Have you ever gone into the market, or bank, or movie theater, or even your classroom, and felt that queasy wondering of “what if” some crazy guy with an automatic weapon just happens to take it into his head to start shooting in here? We normally dismiss such dark musings as soon as they show up, as we do the thoughts of out-of-the-blue tornadoes, or terrible monsoonal floods, or life-wilting droughts, or the earthquake along the fault line of the Rio Grande Valley. No use in waiting for the supernova, as a wise woman once said.
But gun massacres are not a rarefied historic calamity any more. They are almost “normal,” and on the rise, according to not only our own commonsense reckoning of history, but also to a database being kept and updated by Mother Jones magazine. The 17 people murdered at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida this month, the 58 people shot down at a concert in Las Vegas last October, the 49 killed at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016, the two murdered at Aztec High School in NM in December, the 33 murdered at Virginia Tech in 2007 — and many other similar incidents — have made mass shootings, most often with powerful semi-automatic weapons, seem as dangerous as a cholera epidemic.
Crazies with semi-automatic weapons, often easily modified into fully-automatic assault rifles, might just come to be thought of as another natural disaster, a monstrous something we encounter purely out of our own bad luck — wrong time, wrong place, wrong bloody hole in the head. But homicidal maniacs with AR-15s aren’t “natural.” They are a “man-made disaster” in the making. They fall into the category of nuclear reactor meltdowns, or the 16 kinds of cancer caused by smoking, or the warming climate caused by the use of fossil fuels, or the human and wildlife illnesses and death unleashed by pesticides and hazardous waste. These calamities are unnatural disasters that make corporations and their shareholders lots and lots of money, way more money than we can imagine. The fallout from the estimated $1.4 billion in profits made from weapons like AR-15s doesn’t have a dollar sign, but it can be counted by the stacks of corpses left behind. High-powered rifles modeled after war weaponry are made to do one thing: kill people, many people, very fast. They are weapons of war, not of hunting, not of home protection.
Are tornadoes problems to be solved? Probably not. Are earthquakes preventable, droughts repairable, hurricanes open to amelioration? Don’t think so. We can prepare for them, and perhaps adapt to them, but we can’t correct them.
But assault guns, DDT, dumping industrial chemicals in the environment, cigarette smoking, nuclear reactors as a guilt assuagers for the nuke bomb industry, opposing solar and wind power to make trillions more from oil and gas and coal — these are all harms of profit and power. They are not beyond human choices, like cyclones and typhoons. They are the products of human choices willfully inflicted on others, requiring them to take enormous risks so that some people and some classes can get as rich as Pluto or Hades, who dwell in the hidden wealth of the underworld.
We live at a point in history where we are more likely to die from malign human choices than from natural disasters and accidents beyond our control.
Of the 5-10 million military-style rifles of the AR-15 variety in civilian hands in the USA, it only takes one to cause a massacre of children, or vacationers, just one in the hands of a mad person, not even someone with an ideological or religious motive, someone “merely” insane.
You can’t blame a tornado on anyone. You might, of course, blame the increased ferocity of them on climate change and those who profit from it, but that won’t slow them down. But assault weapons, like cigarettes, are the fault of companies who profit from them directly, and who lie and distort their dangers. They are also the fault of an economic philosophy that literally says “anything goes,” even at the risk of killing children, if it can make a profit. It’s also the fault of politicians who are bought and paid for by the gun lobby and its leader, the NRA.
Is this really the kind of country we want to live in — a madhouse of indiscriminate homicidal violence?
It’s not as if military-style semi-automatic rifles, and the easily accessible modifications that make them full-on assault rifles, can’t be outlawed. In 1994, Congress passed the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act that banned ownership and manufacture of semi-automatic weapons such as the AR-15, the Uzi and the AK-47 — 19 gun types in all and their ammo. The catch to the act was that it lasted only 10 years, expiring in January 2004. Almost immediately after the December 2012 killing of 28 people, most of them children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein introduced the National Firearms Act, a new version of the expired Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994. Feinstein’s bill lost by a 60-40 vote in the Senate. Is there a direct link to the high school shooting at Parkland, Florida last month? I think so. And there is certainly a direct cause and effect relationship between the failure of that bill and a higher risk for future shootings that are sure to shatter our hearts in the months and years to come.
Maybe Generation Z, whose members are being killed in high schools now, will rebel against the gun industry and over the years put enough pressure on manufacturers to end poisoning and terrifying our lives with weapons designed for no other reason than to massacre as many of us as possible. Maybe the next generation and the one after that will come to read the Second Amendment as designed to allow for armed, “well-regulated” citizen “militias” to avoid what the founders considered the plague of a standing army rather than as a constitutional license for anyone to own a gun of mass destruction. Maybe they will see the Second Amendment’s current interpretation for what it is — a money-making loophole for an industry as unscrupulous as the tobacco industry came to be before smoking was regulated almost out of existence. It’s time for the same thing to happen to military-style rifles. Maybe future Americans will get so furious at man-made disasters that they’ll revive their faith in politics and finally rise up to defeat the pollution and murder-and-mayhem lobbyists and their toadies at the polls.
That’s a lot of maybes, but that seems to be all we’ve got right now. And “maybe yes/maybe no” is better than nothing, I suppose.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it