Why am I even bothering to write about gun control? That was going to be my opening sentence when this column was to be focused on the Aurora, Colorado, movie-theater massacre: twelve people murdered and fifty-eight wounded, some very severely, by James Holmes, demented neuroscience graduate student. Then came the massacre at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin: six killed and three wounded by Wade Michael Page, 40-year-old white supremacist and leader of a racist hardcore band called End Apathy. And even after this horrific crime, which the FBI is calling “domestic terrorism,” my opening is the same: Why am I even bothering to write about gun control? End apathy? Fat chance. If even the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, one of Congress’s own, by Jared Loughner, another hyperarmed madman, didn’t move her pro-gun colleagues or their constituents, nothing will.
Remember the Million Mom March? In May 2000, 750,000 women gathered on the National Mall to call for what are often referred to as “reasonable” controls on guns, like background checks at gun shows and handgun registration (as opposed to “unreasonable” curbs like making it illegal to buy weapons intended to kill people—for example, handguns or AK-47s, let alone 6,000 rounds of ammunition on the Internet). Today you might as well stand on the Mall and sing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
The Million Mom March was loosely tied to the Gore campaign, and Gore-Bush was the last election when Dems saw gun control as a potential vote winner. Once Gore lost (well, actually…), Democrats fled the issue. For Democratic Party leaders like Howard Dean (surprisingly, no friend to gun control) and Chuck Schumer, restrictions on gun ownership interfered with the party’s strategy of winning races in red states by running macho pro-gun candidates like Jon Tester and Jim Webb for the Senate, Brian Schweitzer for governor of Montana, or the host of conservative Blue Dog types who briefly swelled the ranks of Congressional Democrats.
So here we are today. Hours after the Sikh temple shooting, Nancy Pelosi said she was “devastated” but foresaw no action on Capitol Hill. “The votes aren’t there,” she lamented. Even in a Democratic Congress, she acknowledged, they might not be there, “because it takes a lot of votes to go down that path.” After the Aurora shooting, Obama spokesman Jay Carney emphasized controlling guns within the context of “existing law”—no easy task, given recent Supreme Court decisions upholding gun rights. Senator Frank Lautenberg, who has put forward a bill outlawing online ammunition sales—and recently refused to pull his amendment to the cybersecurity bill banning high-capacity ammunition clips—is the rare Dem on the national scene who hasn’t given up. And Lautenberg is 88 years old.
In the absence of leadership at the national level, big-city police chiefs and mayors like Michael Bloomberg have tried to step into the breach. But with little support from the top and lacking an impassioned mass movement, to say nothing of money to combat the NRA’s huge war chest, it’s no wonder that gun control has shriveled into a Worthy Cause. According to Gallup, in 2011 only 26 percent of Americans favored a ban on handguns, down from a high of 60 percent way back in the dark ages of 1959. (Other polls show the country evenly divided but still unchanged by the recent mass murders.) Membership in the NRA has been increasing for decades and now stands at 4.3 million. As for the 30,000 annual gun deaths, 70,000 injuries and almost twenty mass murders a year? The ninety guns for every 100 Americans? It’s something to wring your hands about, like sexting or obesity or plastic bags. Just another weird American thing.
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Why is this? One reason is surely that guns have effectively become the emblem of the ongoing great white male right-wing freak-out. (Ladies might pack a pink pistol, but not an AK-47.) When Obama was elected, gun sales rose—quick, the Kenyan Muslim Communist is coming for our weapons! On NPR’s Diane Rehm Show, John Velleco of Gun Owners of America seemed comfortable with the idea that someone might want an arsenal of assault weapons to protect his family from a home invasion. What home invasion would that be? And among the many foolish justifications for amassing high-powered weaponry is the delusion that you and your friends could outgun the government if you personally decided it had become a tyranny. That’s almost as ridiculous as the notion that if everyone carried a gun, people would be safer. All those moviegoers in Aurora needed to make their misery complete was to have a bunch of armed freelancers shooting off their weapons in a dark theater.
The trouble is, as with so many aspects of conservatism—the anti-choice movement, the Tea Party, Ron Paul—“gun rights” supporters win on intensity and single-mindedness. We have common sense, but they have a master narrative: rugged individualism, patriotism and self-defense (which includes paranoid fantasies about threats from ordinary people in turbans whom they are too ignorant to realize are Sikhs, not Muslims…and obviously I’m not saying it would have been less horrific and more “understandable” if Page had attacked a mosque).
Of course, your average gun enthusiast is hardly tomorrow’s Holmes or Loughner or Page—you have to be mentally ill to commit mass murder—but without a gun, it’s difficult to kill and injure a whole crowd of people, no matter how much you’d like to. Gun advocates have devoted a great deal of ingenuity to trying to discredit this elementary point. And to the extent that gun-control supporters have become depressed and discouraged, they have succeeded.