February 15, 2018

DANBERG BIGGS | Kids With Guns

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We know, at this point, that massacre is routine in this country.

17 children were shot and killed in an afternoon at school. It wasn’t the first time shots were fired at schools this year, or the fifth or the fifteenth. It wasn’t the first mass shooting this year, or the fifth, or the fifteenth, or the twenty-fifth. Perhaps for older generations it is still experienced with shock, but those my age have a memory dotted with acts of domestic terror.

During the Cold War students were taken through bomb drills due to the threat of foreign military attack; our schools ran lockdown drills to help us survive a classmate or neighbor who decided to kill us. We have come into consciousness expecting some bloody breaking news every few months, with the understanding that a lot more less exceptional carnage is happening all the time. There are countless forces that have allowed this reality to fester, but perhaps none more insidious now than the popular suggestion tragedy should not be politicized.

For the vast majority of us, our response to these tragedies is precooked. It really is an immense task to respond to the death of 17 children. The average person has no point of reference for that level of suffering, and so it takes a massive amount of wattage to process this kind of news in any real way.

Over the last two decades, I have, in a way that I think is absolutely common, approached this incrementally. In creeping thoughts during late nights and long walks, I’ll let hypotheticals bounce off the walls of my brain, trying to give them a shape that resembles something personal — it’s a certain distant and melancholy anger, mixed with a variety of policy prescriptions.

So, in weeks like this one, our sincere grief presents itself in practiced roles. Internally, we experience national grief in the way we’ve planned. Externally, we express condolences and take our positions on our preferred side of public policy. Yet for a growing group of people, mostly on the right, this has meant declaring that policy questions have no place in our holy space of national mourning. Republican politicians and conservative commentators shame everyone who calls for gun control, claiming that it exploits victims and their families.

On its face, this claim holds some water. Victims deserve a great deal of care, and it may feel incredibly painful to be instrumentalized by strangers. However, it is not clear that these are the wishes of most victims.

In fact many of the most vocal advocates for gun laws are the victims of gun crimes. Moreover, it takes a very narrow vision of our obligations to think that we only owe our soft condolences, rather than a societal effort to prevent their pain from being replicated.

And of course, it’s hugely hypocritical. The American right has no problem using tragedy to advance a political agenda when it’s feasible. The President used his first State of the Union to highlight the family of a murder victim who was killed by an undocumented immigrant. This, we were told, should illustrate the need for restrictive immigration policy. Surely, our foreign policy and security agenda has regularly been advanced in the wake of tragedy and loss-of-life. The reality is, tragedy is one of the strongest catalysts for national action.

The crucial problem with this idea, though, is that the premise is wrong. At its core, the claim is that these tragedies are apolitical events, which are politicized after the fact when policies are suggested in response. This is false. American mass shootings are inherently, unavoidably political events.

This has nothing to do with the motivations of the shooter or the context of the violence. Rather, it is because gun violence is facilitated by myriad political choices that our nation has already made. The weapon used on Wednesday was previously illegal under a federal assault weapons ban that Congress chose not to renew; the high deference paid to the second amendment is largely the result of a 2008 Supreme Court case; the outsized role that weapons play in our political culture is fostered by ads showing candidates holding firearms; the NRA is one our strongest electoral forces; and debates over gun law has played out in legislative chambers across the country. We do not have this many guns because of an inexorable cultural divide — the polling is clear that the majority of gun owners support significant regulation. No, we have this many guns because a minority of political activists has been wildly successful in achieving their policy agenda. We have this many guns because of our politics.

There are two truly sinister consequences to this brand of obfuscation. The first is that it kicks the debate indefinitely down the road, and the truth is we just never come back to it. The second, deeper result is that wears down the thin trust that remains between Americans who disagree on guns. The last remaining potential for common understanding between factions in a decades-long debate, is that both sides ultimately care about the victims of violence. Yet this tactic of shaming people for politicizing tragedy carries the damning claim that they do not. It says that while those on the left might say they speak for victims, in reality they simply hope to use them for their own political purposes. This is catastrophic for a political debate that was already fraught with distrust and a nation cleaved by polarization.

My belief that we need expansive gun control legislation arises from genuine personal grief for the victims of mass violence. It comes from hours spent trying to translate distant suffering into my own terms, and develop a response. And it’s borne of a life lived in a culture that breeds a certain type of violence, and a nation full to the brim with weapons to facilitate that violence. That’s all to say that my beliefs, and the beliefs of most Americans, are absolutely honest and basically concerned with safety of others. It’s when we lose sight of that fact, and refuse to engage, that the twisted morality of a small minority of powerful actors remains codified in our national law.

Rubin Danberg Biggs is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at rdanbergbiggs@cornellsun.com. The Common Table appears alternate Fridays this semester.