Any untimely death is tragic. “The world,” as Ernest Hemingway wrote in A Farewell to Arms, “kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially.” Most of the 2.5 million Americans who die each year succumb to disease, with heart disease and cancer being the biggest killers, accounting for more than a million deaths. Accidents take about 118,000 lives each year, with poisoning, automobile accidents and falls being the most common. Suicides are responsible for about 37,000 deaths each year. Approximately 14,500 people are murdered every year, roughly two thirds with firearms.
Most deaths go unnoted other than by the immediate families and friends of those who died. For example, in the first eighteen days of July there were 27 homicides in President Obama’s home city of Chicago, none of which made the national news. No matter, the families of those victims grieved every bit as much as the ones did this past Friday in Colorado, but they did it alone. But when an atrocious and senseless killing takes place, as it did at the Century 16 Theater in Aurora, the entire nation responds, drawn by both a ghoulish curiosity yet real compassion to the random but horrific nature of a young man dressed in body armor, carrying an assault rifle and two handguns, firing on innocent and unsuspecting victims.
Out of respect for the victims (and providing relief for the rest of us!), both the President and Mitt Romney temporarily suspended their campaigns. The President traveled to Aurora to visit with survivors and family members of those killed. While politics may have played a role in his trip, I take him at his word that he went, as he said, “…not so much as a President, as I do as a father and a husband.” Mitt Romney was gracious in saying the President’s trip was “the right thing to do.”
The press, for the most part, responded predictably, with calls for a national conversation about gun violence. “Blood on the hands of Obama, Mitt and NRA!”, screamed the lead editorial from the Daily News. “Aurora Massacre Tied To Gun Culture,” was the headline in the Hartford Courant. “We’ve Seen This Movie Before” was the somewhat insensitive headline over Robert Ebert’s piece in the New York Times. New York City’s Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, weighed in: “Maybe it’s time that the two people who want to be President of the United States stand up and tell us what they’re going to do about it.” One presumes the Mayor, when he refers to “it”, is speaking about gun control. But there are no easy answers. If a mentally unstable person decides to kill people, he will find the means and a way of doing so.
Governor John Hickenlooper, in a Sunday interview on NBC asked, rhetorically, the right question: “How are we not able to identify someone like this who’s so deeply, deeply disturbed?” In this case, James Holmes’ mother seemed unsurprised: “You have the right person,” was her alleged and unprompted response when hearing about the killings. The point is not just to identify those who are unstable, but to make sure that the information gets to the proper authorities. But that raises the question as to who is a “proper authority.” One of the advantages of the internet is that it makes access to the kind of information that might prevent such an occurrence simple and quick. A disadvantage is that much of the information may be privileged, as it should be. And, how much freedom are we each willing to surrender in order that we might possibly be safer?
I am not a gun owner. Other than a 200-year old squirrel gun, which is incapable of being fired, I own no weapons. Apart from my time in the U.S. Army – and one other instance when I shot clay pigeons when I was fifteen – I have never fired any type of weapon. I don’t like them. Nevertheless, I am a believer that it is the person, not the weapon that is always at fault when a deliberate, pre-meditated tragedy strikes, as it did early last Friday morning in Colorado.
In 1994, the Clinton Administration passed a ban on Assault Weapons. The ban was lifted in 2004. The number of murders in the U.S. peaked in 1993 at 24,530 and declined to 16,528 in 2003, suggesting the ban may have worked. However, despite the lifting of the ban, the murder rate continued to decline; so that in 2010 there were 14,748 murders; implying that access to assault weapons, as unpleasant and unnecessary as I personally find them, may have little to do with most capital crimes.
In a nation of more than 300 million people there will always be nuts, there will be a few who through anger or inclination choose to kill, and there will be those who will die accidentally. “No man is an island,” wrote John Donne in his poem by that name. “Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.” That is how most of us feel, and it is why so much airtime and ink is devoted to coverage of the event and to seeking answers. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. We can try to draw broad societal lessons from the wanton murder of a dozen people in Colorado, or last year’s killing spree on Norway’s Utoya Island, which left 77 dead, or from the murders at Columbine High School in 1999 that left 13 dead, but I am not sure we can. Fortunately these random, essentially unpredictable events are rare. That fact does not diminish the gut-wrenching pain of the survivors, but it should not deter us from going to the beach, school, the movies, or from functioning normally in our daily lives.
If there is a lesson to be learned, it has more to do with our educational system and the culture in which we live our lives and raise our children. The cause was not the gun. The cause had to do with a demented personality whose insanity was not uncovered or acknowledged until too late. Did he have unreasonably easy access to weapons and ammunition? It seems to me that perhaps he did. But any stripping of or denial of individual rights, granted to each of us under our Constitution, must be considered with great care. Once gone, government will be very reluctant to return them. Count me as a skeptic.
Personally, banning guns would make no difference in my life, unless they also banned duck hunters who flock to the marsh rivers in front of my house each December, often awakening us with their usual futile shooting. But it would represent a deprivation of individual rights, as we know them; and it would not stop a mad man intent on killing.