Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Guns of Spring

by Timothy Egan
The New York Times
April 8, 2009

Bam, bam, bam. Three dead in Pittsburgh, cops, all of them, murdered by a man with an AK-47 who thought President Obama was going to take away his guns.

Bam, bam, bam, bam. Four dead in Oakland, also police officers, their lives ended by a convict with an assault rifle.

Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. Five dead in Washington State, kids mowed down in a trailer park by their own dad, a wife-abusing coward with a gun.

Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. Thirteen dead in Binghamton, N.Y., immigrants and their teachers slaughtered by a shut-in with a Glock and Beretta. He sent a delusional note, in fractured English but for the sendoff: “And you have a nice day.”

American life in the spring of 2009 is full of hope, peril, and then this: the cancer at the core of our democracy.

In a month of violence gruesome even by our own standards, 57 people have lost their lives in eight mass shootings. The killing grounds include a nursing home, a center for new immigrants, a child’s bedroom. Before that it was a church, a college, a daycare center.

We hear about these sketches of carnage between market updates and basketball scores — and shrug. We’re the frogs slow-boiling in the pot, taking it all in incrementally until we can’t feel a thing. We shrug because that’s the deal, right? That’s the pact we made, the price of Amendment number two to the Constitution, right after freedom of speech.

As a Westerner, I’m sensitive to the argument that when politicians reflexively move to ban guns every after a high-profile slaughter, they often target law-abiding gun owners. Guns in the West are heritage, “a sacred part of being a Montanan and something that we will always fight to protect,” as Senators Jon Tester and Max Baucus, both Democrats from the Big Sky state, wrote in a recent letter to the Justice Department.

But as someone who lost a nephew to gun violence, I can only take these arguments so far. They are not abstractions, one side versus the other. I can’t help seeing faces, parents who no longer have a child to hold, hearts broken, lives destroyed when I hear bam, bam, bam.

A mother and her little girl, gunned down along with eight others in Samson, Ala., last month, were buried in each other’s arms — the still life of that second amendment.

In the aftermath of one of these atrocities, nothing is more chilling than a gun advocate racing before a camera to embrace a lunatic’s right to carry and kill.

If it was peanut butter or pistachio nuts taking down people by the dozens every week, we’d be all over it. Witness the recent recalls. But Glocks and AKs — can’t touch ‘em. So we’re awash in guns: 280 million.

Live with it, gun owners say, and if our murder rate is three times that of the United Kingdom and Canada, five times that of Germany, that’s the deal. The price. For consolation, I guess, there is the fact that the homicide rate has been flat for some time, down from the highs of the 1980s. Still, nearly 17,000 Americans are murdered each year — about 70 percent by guns — and 594,276 lost their lives betweens 1976 and 2005.

The recent twists involve Mexican drug cartels, who get their firepower from American retailers, and the mass killings this spring by shooters who appear to have acquired their weapons legally. Assault rifles figured prominently in the murders of seven police officers.

The Pittsburgh shooter picked up his AK-47 through an online company that passed the sale through to a licensed firearms dealer, as required. He was apparently legal for these guns despite the fact that he’d been booted from the Marines for assaulting his drill sergeant and had a restraining order from his ex-girlfriend.

All a citizen can do is ask for some common sense around the Second Amendment. The assault weapons ban, outlawing 19 military style guns that no hunter with sense of fair play would ever use, should be reinstated. President Bush and Congress let it expire in 2004, even though it was a godsend for police officers and supported by a majority of gun owners.

To the senators who back assault rifles while speaking of the “sacred part of being a Montanan,” you don’t want this kind of heritage. It demeans you as Westerners to allow easy access to weapons that kill innocents, and it does a disservice to history.

Heritage? Old West towns like Dodge City had strict gun control, making people check their weapons at the city doorstep.

And the gun dealers, they should be hammered for selling to drug cartels or through loopholes to convicts. Throw federal racketeering laws at them. Make it as hard for a wife-beater or a felon to get an AK as it is to get a driver’s license.

The rest of us can only mourn and shrug, marking grim anniversaries: Virginia Tech, Columbine, and on, and on, and on.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

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