Our Country, Our Song
In November 2004 my sister wrote a page-one story for The Wall Street Journal about a group of motorcyclists that lobbied state legislatures to turn back helmet laws. They wanted the wind in their hair when they rode, and they rode around the country, lobbying state legislatures, to make it so. Among other things, they argued that helmets were actually less safe in low-impact crashes, but their evidence on this was suspect and anecdotal. Scientific studies proved the opposite.
No matter. They were successful. By the time of the article, several legislatures had already rescinded their state's mandatory motorcycle helmet laws.
In the back-and-forth email exchange with my sister, I wrote the following:
I just like the unspoken critique of our system in your article: if one side lobbies and the other doesn't, then the first side wins. Even if they're lobbying about something that's kind of insane.
I first heard about the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the same way I first heard about the massacre at the movie theater in Aurora, Col., last July: through a posting on Facebook. Same person, I think. Same story, really. I think her post on Aurora even referenced the sameness of it all. Oh crap, this again. Her post yesterday was more charged and horrified. Because it was children in an elementary school. Kids who would never get older than 5 or 6 or 8. Parents who were told their kids were never coming back from school that day.
In the middle of your workday, doing this thing that seems important but isn't, that doesn't matter in the long run—which describes the workday of almost everyone in the world except teachers—you try to touch some aspect of that horrible reality so you don't feel like such an uncaring asshole. It's hard, though. It's impossible, really. There are screens in the way. We're experiencing this through computer screens and TV screens, and some part of us can't get through these screens and some part of us doesn't want to. It's safer where we are, in unreality, sympathizing and empathizing, rather than where they are, where the awful thing has happened. This week's awful thing. So instead we simply feel stunned, numb, guilty, angry. Certainly angry. This is our country, this is our song. We're singing it again. Why?
That's what we eventually get to, after all the lit candles and consoling quotes and angry tweets. Why?
We know why. It's in the above. If one side lobbies and the other doesn't, then the first side wins. Even if they're lobbying about something that's kind of insane.
I'm complicit. I cared about gun control enough that in the 1990s I read Osha Gray Davidon's book “Under Fire: The Nra and the Battle for Gun Control,” which detailed the history of the NRA, and its dramatic shift from a gun-safety group (since the 19th century) to a gun-lobbying organization (beginning in 1978). I read Jill Lepore's article, “Battleground America,” in the New Yorker last year and recommended it to everybody. I saw Michael Moore's documentary. But politics is triage and gun control kept slipping down my list of important issues of the day. We first had to fight George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and Karl Rove and al Qaeda and Grover Norquist and the Koch brothers before we got to Wayne LaPierre. We've got to push back against the idiotic thing that Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly or Richard Mourdock or Todd Akin said that day—and if not them someone else. In the modern age, in the 24-hour news cycle, there's always an idiot flapping their gums and being filmed and broadcast and going viral. You could say that is the essence of the 24-hour news cycle. That's what keeps it going. And keeps us distracted.
This election cycle I actually said the following to a friend: “I don't really care much about gun control right now.” And I didn't. Not with everything else going on. Not if taking that stand prevented everything else that needed to happen from happening.
But if one side lobbies and the other doesn't, the first side wins.
That's all it comes down to. We need to have more people who care passionately about this issue, who are willing to put up money and time, than the other side. It's like same-sex marriage: you fight and you fight and you fight and then suddenly the wave crests with you, not against you. Maybe that will happen with gun control someday. Maybe that's beginning to happen now.
I like what Adam Gopnik wrote on the New Yorker site last night. The whole thing is good but this part in particular:
So let’s state the plain facts one more time, so that they can’t be mistaken: Gun massacres have happened many times in many countries, and in every other country, gun laws have been tightened to reflect the tragedy and the tragic knowledge of its citizens afterward. In every other country, gun massacres have subsequently become rare. In America alone, gun massacres, most often of children, happen with hideous regularity, and they happen with hideous regularity because guns are hideously and regularly available.
The people who fight and lobby and legislate to make guns regularly available are complicit in the murder of those children. They have made a clear moral choice: that the comfort and emotional reassurance they take from the possession of guns, placed in the balance even against the routine murder of innocent children, is of supreme value. Whatever satisfaction gun owners take from their guns—we know for certain that there is no prudential value in them—is more important than children’s lives. Give them credit: life is making moral choices, and that’s a moral choice, clearly made.
FURTHER READING. Feel free to suggest your own in the comments field. I'll add to it periodically:
- “Battleground America: One Nation, Under the Gun” by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker, April 23, 2012
- “Newtown and the Madness of Guns” by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker, December 14, 2012
- Pres. Obama's statement, December 14, 2012
- “In Public Conversation on Guns, a Rhetorical Shift” by Nate Silver in The New York Times, December 14, 2012
- “Nancy Lanza's Guns” by Ben Stocking on the Obamanator site, December 16, 2012
- “How Popular is Gun Control?” by Andrew Sullivan on the Daily Dish, December 17, 2012
- “Obama in Newtown: Ready to Act on Guns?” by Amy Davidson in the New Yorker, December 17, 2012