Here we are again, at a tragic impasse, this time in Aurora, Colo. There is grief and outrage — and no significant movement toward passing commonsense, moderate legislation that might disarm those who would take the lives of innocents at a rate made higher by the kinds of weapons that were once difficult to obtain in this country.
I write something like this all too often, for I write in the wake of massacres that seize national attention for a moment and then fade. There was the series of school shootings in the late 1990s, including one at a day-care center in Los Angeles; there was Columbine; there was Tucson; and now there is Aurora. And there were so many in between, attacks that do not loom large in the broader memory but should.
I own guns — shotguns and rifles — and I hunt quail. I don’t want to give up my guns. But I know this: there isn’t the remotest chance under the sun that I will have to. And I know this too: the kind of assault rifle used in the Aurora massacre — an AR-15, which is essentially a civilian version of the military’s M-16 — has no sporting purpose save playacting, in which the shooter is in some kind of combat situation. You don’t need an AR-15 to hunt, and you certainly don’t need the high-capacity magazine that was reportedly used even if your interest is target shooting on a range.
A 1994 law banned these kinds of guns and magazines. It was a ferocious legislative fight in that first Clinton term, and I know more than a few Southern Democrats — the red state/blue state designations had not yet entered the vernacular — who say the assault-weapons bill was what defeated them in the Gingrich-led Republican landslide that November. Since then, the gun lobby has proved so powerful that it effectively shut down debate after the expiration of the assault-weapons ban in 2004.
In recent years, few political figures — notable exceptions include New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Representative Carolyn McCarthy — have made serious efforts to pass commonsense gun legislation.
I’m not talking about a ban on guns — not even handguns. But we once agreed that weapons like the one used in Aurora (and the magazine that armed it), as well as the type of high-capacity magazines that were used in the Glock attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson should be banned. To borrow the language of the right, did that mean outlaws could not obtain such things if they tried? No, of course not: when certain kinds of guns are outlawed, outlaws will find ways to get them. But why not make it more difficult? Isn’t that the least we can do?
To state the obvious, no law can ever make human life perfect or totally safe. There will always be criminals, there will always be accidents, there will always be injustice and horror and tragedy. That’s the nature of things in a fallen world.
Yet we can’t just give up. The 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr captured our obligations well when he remarked that the “sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world.” We accept limits on our rights for the sake of the larger social compact all the time. (Speed limits, anyone?) Guns should be no exception.
Giving up, though, is the prevailing ethos of the hard-line gun lobby. It’s sadly ironic that a bloc devoted to the principle of “no surrender” can discount the possibilities of hope and good sense so easily. No, it’s more than ironic. It is genuinely tragic.