Tuesday, April 17, 2007

What Guns Do

As the terrible, tragic details of the Virginia Tech shootings became known over the course of the Monday news cycle, a certain type of comparison began to crop up in the comments and contributions of several blogs that I make a semi-regular habit of reading. This “analysis” placed the 33 dead in Blacksburg, VA, in the context of the many more killed every day in American-occupied Iraq (one example here).

While I often decry the disproportionate hysterics exhibited by the US establishment media when it comes to a domestic story versus the daily death and destruction that passes for life-as-usual in parts of Iraq, in this case, at least, I feel the attention is justified, and the comparison made by some of my blogging brethren does neither tragedy justice.

Let me just restate the obvious: Iraq is a tragedy—a horrible, outsized, and on-going tragedy. The death and injury that visits the Iraqi people everyday should not be ignored by Americans—and not only because our country bears heavy responsibility for the carnage. Violent conflicts, be they in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Congo, or Sudan—or too many other parts of Africa, South America, Asia, and the Middle East—cheapen every human’s existence and require the attention of the entire world (especially the wealthy parts) if they are to ever really end.

But there is a difference between these wars, genocides, and geopolitical struggles and the individual instances of domestic gun violence of which Americans are all-too-often made aware.

Or, maybe, “aware” is not the right word. . . or, maybe, it’s that all-too-often is just not often enough.

To me, the tragic irony is not borne out in a comparison between Baghdad and Blacksburg, the problem in this case is not that we don’t pay attention when innocents die in Diyala or Darfur, the terrible truth is that we only pay attention when our domestic murders come in multiples.

Gun violence is more than an everyday occurrence in this country, it is an hourly one. Correction: it is a quarter-hourly one. There are, roughly, 12,000 gun murders a year in the United States (if you are looking for contrasts, contrast that with the average 350 gun murders that occur annually in Canada, Great Britain, and Australia combined). If you watch the local TV news in the US, then you likely bear some sort of witness to numerous individual gun murders every week.

But it is only when six or twelve or twenty-two or thirty-three are shot that most of us even look up, take pause, or stop to think at all about what guns do.

And what guns do is kill people.

I’m sure there is somebody out there right now that is raising a finger in protest. Wait, there’s sport. . . competition shooting. . . hunting! And to that person I say: Knock it off! AK-47’s and their clones are not prized by biathletes, 9 mm semi-automatics are not hunting weapons, and you don’t need an extended clip to bring down a sixteen-point buck. You can make your arguments about self-defense and Second Amendment rights (though most of them would be wrong), but you cannot argue that it is either a right or a necessity to own the kinds of weapons that felled those at Columbine, or West Nickel Mines, or the unfortunate students and faculty at Virginia Tech.

Sadly, though, those kinds of arguments are probably going to take up a substantial part of the brief but saturated attention we will pay to Monday’s massacre. It is not happenstance that the first words out of the White House—before President Bush’s official words of condolence that came out late in the afternoon—were these, from acting press secretary Dana Perino:

The president believes that there is a right for people to bear arms, but that all laws must be followed.

The worst mass shooting in American history happened just hours before, but it was important for the president to remind us that he believes there is a right for people to have guns—lots of guns, if they wish—but, oh, yes, gun owners and your friends, you should also obey the law.

Of course, there used to be a law that banned the production of assault-style weapons and extended clips—that law was allowed to expire by George W. Bush and his rubberstamp Republican Congress back in the election year of 2004. There have also been attempts to close loopholes in gun laws that allow the purchasing of guns without a background check, attempts to impose mandatory waiting periods for the purchase of certain kinds of guns and ammunition, and lawsuits filed by cities and states designed to hold manufacturers of cheap handguns liable for the destruction their products cause. Bush and many of his Republican cohorts (and some Democrats, sad to say) have continuously opposed tougher gun laws, and the Bush Justice Department has fought the lawsuits, siding with gun manufacturers.

So, where does Monday go when Tuesday comes around? There will be memorial services and encomia around the world. There will be “national conversations” and some sort of collective soul-searching—or at least talk of it. And, there will be coverage—around the clock coverage. TV coverage. Newspaper coverage. And even, yes, blog coverage.

But, while I am mostly past expecting real insight or appropriate context from the establishment media (mostly), I would hope for—and I will ask for—much more reality and appropriateness from the blogoshpere. Iraq, and I hate to say this, will be there tomorrow—that fiasco deserves our unremitting attention and that suffering deserves our steady witness—but American gun violence is here today. . . and every day.

Gun violence in America is no less a tragedy than other global horrors, and, in this context, anyway, perhaps it seems a little more so. . .

. . . because this is a tragedy Americans can so easily do something about.

(cross-posted to Daily Kos)

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