothing to do with the criminal they were confronting. The idea that an armed civilian could be expected to fire with pinpoint accuracy at a shooter carrying out a massacre is patently ridiculous, yet the gun lobby continues to push more guns in more hands as a solution to society’s ills.

In Newton, Lanza was carrying multiple weapons, but he only used one of them to kill. It was a Bushmaster Firearms variant of the AR-15 assault rifle, otherwise known as the M-16, the rifle of choice for the United States military since the Vietnam War. This is a weapon that was designed for war, for the sole purpose of killing another country’s soldiers. It fires high velocity rounds that devastate human flesh and bone. Lanza could hardly have picked a better gun to leave as few survivors as possible.

Once upon a time, before the expiration of the assault weapons ban, it would not have been possible for Lanza’s mother to purchase the gun. It would not have been readily at hand in Lanza’s home, and he would not have been able to use it in the massacre. Reinstating the assault weapons ban would not have prevented the massacre. Only introducing gun laws as strict as South Korea’s or Australia’s would do that. But preventing a weapon of war from being available to the general public could have made the shooting less deadly. Short of banning guns outright, introducing inefficiencies into guns (that is, making the least lethal guns the only guns that can be legally owned) is the only way to mitigate the scale of these tragedies once the shooting starts.

The fact is, it’s easy to get a gun in this country. All Adam Lanza had to do was go into his mother’s closet and take the pick of the litter. Our gun laws make it easy to kill, and increasingly harder to hide. It’s an insane statement on our priorities, an embarrassment on the world stage, and causes very real horror here at home. It’s past time to get this situation under control.