A real challenge to writing about the horrific, almost unimaginable shooting rampage at Washington Navy Yard is offering an insight, an observation -- even an argument -- that hasn't been offered before about any one of the six other horrific, unimaginable shootings since the Newtown massacre of 20 first-grade children last December.
We can quibble over security procedures at the Navy Yard and Building 197, where Aaron Alexis apparently shot a security guard with the shotgun he brought with him and then took the security guard's weapons. We can question the process that left him with a military security clearance after several run-ins with the law involving guns. We can debate the adequacy of the background checks at the gun store in Lorton, VA where he bought the shotgun. We can argue about insufficient resources to diagnose and treat all the people in this country who suffer with mental health problems.
But none of those address the real problem. Actually, there are three parts to the real problem:
Part 1: There are too damned many guns in America. We have an estimated 310 million privately-owned firearms in a country with a total population of approximately 315 million. That works out to something like 94 weapons for every 100 Americans.
What in the heck do we need with all those guns? I don't have anything against guns per se. I'm an army brat. I grew up around weapons and armed people. I'm a combat veteran and I've used firearms to try to stay alive. I've hunted and shot at targets, but at this point in my life, I'm pretty much indifferent to guns.
What's scarier than guns to me are some of the people who are fascinated by them. A gun is a tool. By itself, it can't do a thing. So folks who attach transcendent, nearly-spiritual qualities to guns -- "Guns made America free," "Guns make us safe." "Guns are part of our heritage." "The right to bear arms is the most sacred freedom in the Constitution" -- most of them need to find another pastime, or perhaps a little counseling.
Part 2: It's too easy for people who have no business getting their hands on firearms to get their hands on firearms. I'm referring to fugitives from justice, indicted or convicted felons, or people with diagnosed mental disorders.
The best research available tells us about 60 percent of gun sales are in stores or businesses that are required to run federal background checks on gun buyers. That leaves between 36 and 40 percent of firearm purchases at gun shows, online or from individuals; not subject to background checks.
Among the National Rifle Association talking points are that background checks are totally ineffective because criminals and insane people don't follow the law and won't submit to a background check. Therefore, the NRA argues, background checks will only keep law abiding citizens from their constitutional rights.
Turns out the NRA's logic is BS. The facts are that from 1994, when the Brady Gun Safety Act went into effect, through 2010, background checks stopped 2.079 million applications for firearms transfer through licensed firearm dealers. In 2010 alone, about 73,000 applications were denied by the FBI and about 80,000 by state and local agencies. Forty-seven percent of the FBI denials were because of felony convictions or because the applicant was a fugitive from justice; thirty-one percent of the state and local denials were to convicted or indicted felons
That means more than 2 million gun sales to people I'd rather not have firearms were prevented. How that only prevents law abiding citizens from exercising their constitutional rights I do not understand.
Part 3: The third and perhaps must frustrating part of the problem is that all this has been said and discussed and argued and refuted and documented before. Yet nothing has changed. We had this discussion after Virginia Tech. We had it after Tucson. We had it after Seattle. We had it after the Sikh temple shootings in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and we damned sure had it after New Town. Yet nothing has changed.
We had between 88 and 92 percent of the American public agree that expanding background checks to cover gun shows, online and individual gun sales made sense. When was the last time 92 percent of the American people agreed on anything? And with Congress in session and the President of the United States urging passage of legislation to expand background checks; with the families of the murdered children and teachers from New Town going door to door in Congress asking for a yes vote, the United States Senate fell five votes short of approving the legislation. And nothing has changed.
The irony is stunning. We Americans love to see ourselves as "exceptional" -- one of the most advanced, educated, civilized, peace-loving nations on the planet. But when it comes to dealing with a vestige of our wild and rugged colonial and frontier history that way too often makes today's streets and offices and theaters and universities, and even elementary schools, look like the aftermath at the OK Corral, something has to change.