Earlier this week (June 22), John Lewis, Georgia congressman and civil rights icon, helped his Democratic colleagues revive some old tactics for a righteous cause: fighting the gun lobby. They staged a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives to demand a vote on commonsense gun control measures.
Their protest didn’t work, but that shouldn’t be counted as defeat. Lewis and fellow Democrats — who even sang, with slightly revised lyrics, the old standby “We Shall Overcome” — succeeded in highlighting the cruel and crazy intransigence of the gun lobby and its claque of political water-carriers. In an election season, that gives the forces of sanity a fighting chance.
Not that change will come quickly — any more than it did during the civil rights movement. The nation is mired in an odd space, a wretched and twisted place where reason is stunted, conspiracy rages and fanaticism rules. Even as the blood of gun victims flows from schoolyards and nightclubs and churches, the firearms fanatics insist on more — more! — weapons, more ammunition, more havoc.
Most Americans, sensibly, disagree. A CBS/Washington Post poll conducted in the wake of the Orlando nightclub shooting showed that 57 percent of Americans favor a ban on assault-type weapons, which were originally designed for battlefields. A 2015 poll by Johns Hopkins found that 60 percent support a ban on high-capacity magazines. But public sentiment is overwhelmed by the relentless lobbying, the conspiratorial fear-mongering and the merciless campaign tactics of the gun lobby, which targets legislators, savages critics and pillories even supporters who stray from the hard line.
So the body count grows.
Using statistics compiled by Mother Jones magazine, which has amassed an authoritative database, I counted 29 mass shootings that claimed four or more victims during President Barack Obama’s tenure alone. (While there is no universally accepted definition of “mass shooting,” Mother Jones excludes conventional crimes, such as robberies and gang warfare.) The latest, in Orlando, was also the bloodiest.
Yet the National Rifle Association and its allies resist even the most reasonable and least intrusive measures to improve gun safety. They not only vehemently oppose bills to prevent suspected terrorists from buying firearms or to strengthen background checks; they have also waged all-out war against promising new “smart gun” technology that would allow a gun to be fired only by an authorized user.
Why? Why not employ biometrics to make sure a toddler doesn’t fire Daddy’s gun or a thief doesn’t steal weapons to use in a later crime?
It’s not at all clear how we arrived at this desperate and demented era. In the future, historians will undoubtedly dedicate volumes of research to untangling the cultural, political, legal and social forces that have conspired to lock us into this awful place.
We are not mired in this madness by the Second Amendment (though it has been wretchedly misinterpreted in recent times by right-wing courts). The right to bear arms was enshrined long before machine guns were banned, decades ago, or assault-type weapons temporarily banned in the 1990s. Yet, those measures, which could not pass through Congress today, were sustained in earlier times.
And it’s not our frontier past, either. Australia shares a rough-and-ready frontier heritage, but its citizens were so revolted by a mass shooting in 1996 that they readily accepted strict new gun laws, including a ban on certain semiautomatic weapons. Since then, gun violence overall has dropped precipitously, and there have been no mass shootings.
The simple truth is that those gun advocates who insist that reverence for firearms is encoded in our DNA are engaging in convenient myth-making. In my childhood, my father and his friends enjoyed hunting game as a pastime, but they would never have demanded the right to carry firearms inside houses of worship. They didn’t hunt with AR-15s. They didn’t believe they should have high-capacity magazines on hand to hunt deer.
This ferocious and paranoid insistence on arming every man, woman and child is of a more recent vintage, dating back to the 1970s, when the National Rifle Association became unhinged. The fever will break eventually, the virus will be expunged, the political climate receptive to sensible gun measures.
Already, we’re seeing signs that the body politic is fighting the infection. Democrats are standing up to the gun lobby.
(Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Photo: Handguns are seen for sale in a display case at Metro Shooting Supplies in Bridgeton, Missouri, November 13, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Young