A woman pays her respects at a makeshift memorial for victims outside the Covenant School building at the Covenant Presbyterian Church following a shooting, in Nashville, Tennessee, on March 28, 2023.

A woman pays her respects at a makeshift memorial for victims outside the Covenant School building at the Covenant Presbyterian Church following a shooting, in Nashville, Tennessee, on March 28, 2023.

(Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images)

If Only We Loved Our Children as Much as Our Assault Weapons

Failure no longer feels inevitable. A new America, one no longer known as the shooting gallery of the world, is starting to seem possible—but only if we demand it.

Most people, if asked, will say the welfare of their children is their highest priority. For many, however, the position they take on gun control, and particularly on banning assault weapons, suggests their highest priority is actually their guns. Week after week, the headlines blare as the young bodies, literally blown into pieces, are dispatched to the cold earth. Conservative politicians offer thoughts and prayers, usually followed by lies and misdirection. It’s not the guns, they insist. The secret to solving gun violence is treating mental illness, or hardening schools as potential targets, or maybe arming teachers and good guys with guns. Big guns, little guns. Black guns, blue guns. And always their answer is more guns not less.

Do they actually believe this? For many, probably not. But better to pretend that guns are an agent for good than to admit they care more about their guns than their children’s safety, because if guns aren’t a higher priority for them than their children, why are they unwilling to give up their assault weapons given the danger such guns pose to children?

And it isn’t just any guns that will do. To the true aficionado, shotguns, hunting rifles, even handguns aren’t good enough. They demand more firepower — guns that can kill people by the scores in a matter of seconds. Weapons of war that literally blow a human body apart. Weapons with no use in civilian life other than as the means of mass human slaughter.

Meanwhile, children keep dying, or, in the case of the “lucky ones,” survive but then be traumatized for a lifetime. In 2022 there were 51 school shootings that resulted in death or injury. 140 people were killed or injured. So far in 2023, the last time I checked, there had already been 13 school shootings with deaths or injuries. Almost one a week and yet we don’t act. Even when it’s elementary school children who are butchered, still we don’t act.

That the guns themselves are the problem is beyond debate. 43,000 Americans are killed by guns each year. Living in America means you are 25 times more likely to be killed in a gun-related homicide than in other advanced nations. No other industrialized nation has as many guns as America. But then you already knew that. Anyone who pays the slightest attention to the world around them knows it. How could you avoid knowing it when just about every week brings another school shooting — and a new collection of broken lives?

I started writing this article soon after the elementary-school shooting at Covenant School in Nashville. For a time, I wondered if the news cycle might move on before I could complete it, making it untimely. But I quickly realized that could never happen. Because there’s always a new school shooting, and with it a new brief spurt of publicity about the gun problem. And then, as always, we move on with nothing having changed.

This seemingly endless cycle of failure to respond to gun violence feeds upon itself, creating a sense of hopelessness. As gun deaths, including those at schools, keep happening, they begin to look inevitable. Meaningful gun reform starts to feel like a pipe dream. Even the Democratic Party, after solidly supporting gun control through the 1980s and 1990s, largely abandoned the issue in the first decade of the new century. The party leadership felt gun control was hurting the party with rural voters. Democrats didn’t become fully engaged on the issue again until fairly recently, but at least they are largely now in the fight. And the Republicans? Thoughts and prayers.

Given the political realities of the day, including a Supreme Court ready to cut the legs out from under any serious attempt to limit guns, change won’t happen easily or quickly. But there’s still reason for optimism. The voter rolls are increasingly being filled by a new generation of voters. These young people grew up under the specter of gun violence. They experienced what it’s like to go through “active shooter drills.” The only world they’ve ever known is one in which they could never feel completely safe even in their own schools: schools where the unfathomable was always far to easy to fathom. Where every loud sound — a trash can knocked over, a heavy door slamming shut — sounds like a shot being fired.

It was members of this generation who saved the bacon of some members of Congress on January 6, because they had been taught in school how to respond when a building is attacked. The new three Rs of education — reading, writing, and riding out school shootings. As the Washington Post reported, “For many of the Hill’s younger staff members, the decision to take those actions wasn’t instinct — it was training. An entire generation of Americans who grew up during an epoch of horrific school shootings have learned since kindergarten what to do when an outside threat enters the building.”

The evidence is actually somewhat mixed as to whether young people today favor gun control in numbers greater than their elders. But favorable poll numbers have never been the most important thing in the politics of gun control. The intensity of support is what really matters. For decades the NRA was able to fight off most gun control measures despite a substantial majority of Americans favoring them. They could pull this off largely because the intensity of opponents of gun control was greater than that of those who favored it. Gun control opponents actually voted on the issue, whereas voters who favored gun control mostly cast their ballot based upon other issues.

But that is changing. Indeed, the politics of gun control finally seems to be shifting in general. The NRA, a victim of its own corruption, is struggling to survive. Inadequate, but meaningful, gun control legislation was actually passed in Congress and signed into law by the president, something unthinkable just a few years ago. State governments under Democratic control are taking action of their own. Even a few Republicans are jumping on board. Recognition of the scope of the gun problem is rising. Even that all-important factor of the intensity of support for change seems to be increasing. Failure no longer feels inevitable. A new America, one no longer known as the shooting gallery of the world, is starting to seem possible.

But it will be possible only if we demand it — demand it with our voices, but even more, with our votes.
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