If this photograph does not make you think there is something deeply wrong with the US, than nothing will. Those children are not playing a game or goofing around at nap time. They are practicing for what happens should an angry and heavily armed man, and it is almost always a man, decide to go on a shooting rampage in their school. The red things that look like mats are actually a product called the bodyguard blanket that its makers hope will protect children from being murdered. These items are only part of the work schools are doing to avoid being the next Sandy Hook or Columbine. Schools are redesigning facilities to be safer from shooting rampages, practicing lockdown drills and training teachers on what to do in case of a shooting. All of those things are good; none of them make me, or millions of other American parents, stop worrying about something that should be unfathomable.
In late May, following the horrific shootings in Santa Barbara perpetrated by an apparently mentally ill and deeply misogynistic young man, a letter appeared on the Internet. The letter was written to the parents of the victims from Samuel Wurzelbacher. Wurzelbacher, better known as Joe the Plumber, briefly became famous during the 2008 presidential campaign for not liking taxes or Barack Obama.
The letter was an extraordinary brew of mean-spiritedness, cruelty, insensitivity, arrogance and egotism. The most quoted line from that letter, written by a man seemingly incapable of empathy, was "your dead kids don't trump my constitutional rights." That line is painful to read and probably makes many people angry with Joe the Plumber. The extraordinary chutzpah required to write something like that to a total stranger who has just lost a child and does not care about your opinion notwithstanding, the worst thing about that line is that it is essentially the official position of the US government.
The US government, taken as a whole, has decided that the right of unlimited and unrestricted gun, to use Wurzelbacher's word, "trumps" more or less everything else. Our government has chosen to interpret the Second Amendment, an amendment that consists of somewhat vague language, in the most extreme pro-gun way possible. There are some laws that limit gun ownership in some states, but for the most part these laws are either weak or unenforced. The NRA is a very powerful interest group that is able to influence the debate on any legislation effecting gun use, but this is only part of the problem.
The NRA is powerful, but it is not all-powerful. There are many members of Congress who, while probably deft enough not to phrase it quite as nastily as Joe the Plumber did, basically believe that Americans should have an unrestricted right to own guns. Many obviously don't believe this, but almost none of them have summoned the political courage to push for more legislation or to seek to build popular support for that legislation. The president and some in Congress have spoken about the need to regulate guns but with a speech by the president and a crisp hundred-dollar bill, you can still buy a gun in pretty much every state in the US.
We try not to confront the ugly truth that our government, and the US, is still enough of a democracy for that to mean we as a people, prefer the occasional, or not so occasional, shooting up of a school to meaningful gun regulations. We are more committed to being different than almost every other industrialized country in this regard than we are to taking obvious and clear steps to protecting the lives of our children.
The debate, to use that word loosely, around gun regulation frequently devolves into either minor issues like whether or not their should be background checks -- of course there should be -- or things like blaming the mentally ill. Clearly severely mentally ill people should not be allowed to wantonly acquire firearms, but changing that will hardly solve the problem or make guns significantly less widespread.
Currently, our politicians are divided between those who believe in unregulated gun ownership and those who are too scared to challenge them. Both sides are at fault, but change will only come when those politicians who are motivated by fear become more afraid of seeing innocent young people dying than of a primary challenge or strong general election opponent heavily funded by the NRA. Until that happens, it looks like school shootings will remain part of the fabric of American life, and we'll probably start seeing more of those strange red blankets in the schools.
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