I took the photos here this morning on Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda, Md. at St. Mark Presbyterian Church. The congregation at St. Mark has decided to bear witness to the local impact of gun violence. Each of the 176 shirts on the church's lawn represents one of the people killed by firearms in the Washington area in 2013. I guess it's a testament to the times we live in that the church's gesture seems admirable but quixotic.
When I got home from making the picture and turned on my computer, there was yet another story about a mass shooting in America, this one at a Fed Ex facility in Georgia. You can read about it here. Six people wounded, three critically; the gunman then shot himself. One might think, if one had just returned from an extended vacation on another planet, that this sort of event would prompt Americans to consider whether guns are too easy to obtain. But as experience repeatedly has told us, one would be wrong.
Indeed, the opposite seems to be the case. The more people die from gun violence, the more the NRA and its legislative allies make it easier to get guns and use them. Ten of the t-shirts in the church yard on Old Georgetown Road represent people killed by a shooter at the Washington Navy Yard last summer. He bought his gun at a Virginia gun store a few days before the shooting, despite a history of mental illness and run-ins with the law. The Virginia legislature's response this year was not to tighten up gun sale rules, but to pass legislation backed by the NRA making it easier to carry a gun in your car legally. Georgia's legislature last week passed a law extending the right of gun owners to carry concealed weapons into bars, city halls, even churches. I am sure that the legislators who voted for that law will insist that if only more people had been packing at Fed Ex today, the carnage would have been lower. That's what they said after Sandy Hook. Let's arm the teachers!
One reason the NRA types have their way, I suspect, is that they care viscerally about guns, while most people don't care that much about the deaths inflicted by guns. The t-shirts on the lawn at St. Mark's mostly have a name, an age, and a date of death. But some are marked simply "Unidentified Male," presumably because no one has yet cared enough to identify a body. Unless people know a victim personally, it's easy to shrug and dismiss these deaths. Just a few ghetto gangbangers blowing each other's heads off before the cops have to do it, we think. Or just another loser who shot herself and relieved society of a burden. We've become numb to the spectacle of mass carnage. The people at St. Mark would like to think we have a better nature, and we really do believe in human brotherhood. I wish I could think they're right.
But it seems to me that Americans instead are governed more than ever by atavistic emotion. The New York Times yesterday had a piece about Dan Kane, an investigative reporter at the News & Observer in Raleigh who has been uncovering scandalous activity in the athletics program at the University of North Carolina. That same hypothetical visitor recently returned from another planet who thought mass shootings might lead to gun control might think Kane would receive some public approbation for his work.
Wrong again. Kane is being pilloried. One kind soul wished him a lingering death from bone cancer. What kind of person would say that? A person who has become completely unmoored from rational thought. A person whose life is hollow enough that he cares passionately and perhaps exclusively about whether a squad of jocks wearing light blue shirts beats a squad wearing different colored shirts. A person whose response to anything he perceives as negative about those light blue shirts is snarling and hateful. A person who lives in a world of us versus them, unchanged from the times when human beings displaced Neanderthals.
Consider, for a moment, the fact that each year, about 30,000 Americans die from gunshot wounds. That's more than ten times the number of people who died on September 11, 2001. Americans after 9/11 willingly gave up a lot of personal freedom to laws that will, supposedly, prevent terrorists from attacking again. Those laws were easy to pass, because on the visceral level, they seemed to be directed at a target the atavistic among us could readily despise--those Muslim foreigners. Us versus them. But when it comes to gun violence, the atavistic response is to resist any measure to control guns. We get Charlton Heston vowing that the government will have to take his guns "from my cold, dead hands."
The folks at St. Mark are not, by the way, asking to take away anyone's gun. The flyer they're distributing on the church grounds says they're pushing for action to end straw purchasing, which they define as someone buying a gun for the purpose of re-selling it to someone who's barred from buying a gun because of age or criminal history. Making it more difficult to put guns in the hands of criminals and children might seem like a no-brainer. But the cold-dead-hands folk tend to see any restriction on gun sales as an apocalyptic threat to their sacred right to bear arms.
So while I am rooting for the people at St. Mark to succeed, I am not betting on them.