In a 1811 letter to her sister, Cassandra, just two weeks after the Battle of Albuera, Jane Austen wrote this: “How horrible it is to have so many people killed! And what a blessing that one cares for none of them!” I’d just read those lines when news came last weekend that yet another warped American male had unleashed a fusillade of lead into an unsuspecting crowd. How horrible, yes. And what a blessing, once again, that I didn’t know and cherish the victims, that my own kids were not among the heinously slain.
But I’m wondering now how long that blessing will last, because I’m always surprised when I sit down to the day’s news and discover that there hasn’t been another mass shooting somewhere in our America, or right here in my city of Boston. In a nation this fanatical about firearms, this suicidally irresponsible, this in love with its staggering surfeit of unnecessary guns, how much longer does each of us have until we are personally ravished by calamities such as this?
It’s all too easy to see the moral malfunction of the NRA and its devilish lobbyists and all those scurvy politicians on their payroll. But I have my own moral malfunction on this issue because I’m shamefully determined not to do anything about it. I can write sentences against this madness, bamboozle myself into believing in the nonsense cliché that the pen has more power than the sword, that the writer’s only true mission, only real responsibility is to write. But words alone aren't going to solve this blood-wet mess—words alone never solved a problem this bad.
I have my litany of excuses—I’d self-righteously call them “reasons”—for not taking to the streets to demand an extirpation of firearms and a buttressing of our mental health system, for not waving placards in the windows of our politicians, for not pointing into the faces of the gun lobbyists and accusing them of collusion with killers. Among these excuses are a few that might have something in common with your own: an always demanding job, an always shrinking bank account, and two young children, each of whom is a full-time occupation and keeps me daily, nightly exhausted with the business of being a dad. But if I really wanted to honor the life-giving love I have for my children, wouldn’t I stop bullshitting myself with these excuses and take up the sword of activism to help banish these weapons from our midst?
Remember Shaw’s words in Major Barbara: “Nothing is ever done in this world until men are prepared to kill one another if it is not done.” But how do we feel motivated to proceed when the killing of one another is the very poison we’re attempting to purge? We aren’t doing more about our rote gun massacres because the bullets always destroy other people, never us, never our loved ones. Richard Martinez, father of 20-year-old Christopher Martinez, one of those shot dead last weekend in California, told the media, “You don’t think it’ll happen to your child until it does.” And when it does, we live on with this grating fact: We didn’t do enough, if anything, to thwart our malignant gun culture, to emasculate the NRA and sever its deep reach into government.
Please, let’s stop calling this a “gun debate” and start calling it exactly what it is: a gun problem.
After the Newtown massacre I wrote for this site about my kids, about the promise of happiness, about a grief that felt downright inconsolable. I wrote what was effortless for me to write, the familiar heartbroken adjurations: enough is enough, now is the time, let’s take our futures back from those redneck automatons babbling about the Second Amendment. I went to my son’s preschool and spoke to the administration about its preparedness for a Newtown-like possibility (I might even have said “inevitability”). I let them assure me that precautions were being taken, blueprints drawn. What else did I do? I spoke to my students about mobilizing against this pernicious threat to our civilization. I signed petitions when I could. I voted always for those who comprehend that these weapons are a scourge to our city and state, a wretched embarrassment to our humanity. But I did nothing else. I did not mobilize myself. And now, more than two years after the hecatomb at Newtown, I’m perfectly confidant that my son’s school has no apparatus in place to prevent or respond to a mass shooting. I mostly just cross my fingers.
We’re no longer a people outraged to activism unless we are personally affected. We’re much too comfortable as American consumers, and that comfort, that gluttonous materialism, has anesthetized us into a place of convenience first—convenience always. It’s quite simply inconvenient for many of us to march ourselves to Washington and chant slogans of exasperation. Our sense of civic duty? It seems to have been shot to death decades ago. The anti-gun contingent stands before an Everest of obstacles, a wall of patriotic babble about Second Amendment privileges. What possible change can any one citizen instigate against that barrage of anti-intellectual, gun-toting paranoia? Some of us wish to pride ourselves on the faith that intelligence can win the day for what’s right, but when intelligence comes up against unintelligence, unintelligence wins every time.
So let all of us devastated observers stress once again how tired we are of having our week ruined by the common details: a young male, usually white, certainly mentally ill, overlooked by the system and his parents, his guns that were not much harder to acquire than a dime bag, his abject loneliness, his isolation, his catalog of seething grievances, the sinister power he felt with that firearm in his grip. Let us citizens stress this and once again do nothing or so little that it amounts to nothing. Let’s shrug at the anomie upon us, at the creeping malaise, at the epidemic of lead. Let’s shrug until the person who’s shot dead in the street, in the classroom, in the movie theater, in the mall, is our own child—our own child whose sprite will return to ask us why we were too goddamn complacent and cowardly to act.
Even in the shocked and grieving heat of his new hell, Richard Martinez possessed the acuity to call out the “craven, irresponsible politicians and the NRA. They talk about gun rights—what about Chris’s right to live? When will this insanity stop? When will enough people say stop this madness, we don’t have to live like this? Too many have died. We should say to ourselves, not one more.”
I don’t have to defy the commonsensical, the non-paranoid, and the reasonable to be moved by that plea, but you can be certain where all the defiance and dearth of sympathy will be coming from—from among the scurrilous ranks of the NRA and those toadying politicians who live inside its pockets. They’ll watch Martinez’s pleas and snicker about how the emotional riot and whelm is once again trying to interfere with their adored Second Amendment. A heart-wrecked father weeping, raging against the NRA on television channels—it’ll seem to them so crass, so beneath the Constitution.
I spend lots of time terrified that my boys, ages 4 and 2, will be badly injured beyond repair, will be indiscriminately murdered by yet another lunatic with an erotic fondness for automatic weapons. I spend lots of time thinking about NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre and his ilk, about how minuscule, how impotent they must feel on Earth. Because that’s precisely what our fellow gun-toting Americans are attempting to correct with that phallus of death in their hands: They need to feel sexually potent, sexually able in a world that tilts toward chaos, a world they constantly think is trying to denude them of their agency, their will to power.
The mass killer in California—I refuse to utter his name—has left us his ugly screed, those complaints about his ineffective sexuality, his loathed virginity, the women who would not recognize him, deem him worthy. I hesitate to point out that this young man’s sentences reveal a slightly better than average grasp of grammar and gift of phrase, and yet he was too blitzed by sexual humiliation, by his own sense of powerlessness, to see that girls were not to blame for his tremendous woe. We have the gun manufacturers and gun sellers to thank for putting into his hand a phallic replacement, an erogenous utensil of affliction.
And if prostitution were as legal and even as badly regulated as the firearms this young man acquired? If he had been able to walk into a disease-free brothel and pay for the pleasure of copulation as easily as he walked into a gun shop and paid for the pleasure of annihilation? Please do ponder that for just a moment: sex for pay between consenting adults is outlawed, but we can proudly pay for all the guns and ammunition our adrenaline desires. Why do I have a pesky inkling that those conservative politicians who demonize female prostitutes also harbor an inordinate affection for discharging firearms?
Please don’t tell me that three of the people this young man murdered he murdered with a knife because I’ll suspect you of trying to change the subject if not willfully refusing to understand what the real subject is. Please, let’s discuss this killer’s toxic misogyny and backward sexism, but if we allow that discussion to supplant our focus on his untreated illnesses and the abolition of guns then we do a dishonor to the women he hated and the people he slaughtered. Please let’s stop calling this a “gun debate” and start calling it exactly what it is: a gun problem. Please also let’s agree to be disgusted by and never to tolerate the family members and friends of these butchers who say, “I didn’t see this coming” or “He was so quiet and nice” or “He really was a good kid.” Don’t call yourself a friend and don’t call yourself a parent if a young man such as this is deteriorating before your very eyes and buying a cache of handguns.
Richard Martinez pleads with us to “say to ourselves, not one more,” and a lot of us will say that, right before we once again do nothing. We’ll continue to see a cataract of paranoid fatuity from pro-gun goons, a degradation of ideals, and a harvest of inanity by those who would reduce civilization to a swamp of snipers, and I’ll continue to do nothing about it this time. Not to worry, though: I’ll no doubt have another chance to do nothing about it next week, and the week after that, too. I’ll continue to do nothing about it until I can no longer face my own reflection, or until the funeral I’m attending is for the boys I promised always to protect.