It has been 46 years — nearly a half-century — since Charles Whitman, a troubled ex-Marine, climbed atop the iconic University of Texas Tower to use it as a staging zone for a shooting spree. He killed 16 people on and around the campus, including his wife and mother.
The nation, while sobered by a second World War and stunned by escalating political turmoil, was still naive in many ways back then — halfway through a violent decade that would rend the political and social fabric. The youthful president, John F. Kennedy, had been assassinated just three years before. It’s no surprise that Whitman’s massacre horrified Americans from coast to coast.
But in the years since, we’ve adjusted too well to the armed madmen in our midst. A massacre on a college campus barely garners notice outside its immediate locale. Last week, when disgruntled ex-student One Goh allegedly opened fire in a classroom of Oakland’s tiny Oikos University, killing seven and wounding three others, the news drew low-key coverage outside California. After all, it was just the latest of several campus shootings so far this year.
And Whitman seems an amateur by current standards of senseless carnage. In 2007, Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and wounded 25 at Virginia Tech. By then, of course, the 1999 Colombine High School massacre, during which Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 before committing suicide, had long since faded from the news.
Cho came from an immigrant family, but his massacre suggests how thoroughly American he was. (The same is true of Goh, if he is, as suspected, the perpetrator.) Other countries have generated a few homicidal lunatics, but murderous frenzies by gun-toting maniacs are a particularly American form of madness.
And that madness is stoked and sheltered, nurtured and fed by another kind of crazy — a widespread denial about the price of our love affair with firearms, a disbelief that borders on delusion. Future historians will look back on the nation’s refusal to enact sensible gun regulations with a wry fascination, much as present-day researchers ponder witch-burnings.
We weren’t always so irrational about gun ownership, though firearms were a more utilitarian household item 40 years ago, when more families hunted game for sport — and for the dinner table. In 1968, after nearly a decade of high-profile political assassinations, Congress passed the most stringent firearms regulations since the 1930s, despite the vigorous protests of the gun lobby.
In the intervening years, though, the gun lobby has only grown more powerful — and more radical and more unhinged — pushing past the limits of sanity. Its activists have battled to allow firearms on college campuses, in bars and in churches. Its members have persuaded state legislatures to pass notorious “Stand Your Ground” laws, such as the Florida statute implicated in the shooting of Trayvon Martin.
All the while, voters have either acquiesced or applauded heartily. In some countries, the Republican Party’s whole-hearted embrace of the gun lobby’s reckless radicalism might have sparked a countermove by the opposition party. Not here. The Democratic Party caved in after Al Gore lost to George Bush in 2000 — convinced (based on little to no evidence) that Gore’s support for more stringent gun control measures was partly to blame.
It came as no surprise, then, that the shooting spree last year in which Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was grievously wounded and six others, including a 9-year-old girl, were killed sparked no serious outcry for sensible gun regulations. Certainly, President Obama was silent on the subject.
Despite that, the lunatic fringe continues to insist that Obama has a secret plan to confiscate their firearms. Did I mention that the lunatic fringe includes well-heeled lobbyists who frequent the corridors of power, such as National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre?
At a February meeting of ultraconservatives, LaPierre revealed Obama’s secret plan to … well, read it yourself:
“Lip service to gun owners is just part of a massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters … We see the president’s strategy crystal clear: Get re-elected and, with no more elections to worry about, get busy dismantling and destroying our firearms’ freedom, erase the Second Amendment from the Bill of Rights and excise it from the U.S. Constitution.”
That’s the very definition of crazy.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)