By Bob Lewis
It’s an appallingly familiar plotline. Only the names and places change.
Tuesday, it was Uvalde, Texas. Ten days earlier, it was Buffalo. Before that it was Boulder, or Sandy Hook, or Orlando, or Columbine. It was Virginia Beach and Virginia Tech.
It goes this way: bloody mass murder is carried out by man (isn’t it always?) carrying weapons of war against innocents, usually people he never knew or were no threat to him. Usually, he takes the easy way out and turns the weapon on himself as the police move in. His ignominious remains are anonymously laid in a forgotten cowward’s tomb.
Americans sit stunned, breathless, even crying as they were Tuesday afternoon on my flight as it arrived at O’Hare in Chicago. As the plane taxied toward the gate and passengers toggled their mobile devices off airplane mode after a four-hour flight from Los Angeles, gasps, horrified exclamations and sobs could be heard throughout the cabin as they saw news alerts of the fresh Texas horror that unfolded while we jetted east at nine miles a minute 37,000 feet over the vast Southwestern desert.
“Oh God! It’s happened again! Nine children in their school in Texas – I don’t know how you pronounce the name,” cried one woman several rows forward. While most passengers grabbed their bags from overhead bins and hastened for connecting flights, many others remained seated, transfixed by the news. A young woman with an outline of the state of North Carolina tattooed on the inside of her forearm who was seated with her elementary school-aged son and daughter in the row directly in front of me cradled her children to her with one arm as she scanned her screen. Her hand appeared to tremble.
News anchors and camera crews parachute into this latest town in hell’s own traveling carnival of gore and, to the utter dismay of every sentient being on earth, thrust cameras and mics into the faces of emotionally shattered relatives and ask them how they feel.
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Then the body politic weighs in after it’s had a moment to focus-group its talking points. There are “thoughts and prayers” – always lots and lots of thoughts and prayers – because they require no actual expenditure or measurable commitment to change.
Some, mostly Democrats, reflexively voice righteous but empty outrage that the military-grade firearms and high-capacity ammo magazines engineered as anti-personnel military battlefield weapons were so easily obtained and used.
Others, usually Republicans and their National Rifle Association enablers, extend sympathies to the families and instantly begin dissembling, as Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott did yesterday. The militantly pro-gun all-hat-and-no-cattle governor called for mental health reforms, remarkably not even acknowledging that a truly despicable nihilist on his 18th birthday procured such withering firepower without so much as an eye being batted or a question raised .
You got the cash, you get the gun, son. Yee Haw, and Gawd bless Texas!
Then the days, weeks and months pass. The spray-tan talking heads and their satellite trucks disappear. Families are left alone to the crushing, never-ending sorrow of an eternally empty seat at the dinner table, a closet full of children’s clothes and toys to give away, and a lifetime of nightmares that only worsen when they wake. Then, like the parents of Sandy Hook and Tech, the bright lights return, and they get asked to relive the horror the next time there’s another gun atrocity.
And there’s always a next time, when the whole nauseating saga replays itself, step by contemptible step. If it were a book or a play, critics would rightly savage it as a failure, a lazy and cliché attempt at modern-day tragedy.
The United States is a nation awash in firearms and lacking the political will to enact commonsense reforms to address it. Efforts to restrict access to the kinds of cutting-edge, rapid-fire, mass-killing instruments that are the weapon of choice in massacres like these fail routinely at both the federal and state level.
Why? Because pro-weaponry absolutists and their organized advocates are a force in Republican politics. So extreme are some of these paranoid bunker dwellers that they contend arsenals up to and including anti-aircraft and tank-busting weaponry are guaranteed to their private arsenals by the Second Amendment.
Never mind that such a position is grossly out of step with overall US sentiment. Fresh polling by Morning Consult and POLITICO shows that 59 percent of Americans surveyed felt it was “very” or “somewhat” important to pass tougher gun laws compared to just 13 percent who felt it was “not too important” or “not important at all” “
But politics today, in both parties, is all about appeasing the base – an apt collective descriptor at several levels. That’s because to win in November, you must first win the nomination in the spring.
Only the most hard-bitten activists show up for primaries or nominating conventions. From the right, they’re hell-bent on protecting laissez faire, open-air gun markets and trade marts on one hand while ensuring that the government dictates women’s most intimate reproductive autonomy decisions on the other. And because of the way partisan reapportionment works in most states, it’s possible to engineer state legislative or US House districts capable of electing Vladimir Putin if he was the Republican nominee.
It all boils down to this: Republicans and their fellow travelers have rarely been forced to own their all-out obstruction of even modest restraints on firearms access and the toll it exacts in blood and funerals.
There are a few exceptions, including a notable one in Virginia.
In 2019, Republicans ruled the General Assembly and had a fighting chance to hold their lock on legislative power that fall as Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam fought for his political life after a photo of two men – one in blackface and the other in a Klan robe – was found on his medical school yearbook page.
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It changed when a heavily armed malcontent entered the Virginia Beach Municipal Center and killed a dozen people before police officers put him out of his misery. In one of the best pivots in Virginia politics, Northam and his party shifted the narrative to the fresh carnage. He smartly put GOP gun-lobby acolytes who ruled the Senate and House of Delegates on the record in opposition by calling the General Assembly into a special summer session to consider tightening gun laws. Playing to their base, the Republicans summarily adjourned the session less than an hour after it convened, taking no action. In November, voters gave Democrats majorities in both chambers.
In the subsequent two years of Democratic rule, the commonwealth passed several gun-control bills. That included restoring a Gov. Doug Wilder-era limit of one handgun purchase per month, universal background checks on gun buyers, a mandatory 48-hour window for owners to report stolen or lost guns, a “red-flag” law giving police the power to temporarily seize guns from people deemed a threat and penalizing people who recklessly leave loaded guns in the reach of a child.
One law that eluded the Democrats’ brief season of gun reforms was a ban on the sale of assault-style semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity magazines – exactly the sort of weapon used in this month’s mass murders in Buffalo and Uvalde. After passage in the House of Delegates, four moderate Democratic senators concerned about codifying in law what constitutes an assault rifle and the prospect of criminalizing widely owned weapons sided with Republicans to sink the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2020.
In all the world, only the United States permits such universal, unfettered and indiscriminate access to firearms and the horrifying scale of death and desolation that results from it. It’s not a problem that’s beyond a solution.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by 19 foreign terrorists who commandeered jetliners and used them to kill 3,000 innocent Americans in Manhattan, the Pentagon and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, Congress quickly passed tough and effective legislation that, 21 years on, has prevented a repeat of such an act of war.
Yet in 2020, there were 45,222 US gun-related deaths. Broken down to an average monthly basis, that exceeded the 9/11 total by 25 percent. Of that total, 97 percent were a form of homicide or the taking of a human life: 24,292, or 54 percent, by suicide; 19,384, or 43 percent, were murder. The rest were either accidental, law-enforcement involved or were of indeterminate circumstances, according to the Pew Research Center.
But Uvalde – and other wholesale executions before it – assures us that until this perpetual cycle of episodic shock and hyperbole followed by official stalling and inaction is disrupted, there will be a next time,
And next timesome of the kids slaughtered by combat weaponry so casually sold to a known monster who left a crimson trail of clues, like so many mass shooters do before they strike, could be yours.
Bob Lewis is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this column first appeared.