Those of us at a comfortable distance from the disaster follow the story, obsessively. We cry when we think of those children, when we consider the shattered parents, and all the ruined lives. For a few days, many of us will shake our fists at the gun lobby, those Second Amendment absolutists who value their rights over the lives of unknown innocents, and curse our ineffectual government for sitting on its collective hands and doing nothing.
Then we move on. Not having lost a child or loved one ourselves, we dwell on the tragedy at our leisure and return to our own lives when deadlines and demands resume. We file the horror away and glom on to the next big story, which with any luck will involve celebrities or generals behaving foolishly rather than a psycho shooting up a classroom or mall.
Yet when we tuck these images away -- and who wants to linger over the tiny caskets and personalized teddy bears? -- we become complicit in the national inertia over gun violence. America's attention deficit disorder keeps us from holding on to the outrage long enough to organize and demand change. We are too distracted to stay focused on the hard work that's necessary to press our national leaders to act. Flags in my town remain at half staff, but less than a week after the killings the story has moved off the front page.
We also lack the empathy to take up a cause that hasn't affected us personally. These dreadful massacres will continue to happen, but the odds are in my favor, right? Fingers crossed, and my child, mother, sister, friend, teacher will be out of harm's way when the next maniac strikes. We might binge on the sorrow when the tragedy occurs, but in time we're ready to purge all that sadness and get back to our lives.
Unless we've been victims of gun violence ourselves, that is. Those who've experienced it personally become the spokesmen and women for gun control, because their unbearable loss drives them to take action; their suffering, has it not destroyed them, evolves into a sense of purpose: I don't want anyone else to have to go through what I've been through. Their names are familiar: Sarah Brady, whose husband James was shot in an assassination attempt on President Reagan; Carolyn McCarthy, whose husband was killed and son wounded by a shooter on the Long Island Railroad in 1993; Thomas Mauser, whose son Daniel died at Columbine high school 10 years ago. Expect in time to see a broken Newtown parent join this most wretched of clubs.
Few elected officials have been willing to take on the gun lobby. Only New York's billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg fears no one, and on Monday he surrounded himself with victims of gun violence and issued concrete demands for immediate legislative action: require background checks on all gun sales, including the 40 percent bought privately or at gun shows; resurrect and enforce the expired assault weapons ban; and make gun trafficking a felony offense. Bloomberg spoke for many of us when he addressed the subconscious concern that perhaps this would be too much for our frazzled national leaders, what with the fiscal cliff looming. "If Congress and the president can't focus on two things at once, who on earth did we elect?"
Bloomberg's three-part plan is a start. We might also get behind District Attorney Charles Hynes' recent appeal to create an apolitical national commission on America's gun laws, modeled on the 9/11 Commission, to provide guidance on where to go next. A commission could sort through some of the promising ideas about reducing gun violence that have gained traction since the massacre. Marc Ambinder in The Week, for example, makes the case that regulating bullets might be more effective than going after the 300 million guns already in circulation, because "guns are forever, but ammo degrades." Joe Nocera at The New York Times proposes a regulation modeled on the 1996 Australian law that requires gun buyers to have a character witness before making a purchase. Some evidence suggests that Australia's prohibition on and buy-back of automatic and semi-automatic weapons has cut suicide rates by as much as 74 percent. While examining all the possible partial solutions, the commission could also look closely at our nation's crumbling mental health services, from which several recent shooters have emerged.
No one knows yet what the whole answer is, if there is one. But we know what the answer is not. It is not going back to our ordinary lives, full of petty distractions and political apathy, along with a vague hope that my family and my friends will be spared such violence. Because what about those 26 souls in Newtown who were not? Regular people without personal fortunes or political clout still have the power to organize, volunteer, and vote.
A small photo album sits on my desk full of pictures of my daughter when she was in first grade. Her wise and thoughtful teacher, probably very much like those teachers who protected their charges last Friday, gave it to her to commemorate the year. "I hope these pictures will bring you happy memories of 1st grade," she'd written in gold marker on the inside flap. They do. Now I see my daughter in the faces of the victims, in those happy before shots that are all over the news. My once-little girl in a flowery blue dress is 18, a high school senior with a license, college plans, and career dreams to sort out. The victims in Newtown who lost their futures need the rest of us to pay attention, summon our empathy, and demand from Washington what our gutless leaders have so far failed to deliver.
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