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Original Sin: America’s Unending Gun Penance

In the ongoing tragedy of America’s gun worship, the mass murder of children and teachers in Connecticut on Friday comes on the heels of Tuesday’s similarly terrifying, random attack on the Clackamas Town Center in suburban Portland.

In both instances, the attacks were carried out by lone gunmen armed with AR-15 assault rifles, and fueled by a fetishism for firearms. The Portland community was still processing the carnage and shattered lives at Clackamas when news of the calamity in Connecticut arrived Friday morning.

The enormity of the incalculable pools of loss suffered by the community of Newtown is too big and tragic to comprehend: the murders, the victims, the victims’ innocence and youth, the endless streams of grief, the news that children had literally been shot to pieces with weapons designed for war.

The Clackamas Town Center attack similarly left two victims dead, in the prime of their lives with families, friends, spouses and those they loved and cherished left behind. Lives cut off in mid-sentence. The attack also left a 15-year-old girl shot through the chest, fighting for her young life in a Portland hospital.

Since Friday other assault-rifle attacks and mass killings, albeit less sensational but no less awful, have occurred in Nevada and Alabama, punctuated by a man in Orange County who fired off dozens of rounds from an automatic weapon in a mall parking lot. It is the sound of the ongoing unhinging of American sanity – and the capitulation of the American political system to the NRA.

It is a normal, human response to look for some scrap of logic or purpose in actions which are cruel and insane, but there are no rational explanations or answers. There are just too many weapons, and too many angry, resentful, furious people with access to weapons, and a culture that fetishizes weapons in a manner unthinkable 40 or 50 years ago.

Every time there is a mass killing like the ones this week in Connecticut and Oregon, there are the platitudes from politicians about the tragedy of the event, the concern for victims, and the inevitable “thoughts and prayers.” The response itself has become a hurtful, dismissive cliché. For public officials, it’s also often the end of any action or concern on the matter. As one wounded survivor of the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting this summer said, “I thought we were going to get somewhere. All we got was silence.”

America’s rudderless fetish for home arsenals and weapons of war runs deep. If terrorism or murder by foreign agents with firearms is not acceptable on American soil, then why is terrorism or murder perpetrated by domestic agents so quickly brushed under the rug by the NRA and Fox News, and by extension, public officials? The Second Amendment has been warped by pro-gun interests into a false prophet of revered holiness, all of whom conveniently opt to ignore that the “well-regulated militia” called for in the Constitution is also known as the National Guard.

Even at a glance, firearms are not the same as they were in 1789. The technology of the six-shot revolver was still decades away at the time the Constitution was ratified, to say nothing of the instruments of modern death available to any citizen since the expiration of the Assault Weapons Ban in 2004.

Democrats long ago opted to roll over and pretend the NRA and the growing gun culture in this nation wasn’t there, and they have benefitted politically from their reluctance, even cowardice, to take on the NRA. But Democrats need to make use of their political capital and begin enacting real change and real safeguards to prevent these massacres from occurring. It may never be the sole answer, but gun control is a critical component of these solutions.

Public officials typically know right from wrong, but have demonstrated a poisonous unwillingness to raise their voice against the NRA for fear of a primary challenge to their right from a Tea Party-aligned, NRA-funded candidate. These public officials need to remember who they work for, and what they want their legacy to be. Many love to talk about how pro-life they are – but only for the unborn. Whether you’re a parent in the prime of life or a child in your kindergarten class, it’s just too bad if you’re cut down by their interpretation of the Second Amendment.

Sadly, many in media and politics opt to spout bellicose, ridiculous tones of intolerance for those who don’t own firearms, and who claim more firearms and a greater culture of fear with an armed populace is the answer. But the dystopian future they fear is already here. Does anyone need more proof after this week? More guns are not, and cannot, be the answer.

Some gun advocates are merely bullies with no control over their own lives who provocatively wear holstered handguns around the office or to their local coffee shops, intimidating colleagues and baristas to make a ridiculously regressive point about the Second Amendment. They are cowards, eager to project a Wild West mentality of machismo as a “self-reliant individual,” when they would likely be the first to scream for police in a real emergency.

And run for cover if any of these fools were to actually pull their weapon in a real emergency, or a perceived emergency. Some concealed carry advocates believe they will always have their back to the sun, will always have the “bad guy” or perpetrator framed just right for a shot, and will be magically free of normal reactions like fear, panic, confusion or terror in the event of actually being present at a moment of gun violence. I’m sure some even imagine heroic music swelling as they, the hero in their own movie, reach for their weapon like Charles Bronson or Chuck Norris. Most disconcerting is their belief that their aim in a crowd of panicked, terrified patrons will be as good as it is on the firing range.

Prolonged exposure to right-wing media has also played a critical role in the abandonment of reason among generations of Americans, and a willingness to embrace whatever the NRA says as gospel. Take it from me – I’ve worked 20 years in broadcast media, and there is a cumulative cult-like effect to the day-to-day droning of fear on AM radio and Fox News. Many white Americans, in fact, have become so divorced from reality due to Fox News they actually believe themselves to be “persecuted,” even though they haven’t a clue as to what real persecution is.

But while there is validity to the caricature of the gun-toting Sean Hannity fan who long ago ate up Rush Limbaugh’s diatribes as substitutes for responsible public policy, mass shootings are typically carried out by far younger men who find their irrational fears, racism, and gun festishism fanned on-line. Alleged conservatives make a big deal about on-line radicalization when it comes to international terrorism, but ignore that the very same thing when it occurs under their nose or under their roof on their side of the political fence.

When anyone can borrow, steal, or have a gun loaned to them by a friend, parent, or neighbor, the background check process becomes a moot point until after the fact. It will take more to address this issue, but above all else it will take the loud, decisive actions of the vast majority of responsible gun owners to help enact quality, functional legislation. The solutions may be similar to laws passed in Australia following the murder of 35 and wounding of 23 during a mass killing at a resort in Tasmania in 1996.

It may be hard to believe today, but there once was popular, active advocacy in this country against the proliferation of handguns and other firearms, particularly in the wake of John Lennon’s murder in December 1980, and the attempt on President Reagan’s life in March 1981. We need this groundswell again. The NRA is not entitled to a one-sided conversation.

Calling for meaningful action is not enough. We’ve needed immediate action for decades. We’ve heard all the rhetoric before. What we have not seen is leadership — not from the White House and not from Congress. That must end, now.

How many more days like this will it take?

“Grieving Lincoln” illustration by Bill Mauldin, © 1963 Chicago Sun-Times