President Obama brought the good news directly from the hospital bed where young Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords struggles to recover from a madman’s bullet through her brain. It was the most emotionally charged moment among many in the memorial service in Tucson on Wednesday evening. One by one, the President paid eloquent but precise tribute to all the victims of the attempted assassination, and to all the unarmed heroes who risked their lives to stop the killing.
One victim was left unnamed: America’s idea of itself, as an optimistic neighbourly nation of free enterprise with faith in the rule of law, and the openness of its democracy.
It is too painful for a nation traumatised by Tucson to reflect how these virtues have been betrayed once again by the insidious gun culture of America; by the pathetic weakness of laws which allow criminals and madmen to get their hands on real weapons of mass destruction that can fire hundreds of bullets in a minute; by the gun lobby’s intimidation of politicians in vulnerable seats; by the greed of the gunmakers who nowadays prefer to manufacture weapons more suitable for mass murder than for individual defence.
But will America open its eyes?
A law-abiding American citizen is far more likely to die with a bullet in his body than a British citizen. All the comparable Western countries with reasonable gun laws have long had vastly fewer gun homicides. The murder rate per 100,000 people for the US is 5.2. For Australia it is 0.07, for Japan, 0.05, and for the UK 0.06.
The overwhelming response to the tragedy has been to avoid any substantive discussion of such lethal discrepancies. Gun massacres are a sad commonplace of American life. In 2009, in six separate incidents over 23 days, gunmen killed 43 people. The mentally disturbed Seung-Hui-Cho, a student at Virgina Tech in 2007, murdered 32 and wounded 17.
Each of these incidents was followed by long and often rancorous examinations of what should be done to control gun violence. Not this time. At 11am last Monday, the President and First Lady stepped out of the White House in the freezing cold to observe a national minute of silence, heads bowed, hands clasped, eyes closed.
That silence was a fitting symbol of a nation’s sadness, but there has been another truly chilling silence. This time the political establishment and most of the media have essentially shied away from confronting either of the real issues: the profusion of guns and the absence of care for disturbed people who are not declared legally insane.
There has been no insistent demand to know why a crazy young man could acquire a Glock 9mm, a semi-automatic pistol with a 33-round magazine and so easily kill six people, including Arizona’s chief federal judge, and wound 13 bystanders along with Congresswoman Giffords.
All we have been offered is evasion disguised as compassion. Asked if it is time simply to limit magazines to 10 rounds, as they were until 2004, spokesmen for both Democratic and Republican leaders mouth the same bromides.
For the Republicans: “This is as time for the House and all Americans to come together to mourn our losses and pray for those who are recovering, not a time for politics.” For the Democrats: “At this time, the leader’s thoughts are with Congresswoman Giffords and those who were killed and injured.”
Both parties were all too ready for a diversion from this tricky business of murder by gunfire, and one came along handily in remarks by the Pima County Sheriff Clarence W Dupnik who is in charge of the investigation into the 22-year-old shooter Jared Lee Loughner.
He called his state of Arizona “a mecca of bigotry and prejudice”, then suggested that “vitriol” in America’s national political discourse contributed to the shooting. Now there’s something to worry about – adjectives! Not the arsenal of privately owned guns, 250 million of them, nor the correlation observed in state by state studies of the number of guns and the number of homicides.
Left and Right and the Tea Party followers immediately began a competition in finger-pointing.
The New York Times editorial blamed the Right, the Wall Street Journal editorial blamed the Left. Everyone joined in. Cable TV and talk radio loves this kind of circus politics. They poured on the vitriol. Dupnik got a splash of it himself. He’d supported an amended version of the state’s curb on immigrants but that didn’t impress Rush Limbaugh, the hate radio host. He denounced Dupnick as someone who would like to see the shooter go free. Fox’s Bill O’Reilly assured his million viewers the Sheriff was a secret Leftist.
From the Left, Sarah Palin was accused of incitement for having placed cross-hair targets over Democrats she wanted defeated. One of those targeted was Giffords.
It is an ugly scene, but I doubt any direct connection will be found between the vitriol and the shooter. His wild paranoid ramblings are devoid of rational or even irrational thoughts. “None of us” said Obama, “can know exactly what triggered the vicious attack” and he is surely right.
“Christina was given to us on September 11th, 2001. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. In Christina, we see all of our children, so trusting, so energetic, and full of magic.”
Christina Taylor Green, the zestful nine-year-old victim buried on Thursday, had been recently elected to the student council at her elementary school.
Perhaps it is a little early for the classes to explore the meaning of Bill of Rights 2nd amendment to the constitution: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Was it intended to protect the states from overweening federal or foreign power? Or does it give a right for an unregulated individual to carry a gun?
More simply, schools and others could honour her memory by tracking day by day what happens after the profuse expressions of sympathy and prayers for families and the community.
If the past is any guide, they’ll see just how the National Rifle Association (NRA) and their spokesmen in Congress lie low while the shock of the killings is fresh in the public mind.
They’ll note how a 10-year ban on assault weapons was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994 but allowed to lapse in the Bush presidency despite a US Department of Justice study finding that the share of gun crimes involving semi-automatic weapons dropped by 17 per cent to 72 per cent.
Inexorably they will see how persistently the NRA gets away with murder, how it ignores the appeals of the police forces of the country, and frustrates even the mildest of restrictions.
Does it make sense to enable the police to track the source of bullets used in a crime? It does, but the NRA has stopped it. Isn’t it dangerous to allow gun dealers at state fairs and flea markets to sell any number of weapons to anyone – juveniles, criminals, nuts – without any background checks? Yes, but the NRA has been able to keep the loophole.
How do they do it? They scare gun owners that any change in the laws will inevitably lead to an erosion of the 2nd amendment and even its abolition; and they exert every effort to unseat reformist candidates.
The President’s eulogy for the victims of the attempted assassination was altogether his most impressive oration since he was catapulted into the candidacy by his repudiation at the Democratic convention in 2004 of a “red state, blue state” division of America. I expect it will give him a boost in the polls.
Maybe it will give him heart to work now for a restoration of the ban on assault weapons he pledged in 2008. Call it Christina’s Law.