It was the usual ritual, only this time it was in Wakefield, Mass., a suburb of Boston. Relatives, friends and co-workers spent the holiday weekend carrying their grief through the bitter cold to pay their final respects to the seven men and women blasted into eternity by yet another deranged gunman.
In the spring of 1999, when two students went on a murder rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., some students inside the school used their cell phones to provide reporters with updates on the atrocity as it was happening. The kids understood the drill. We all do. There is very little in American culture that is more familiar than gun violence.
Fifteen people died at Columbine, including the two shooters, who turned their weapons on themselves. Five months after those shootings, a man with a semiautomatic handgun opened fire on congregants praying in a Baptist Church in Fort Worth. Eight people died, including the gunman, who shot himself.
In March 1998, two boys armed with high-powered rifles killed a teacher and four little girls at a school in Jonesboro, Ark. In July 1999, a dozen people were killed in Atlanta by a frustrated investor armed with a variety of guns. He also killed himself. Last Thursday night in Philadelphia, seven people were murdered by masked gunmen who burst into a rundown crack house and opened fire.
Gun violence in America is as common as the sunrise. And even as we express our collective horror at tragedies like the one in Wakefield, the truth is that we are addicted to gun violence. We celebrate it, romanticize it, eroticize it. Above all, we market it — through movies, videos, television, radio, books, magazines and newspapers.
The fascination with gun violence, and the promotion of violence as the quick answer to so many of our ills, is programmed into us relentlessly, starting at the earliest ages. Think "Gunsmoke." "The Godfather." Gangsta rap.
Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, once said: "I own more shotguns than I need. But less shotguns than I want."
In the early 1990's, the aptly named Mike Gunn, a state legislator from Mississippi, was quoted as saying, "If guns are outlawed, how can we shoot the liberals?"
Jokes like that are universally understood — if not appreciated — because the idea and the imagery and the reality of gun violence are so pervasive.
The statistics are mind-boggling. Handgun Control, a lobbying organization in Washington, tells us, for example, that in 1996, handguns were used to murder 2 people in New Zealand, 15 in Japan, 30 in Great Britain, 106 in Canada, 213 in Germany and 9,390 in the United States.
Don't expect any drastic changes. There's too much money to be made in the marketing of guns and gun violence. A report released a couple of weeks ago by the Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit group that favors an expansion of gun control, showed how the firearms industry uses video games, marketed through mainstream retail outlets, to familiarize children and teenagers with its deadly products.
The report notes that rifles and shotguns have long been staples of video games. But it says: "Recently, as gun companies have lent their brand names to video games, the products featured have become decidedly more lethal. Shooting games now include fully automatic machine guns, assault weapons and all types of handguns — from `pocket rockets' and `junk guns' to large-frame 50- caliber pistols."
The gun manufacturers hope, of course, to instill in youngsters the desire to own these, or similar, weapons when they are old enough to purchase them.
One of the games, "Remington Top Shot," calls on the shooter to kill as many villains in a set amount of time as possible. Points are lost for the killing of police officers or innocent bystanders.
The families of the seven victims of the mass killing in Wakefield attended a joint memorial service last Thursday night. They wept and prayed and tried to understand.
That, too, is part of the ritual — endlessly repeated — of a society hopelessly addicted to gun violence, and in deep denial about its hideous consequences.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company