Other than “thoughts and prayers,” there is no bigger lie we are told in the wake of yet another mass shooting in the US than “This is not who we are.”
We hear it again and again, usually from Democratic politicians claiming that if we can look deep within and be true to our core of national goodness, we can come together to stop the pile of dead bodies from growing ever higher.
But this is exactly who we are. We are the place with more guns than people, where tens of thousands are murdered every year, and where arguments over parking spaces end in death. We’re the place where much of the gun legislation that passes ensures that almost anyone can take guns almost anywhere. We’re the place where candidates for office show their cultural bona fides by popping off rounds in campaign ads.
We’re not England or France or Canada or Denmark or Japan or Portugal or any other country. In those places, parents send their kids to school worried that they might catch a cold, or struggle with math problems, or face bullying. They don’t worry that someone will come into their child’s classroom with a weapon of war and tear their little bodies apart.
Nor do their children themselves have that worry. But here in America, an entire generation has grown up doing drills in case someone enters their school and tries to kill them.
They huddle in closets, barricade doors, hear lectures about what they might throw at an armed killer to slow him down. They practice and practice, each time its own kind of trauma, so that if and when their school is added to the long list — Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary School, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Robb Elementary School — perhaps they will be one of the lucky ones who make it out alive.
Under a cloud of violence
This is who we are, all of us living under a cloud of violence and murder. The roots of this insanity go back far, but today it is maintained by the party that has leveraged its minority rule to make sure virtually no limits are imposed on guns, which it fetishises and worships and celebrates.
So with bodies still being gathered, the lieutenant governor of Texas goes on television to say that the solution to the next mass killing of children is that “We have to harden these targets.” He was talking not about forward operating bases in war zones but elementary schools.
This weekend, the National Rifle Association will hold its annual meeting in Houston. Speakers, including former president Donald Trump; Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas; and Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, will regale the crowd with tales of their passion for putting as many guns in the hands of as many people as possible. Guns will be stroked and admired and held aloft in triumph.
Just two weeks ago, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a California law that forbade anyone younger than 21 from buying a semi-automatic rifle. In a 2-1 decision, two judges appointed by Trump wrote passionately of the importance of allowing 18-year-olds to buy AR-15s:
“America would not exist without the heroism of the young adults who fought and died in our revolutionary army. Today we reaffirm that our Constitution still protects the right that enabled their sacrifice: the right of young adults to keep and bear arms.”
If an 18-year-old had to wait until he was 21 to buy an AR-15, could we truly call ourselves free?
The killer in Uvalde, Texas, probably didn’t think so. He purchased his guns just after turning 18, then days later made his way to Robb Elementary.
Carrying guns in public
The Republican supermajority on the Supreme Court will probably uphold that decision. Meanwhile, any day now they will likely hand down a ruling making it much harder for states and cities to restrict people from carrying guns in public. Heaven forbid that you couldn’t pack heat at the supermarket or gas station.
Behold the insane logic of the perpetually armed society: We must let everyone have guns because so many people have guns. It’s why police kill more than a thousand Americans a year: They’re always on a hair-trigger, waiting to be shot at, so they shoot first.
“How can I defend my home without a few military-style rifles?” asks the gun advocate. “The home invaders will be armed!” And how can you go about your day without the ability to “stand your ground” and return fire?
Republicans who keep us living in this nightmare would certainly prefer it if the lies they knowingly tell about guns were true. They’d be happy if bad guys with guns really were stopped by good guys with guns, if more guns did make for less crime, and if all these guns made us the safest society on earth.
But in the end, the fact that all those things are false does not change their minds. Tens of thousands of suicides and homicides committed with guns every year, punctuated by regular massacres of men, women and children are just the price they believe we have to pay for their version of “freedom.”
Even if most of us don’t agree, those who do can leverage their power to keep the slaughter going. And that’s what it will take to change things: power. Acquiring it and being willing to use it.
Change will not come because we looked into our national heart and found goodness lying therein. The heart of America is not one thing. It is sometimes kind and generous and wise, but it is also dark and hateful and murderous. That is who we really are — all of it. If for a moment you forget, just wait. In another few days, there will be another massacre.
Paul Waldman is an American op-ed columnist and senior writer