gun violence

Why We Keep Letting This Happen

A woman embraces a child outside the Willie de Leon Civic Center in Uvalde, Texas, after the massacre at an elementary school killed at least 19 children and two teachers. Photo: Eric Thayer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The mass shooting in Texas that killed at least 19 schoolchildren and two adults on Thursday came on the heels of the horrific, racist slaughter in Buffalo, New York. “When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?” Joe Biden asked in a national address, sounding more like a beleaguered Democratic voter than the president of the United States. “Why are we willing to live with this carnage? Why do we keep letting this happen?”

Biden’s plea speaks to his relative powerlessness here; the president of the United States can do many fantastic and world-historical things, but altering gun policy in a meaningful way is tragically not one of them. Every solution at hand cries out for Congress and state legislatures. For instance, to renew the assault-weapon ban that expired in 2004 — an AR15 semiautomatic rifle was wielded in the attack — would take overcoming the filibuster in the Senate. Democrats only have 50 votes there, and neither Joe Manchin nor Kyrsten Sinema, the conservative Democrats who make up two of those votes, want to move to end that historic and ultimately idiotic threshold for passing significant legislation.

Still, an assault-weapons ban will only go so far. The United States of America, the world’s wealthiest nation, is addicted to gun violence. Among affluent nations, far more die here from firearms than anywhere else. Our suicide rates are fed by easy access to handguns. It is estimated there are around 400 million guns in the United States, more than people, and we are currently in the midst of a great gun-buying boom that the pandemic accelerated. Annual domestic gun production increased from 3.9 million in 2000 to 11.3 million in 2020, according to the ATF last week.

This staggering tide of weaponry fuels carnage everywhere. Manufacturers reap enormous profits from laws in Republican-controlled states that have loosened restrictions on guns to an almost absurd degree. In Texas last year, Governor Greg Abbott allowed all residents to legally carry handguns without licenses. Guns are already allowed on college campuses, and now, hotel guests can store guns in their rooms. Abbott is not sorry for signing these bills into law. Texas senator Ted Cruz will offer thoughts and prayers and not utter a word about gun control. Marjorie Taylor Greene, perhaps the most unhinged of all, talks about a “return to God” to stop the violence.

This is the state of our broken, polarized politics, and it’s not shifting anytime soon. Meanwhile, so-called “ghost gun” manufacturers are sending untraceable weapons through the streets of large cities throughout the country, where criminals can easily acquire them. Gun violence is a plague in many American cities, especially in poorer neighborhoods. In the Bronx, a 15-year-old boy was arrested recently for fatally shooting an 11-year-old girl with a bullet allegedly meant for another teenager.

Democrat-run states and cities have tougher gun laws, and these do make a difference, especially when these states border each other. New York has the fortune of being in the Northeast, near neighboring states that also take gun control seriously, such as Connecticut, which tightened its gun laws following the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre. Within New York, it is quite hard to legally buy a handgun or rifle. Shootings have spiked in the five boroughs since the pandemic fueled by illegal guns, but mass shootings are rare in the city. Last month’s subway shooting, which wounded ten, was the worst ever in the subway system, but nothing like the Texas elementary-school shooting has ever occurred.

The problem lies elsewhere. Staunching the flow of weapons across state lines is inordinately difficult. Law enforcement can’t open every car trunk coming from Pennsylvania into New York by way of South Carolina or somewhere else. A true gun-control response would be national in scope: strong limits and background checks on the purchase of firearms with penalties accorded to manufacturers that earn billions off dead bodies. It should be very hard, in general, to buy a firearm in America. Consider Japan, where no one may purchase a handgun or rifle unless they belong to the police or military.

Realistically, such a law will never come to the United States, thanks to disingenuous reinterpretations of the Second Amendment and the place guns hold in the culture of rural states. The 2008 Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller severely undercut local gun control laws, thanks to a tie-breaking vote from Chief Justice John Roberts. The court is now much more right-wing today than it was then and is poised to overturn a local law in New York that regulates concealed permits. Plus, the National Rifle Association’s hold on the Republican Party is ironclad.

What’s heinous about this turn in our culture is that it didn’t have to be this way. In a more rational society, even conservatives would embrace gun control as a law-and-order position, akin to their otherwise aggressive approach to cracking down on crime. Decades ago, this was the case, with Republicans and Democrats in relative agreement over the nature of limiting firearms. In the 20th century, gun-control laws moved through Congress, with the assault-weapon ban coming in 1994 as part of the national crime bill authored by then-Senator Biden. It sunset a decade later, never to be renewed.

Within blue states, there is some lingering allegiance to this view among right-leaning voters. Big-city Republicans, closely aligned with local police departments, are not in the streets calling for laxer gun laws. In some sense, there is a profound amount of unexamined cognitive dissonance among the right-wingers of America. How can so-called defenders of the police also repeatedly oppose measures that could save the lives of rank-and-file cops? Indeed, two cops were shot responding to the elementary-school shooting. Progressive activists and police departments each want to halt the flow of firearms.

The debate is exhausting and debilitating because it feels like so little can be done. Lately, at least in the case of the Buffalo shooting, Democrats have pivoted to bemoaning disinformation online, as if cracking down on Twitter or 4chan will end mass shootings in America. It won’t. Only getting guns out of people’s hands will. We are nowhere close to doing that.

More on the texas school shooting

See All
Why We Keep Letting This Happen