There were a number of thoughtful comments to this post, some entered on these pages, some provided through other means. They warrant a postscript, since I remain unaware – and at this point, think I always will be unaware 😉 – how many that read these notes see the comments besides me.
It’s best at the outset to correct a couple of misimpressions I apparently inadvertently left with this post. One observer suggested that by limiting the note’s focus to an assault weapons ban, I had failed to adequately reference our need to continue and enhance the ongoing activities by various public and private mental health agencies to identify and treat those who may be prone to contemplate undertaking a mass shooting. Such was not my intent. I have no doubt that we would be suffering even greater levels of carnage but for our mental health professionals’ dedicated efforts, and absolutely support increasing funding for this work. An experienced and gifted mental health professional, while agreeing that we need more regulatory constraint on access to assault weapons, expressed a concern that my broad-brush reference to “crazies” in the post’s concluding paragraph had the potential to perpetuate stigmas about the mentally ill, the vast majority of whom are nonviolent and are more likely to be the victims than perpetrators of violence. Again, I had no intent to reinforce false stereotypes. The twin shocks of the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings, combined with my fervent belief regarding our need to restrain the manufacture, sale and use of assault weapons, caused me to overlook clarifications that I should have added to my assertions.
In the post, I noted that it had been reported the Uvalde shooter had been “engaged by law enforcement” before entering the school. We now know he wasn’t, and that law enforcement took an interminable amount of time to meaningfully respond. While the incompetence and/or cowardice of the law enforcement at Uvalde adds to the excruciating agony of the parents and the outrage of the rest of us, I fear that focus on the Uvalde law enforcement performance creates a distraction to enable gun rights apologists to deflect attention from the fact that the primary cause of this tragedy was that an 18-year-old could legally buy two assault weapons and a bunch of ammunition without effective legal restraint. I do have a lot of sympathy for the vast majority of our law enforcement officials across this nation who would have run in to save these children – and are now undoubtedly concerned that the general public considers the rank-and-file officer not only racially-biased but an incompetent coward. I would venture – and am pretty sure that most officers would agree — that if a cop isn’t willing to brave physical danger in these types of emergencies, s/he should find another line of work.
Some noted the sad practical political reality that Congress will do nothing significant to restrict access to and use of assault weapons (a comment on this below), while others urged a more aggressive limit on the right to firearms than I had proposed. One loyal follower – a mother, nonviolent and quite progressive by nature — gently berated me for stopping short of a call for a ban on all firearms other than used by military and law enforcement, with offenders to be “fined, jailed, and kicked in the nuts.” Although her sentiments are unlikely to find their way into American law and one of the consequences she proposes probably violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment, I understand her visceral passion.
At the same time, despite my earlier declaration that there is no “Why” to mass shootings, I have concluded that there is, indeed, a “Why” – not to any particular incident, but to why assault weapons have been allowed to proliferate within our nation although it is glaringly obvious that legally limiting our citizens’ access to such weapons would reduce the number and severity of such incidents. In a sense, I’ve known for decades.
Over 30 years ago, I attended a professional conference at a very posh Washington, D.C. hotel. One morning, I called for room service, and soon my breakfast was delivered by an elderly, white-haired African American gentleman, twice my age, wearing formal tails with white gloves. I felt very uncomfortable having him wait on me, and attempted to take the tray; he would have none of it, carried it into the room, pulled out a sideboard that I hadn’t even seen, motioned for me to sit, arranged the tray in front of me, put the napkin on my lap. I had never been waited on like that, and was a bit unnerved by it. Being a political junkie and sitting in a D.C. hotel room, it occurred to me soon after he departed why so many of our representatives strive so hard to hang onto their jobs. While Messrs. Ted Kennedy and Herb Kohl (then in the Senate), rich men, would receive such service for the rest of their lives, a member of Congress of average means served as I had just been was likely to transition from initial discomfort, to liking it, to expecting it, to, finally, fearing being deprived of it – terrified of no longer being Cinderella, of having his/her carriage turn into a pumpkin … to having to return to living just like the rest of us.
Lately, I’ve been rereading essays in The Federalist. As Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, taking turns as “Publius,” sought to persuade Americans to support ratification of the new Constitution, their essays turn time and again to the concept of checks and balances. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” Mr. Madison observed in “Federalist No. 51.” Put aside for a moment current perspectives of privilege and diversity; it is clear from reading The Federalist that all three authors implicitly assumed that anyone elected to Congress would already be prominent; he wouldn’t seek office primarily to become prominent. Powerful men don’t countenance having their prerogatives trampled. Mr. Jay stated it most directly in “Federalist No. 3”: “When once an efficient national government is established, the best men in the country will not only consent to serve, but also will generally be appointed to manage it … [a] general and extensive reputation for talents and other qualifications will be necessary to recommend men to offices under the national government ….”
In the aftermath of Uvalde, a PBS NewsHour correspondent reported that he had asked Republican U.S. ND Sen. Kevin Cramer about the prospects of the Senate enacting gun control legislation, and Sen. Cramer, while acknowledging gun control advocates’ concerns, intimated that supporting such legislation would have a significant adverse impact on his career. Republican U.S. LA Sen. Bill Cassidy, when asked about assault weapons regulation, responded, “If you talk to the people that own [an AR-15], killing feral pigs in the middle of Louisiana, they wonder why you would take it away from them. [They say,] ‘I’m law-abiding, I’ve never done anything, I use it to kill feral pigs. The action of a criminal deprives me of my right.’”
One could infer from the report of Mr. Cramer’s comments that he will not support significant gun control legislation due to potential political repercussions, although he perhaps well sees a need for it. Mr. Cassidy is a physician. He clearly possesses discernment — it should fairly be noted, he was one of a few Republican Senators with the courage to vote to convict former President Donald Trump in his last Senate impeachment trial – and he can’t help, as one who presumably subscribes to the Hippocratic Oath, but to privately understand that citing his constituents’ need for assault weapons to shoot feral pigs is an absurd ground upon which to rationalize the failure to limit Americans’ access to war weapons that have destroyed an unconscionable number of innocent human lives in a matter of seconds.
While Republican legislators should be removed who sincerely hold that largely unfettered gun rights for Americans supersede the need to protect the public from unprovoked mass gun attacks, I feel no anger toward them; they simply lack the capacity to think critically. What I find despicable are the Republican legislators whom I truly believe make up their majority – avowed “conservatives” — who recognize that meaningful assault weapon regulation would save lives, and yet fail to act out of political self-preservation. We rightly criticize any police officers ultimately proven to have failed to act to protect children because they feared for their lives – since they understood when donning the badge that such risks were part of the job – but we seem too ready to accept at face value the notion that legislators who know better – successors to men who pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to found a nation — are somehow justified in failing to limit ongoing mortal danger to Americans because they want to protect their hallowed positions.
As I’ve previously noted in these pages, Eighteenth Century Anglo-Irish Statesman Edmund Burke, ironically considered one of the founding fathers of modern conservative thought, once declared to his Parliament constituents:
“[A representative’s] unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
So on this issue, as with others, there is a “Why,” the root rot of the troubles we face: we are subject to the Tyranny of Cowardice.