And then, the floors of the historic church flowed with blood as nine people lay dead.
What happened last Wednesday night was terrorism. It was racial violence. It was a white man calmly and systematically slaughtering nine unarmed black men and women because of hate. It was a massacre of people simply because of their race, committed under a flag that stands as symbol for violence and racism and hate.
This is not an isolated incident to be thought of and dealt with in a vacuum. It is one more link in a chain of the horrifying racism that has pervaded this country since its inception and long before that. and it is violence of the worst kind, committed with a gun that the perpetrator received as a birthday present from his father, but that he could have bought legally in his home state without a licence or a background check, despite having an arrest record.
In his statement on the shooting, President Obama appeared resigned and exhausted, saying "I've had to make statements like this too many times" and that "at some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries."
And he is right. It doesn't. We live in one of the most prosperous countries in the world and yet there still exists a fierce and systemic racism, such that a white man feels justified walking into a black church and killing nine of its members. We are fortunate enough to live in a country where we can elect our leaders, and yet our leaders have yet to take a single meaningful step to stop gun violence, such that there have been more than twenty mass shootings in the six years and five months since Obama took office.
Almost three years ago, in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting I wrote a piece on guns and freedom. A year ago, after another school shooting in Portland, Oregon, I re-posted it. And today, I am posting it today yet again, with sadness and with shame that we are living in a country where racial hatred goes unchecked and guns flood the streets.
We can do so much better. But the question now is, will we?
December 17, 2012
Thoughts On Freedom And Sandy Hook Elementary
I have so much to say. I don't know what to say.
These seemingly incongruous thoughts have been the ones rushing through my head at equal turns since I first heard the news on Friday of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown. My first reaction to the early reports was disbelief. I was sure that the reports - conflicting as they were in those first hours - were mistaken. But as the death toll mounted, and more information was released, it was clear that they were not.
In rapid succession I traveled the stages of grief. For a long while on Friday night, I was stuck in depression. On my way home from work I read articles and looked at pictures of the kids caught in the middle of this terror, and my soul ached for the lives that were taken far before their time. I read testimonials from parents who dropped their kids off at school in the morning, secure in the belief that those kids would be safe. Those parents who spent hours caught in a nightmarish limbo, waiting to see whether their children were alive or dead. And my heart broke - for the parents whose children came back to them, and for the parents whose children never will.
And after depression came anger, and it is there that I stayed, and remain today. Angry at what, exactly, I am not sure. There are so many things. Angry at a God who would wrench the innocence from a school full of children. Angry at the shooter's mother, for teaching her son to love guns. For taking him to the shooting range and for sending the message that guns are toys to enjoy, rather than lethal weapons to fear. Angry at people who saw in the shooter signs of mental illness, yet did nothing. Angry that there are people in this country who believe that the Second Amendment affords them the right to own an assault rifle - a firearm capable of killing hundreds of people in seconds. Angry at the politicians who are too feeble to stand up to the NRA and pass laws to place reasonable restrictions on gun ownership. Angry at those who say that this is an inappropriate time to talk about gun control by spouting a bunch of nonsense about not politicizing a tragedy.
This is the perfect time. And you know when else would have been a perfect time? After thirty-two people were gunned down in 2007 on the Virginia Tech Campus. Or last year after Gabby Giffords was shot in the head - and six people were killed - outside a grocery store in Arizona during a meet and greet. Or after twelve people were killed in Aurora, Colorado this past summer during a midnight showing of Batman. Or after the Kansas City Chiefs linebacker shot and killed his girlfriend and then himself earlier this month. Or after a gunman killed two people during a mass shooting at an Oregon mall just last week. Last. Week. Two mass shootings in a single week.
Honestly, if I hear the phrase "guns don't kill people, people kill people" one more time, I am likely to commit an act of violence myself.
Last week after that Chiefs linebacker shot and killed his girlfriend and then himself NBC's Bob Costas spoke out in favor of gun control. And he was berated for expressing his opinions so soon after the event took place. Well. If a conversation about rational gun control laws in this country is politicizing these unspeakable tragedies, then I say politicize away. That conversation has to start somewhere, sometime, because we can't continue down this path anymore.
Lets start with the facts. An op-ed in Saturday's New York Times laid them out all nice and neat. Countries that have strict gun control laws are safer than the ones that don't. Children aged 5-14 in America are 13 times more likely to be killed by a gun than in any other country in the industrialized world. In the United States, firearms kill one person every twenty minutes, or approximately 30,000 people per year. More Americans die in gun deaths in six months then have died in the last 25 years in every terrorist attack on American soil and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined.
So. You want to own guns. You want to hunt, and you want to protect yourself and your family. You want to pass along this heritage to your children. And you believe - and will defend to the literal death - that the Second Amendment affords you this right. And maybe it does. Reasonable minds may differ. But the intent of the founding fathers certainly was not that the citizens of this country arm themselves with assault rifles similar to those used by our soldiers in combat. And to allow those weapons to be purchased without so much as a background check.
I have been a student of Constitutional Law, and time after time my professors drilled into my head the ideology behind individual freedoms, and when it is just and acceptable for limits to be placed on those freedoms. We are given the freedom of speech until our words will create a clear and present danger, incite immediate violence, or would interfere with a legitimate government interest. We have freedom of religion unless that religion practices human sacrifice, or it means children will die because their parents refuse to give them medicine to treat common illnesses. We have the freedom to peaceably assemble, but cities are still permitted to place reasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner of assembly to keep the peace and maintain public spaces.
Cars can be dangerous, so state legislatures pass laws to make them safer. There are tests to pass before a drivers license can be issued, seat belt laws, speed limits, and laws prohibiting the use of cell phones while driving. OSHA has five pages of laws relating to the use of ladders. School buildings must meet certain safety codes, and cafeteria food is regulated to reduce the risk of food-borne illness. For heaven's sake, even toy guns are regulated by requiring orange tips, so as not to mistake a toy gun for a real gun. But we can't get together and pass reasonable restrictions on actual gun ownership?
Every freedom has its limits. This is the price we pay for living in a civilized society. So I have a really hard time understanding why the pro-gun lobby thinks that the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms is the only freedom we are afforded as Americans that should be virtually limitless.
Look, we don't want your guns, we really don't, as long as you buy them legally and own them safely. We might not like it, but it's really not up to us to judge. But it should be a little harder to get a gun, to reduce the risk of these kinds of mass shootings becoming even more commonplace than they already are. Like instituting waiting periods and background checks. Or restricting the sale of certain kinds of ammunition to reduce the number of people who can be killed with a single cartridge. Or banning assault rifles. These are measures that have already been taken in other countries that have dramatically reduced the volume of gun deaths. It's time to take those steps in this country too.
You want to own guns? Fine. Own them. But you better make damn sure that your freedom to own those guns doesn't infringe on our freedom to stay alive while watching a movie, shopping at a mall, going to school, and walking the streets.
Oh but wait, it already has. Because this morning, as parents all over the country drove their children to school, they did so filled with an unspeakable fear. Fear that their children are no longer safe in the one place they should be the safest. Fear that when they hugged their children goodbye it might be the last time. And you can bet that there are some parents who kept their children home today. Or picked them up early on Friday. And because there are twenty families in a town only forty miles from where I sit right now that are planning funerals for first graders. Planning funerals. For first graders. Let that sink in, and then try and tell me that unlimited gun ownership under the Second Amendment is a freedom to be celebrated.
My heart is aching for the twenty families who lost children, the six other families who lost loved ones, and an entire community that has been ripped apart at the seams. But grief and thoughts and prayers simply are not enough. Not this time. Now is the time for action. For writing our elected representatives to tell them that we have had enough. For pushing back when the NRA touts gun ownership as a reasonable means of protection. For keeping assault rifles out of the hands of anyone who is not a soldier on the front lines defending this country from its enemies.
We will never get all the guns back, but as members of a civilized society, it is time to take action. It is time for change. And it is our patriotic duty as Americans to ensure that change comes sooner, rather than later.
We owe it to those twenty children and their families. We owe it to ourselves and our families.
Now is the time for action.