“Nobody knows, from sea to shining sea, why we are having all this trouble with our republic.”
— Thomas McGuane, “Ninety-Two in the Shade”
ONE YEAR AGO on Saturday, someone with a gun got loose in an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., and killed 20 schoolchildren and six adults. Two days ago, another someone with a gun got loose in a high school in Centennial, Colo., and killed himself after critically wounding a student.
Between the two dates — one day short of a year — an estimated 33,373 people in the United States have died by gun violence, according to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control.
Between the two locations — and beyond them, elsewhere in the country — is a tragic story of how conflict resolution or the resolution of personal, private trauma is a matter of picking up a gun. Of taking one’s own life or someone else’s with a firearm. It's the story of life during another wartime.
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interactive project jointly undertaken last year by Slate.com and @GunDeaths, a wonderfully ambitious Twitter user, both reveals the depths of the problem, and fails to do so, through no fault of its own. It’s a sad irony that, in spite of their efforts to be exact about the tally, absolute precision is impossible.
“As time goes on, our count gets further and further away from the likely actual number of gun deaths in America — because roughly 60 percent of deaths by gun are due to suicides, which are very rarely reported,” said Dan Kois, a Slate senior editor, in June of this year.
The gun violence that haunts this country is often (and rightly) focused on violence against others; the Newtown tragedy, which follows that cruel pattern of behavior, has scarred that community and this nation in irreparable ways. But Kois’ disclosure that 60 percent of gun deaths are suicides is something else again. That statistic points to something else loose in the American dynamic: a fugue state of hopelessness; a viral strain of despair; a rampant climate of internal surrender that’s as frightening as it is apparently pervasive.
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IT MAY BE more than a coincidence that the Centers for Disease Control is apparently one of the prime sources of information on gun violence in America. It suggests that gun violence is, and deserves to be studied as, a matter of public health, something whose manifestation is consistent with disease.
January forum on gun violence as a public health issue, sponsored by the Harvard School of Public Health and Reuters, Harvard Medical School professor of child psychiatry Felton Earls observed: “Violent behavior is learned behavior. It is reflected in the brain but is not carried by genes. We have done a good job of changing social norms with respect to child abuse. Now we need to broaden this to include exposure to violence.”
In October, members of the Pennsylvania Medical Society recommended that more research be done into gun violence as a public health concern, and called for an increase in government funding for that purpose.
“With more information, particularly from a public health point of view, we might be able to reduce deaths and injury caused by gun violence without disrupting the rights of gun owners and the intent of the Second Amendment," said Bruce A. MacLeod, the society’s president and a practicing emergency medicine physician in Pittsburgh.
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A new poll by YouGov and The Huffington Post points to this curious disconnect: Public support for more stringent gun laws has declined after the Newtown shootings, despite the occurrence of other mass-casualty events since Newtown, the poll finds.
“According to the poll, support for stricter gun laws is as high or higher among Democrats as it was at the height of the post-Newtown bump in support,” HuffPost reported on Dec. 10. “Eighty-five percent of Democrats now say that they want stricter gun laws, while 78 percent said so in the early January poll that represented the post-Newtown high for support overall.
“Among both independents and Republicans, though, that support has fallen. Thirty-four percent of independents and 20 percent of Republicans now say they want stricter gun laws, compared with 56 percent of independents and 40 percent of Republicans who supported it when post-Newtown concern was at its peak.”
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AT THE SAME time, the poll finds, backing for the still-controversial idea of universal background checks for all gun purchasers, “remains near its peak since the [Newtown] shooting.” According to the survey, “[s]eventy-seven percent of poll respondents said they favored such a requirement, while 16 percent were opposed.”
It might just be a matter of misinformation. The HuffPost/YouGov survey found that “nearly one-third of Americans, or 31 percent, said they think everyone who buys a gun at a gun show is already required to first undergo a background check, while 53 percent correctly said that's not true. That perception was highest among Democrats, 37 percent of whom said they think that's already a requirement.
“And 17 percent of Americans think that Congress has already passed new gun laws since the Newtown shooting, although a much higher percentage (63 percent) said correctly that it has not. The belief that Congress has already passed stricter gun laws was most common among Republicans, 25 percent of whom said they believe it has.”
On Saturday, President Obama assumed the anodyne responsibilities of the presidency in his radio address, centered on the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary.
“We have to do more to keep dangerous people from getting their hands on a gun so easily,” he said. “We have to do more to heal troubled minds. We have to do everything we can to protect our children from harm and make them feel loved, and valued, and cared for.”
And that begins to get at the problem. We have to do more. A lot more.
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IN JUNE 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, Life magazine generated controversy with its provocatively heroic decision to publish the photographs of the U.S. armed forces killed in action in Vietnam in one week, a documentary scream that went on for pages and pages and pages, saying in images what couldn’t be expressed in words.
The Huffington Post made a similar statement in the Internet age on April 20 with its front page depicting the images of those killed by gun violence since the Dec. 14 murders at Newtown.
Some called it an “over the top” dramatization, a cheap attempt to capitalize on a magazine’s tragically iconic witness to the horror of war. They couldn’t be more wrong. The imagery of the cost of war is what was called for in 1969, and it’s what’s necessary now.
As bad as the single tragedy of 9/11 was, between the Newtown murders and now, we’ve lost 11 times more Americans to gun violence (antagonistic or self-inflicted) than we lost on 9/11. As gradually horrific as the Vietnam War was to this country, we lose as many Americans to gun violence in two years as we lost in the 10 years of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
And yet many of our lawmakers have inured themselves to this current, steady, incremental undoing of lives and futures. They’ve seduced themselves with the idea that such deaths are an acceptable fact of life, so much collateral damage. And it’s not. Or it shouldn’t be. It can’t be.
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And it’s a war to be fought with devotion to the principle that life is a precious thing, something to be defended. It’s a war to be fought in our own heads — with our willingness to resist being inured to such violence in our nation, to push back hard on the idea that things can’t be improved, that gun violence is just business as usual.
This is the new war. And if we don’t win it, we will die. And this nation will die. And that cannot be acceptable.
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WHAT’S REQUIRED isn’t just a war against the traitorous indifference of Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association, the gun lobby on Capitol Hill, and the senators and congressmen and women who toady up to them. That conflict is in some ways the easy one, the public one, the one played out in the media, mounted with talking points and press releases and clashing invective in the public square.
This also has to be a war against our collective hopelessness, our communal rage, at this brutal time in the national life. A war against the war we wage against ourselves.
One hesitates to even use the word “war” to describe what may be called for; it’s an appropriation of the language of conflict as a way to oppose that conflict, and as such it deserves to be seen as an inherently cynical contradiction. Point taken.
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But the word “war” has a way of igniting that unifying, galvanizing spirit Americans often bring to bear against something perceived as a common challenge, or a common threat. The word clarifies what’s at stake like few others do.
Look at her face. We’ve seen that pain before. We’ve seen that agonizing look during the era of the Vietnam conflict. We saw that irreversible pain in the days and weeks and months after 9/11. We saw that look during the war in Iraq. And we see it today, in the time of war in Afghanistan, in the eyes of widows sitting graveside at Arlington or any number of other sacred sites where another family, another someone is extended the thanks of a grateful nation.
Whether we see this crisis as a matter of public health, mental health or spiritual health, it’s time to accept that we are at war. It’s one we fight with courage, and with charity. We fight it with what we tell our children about resolving conflicts, and with what we tell ourselves about resolving our own deep, seemingly intractable personal pain. And we fight it with the message we send, or fail to send, to our lawmakers. The message of our votes.
We fight it with the implicit understanding that in this war, there are no draft dodgers, no conscientious objectors — no civilians. We fight it knowing that by the very act of living in this country, anywhere in this country, we are all of us already on the front lines.
Image credits: Gunshot death estimate map: Slate.com, with data from @GunDeaths (Twitter); © 2013 The Slate Group LLC. Firearm hospitalization chart: © 2013 American Public Health Association. Gun law polling graph: The Huffington Post. Life Magazine June 27, 1969, cover: © Time Inc.. Nicole Hockley: via New York Daily News.