A man entered an elementary school building and went on a violent rampage. By all accounts the young man was mentally unbalanced (though this is not yet confirmed). By the time he was done, 22 children and one adult had been wounded. The man was taken into police custody.
No one died as a result.
If you missed that story, it is probably because that horrific event took place on December 13 in China and was quickly pushed out of the news cycle by another story of a man who entered an elementary school, intent on murder. The school in this case was in Newtown, Conn., where 26, mostly children, are dead. The perpetrator is also among the dead.
Happening as they did within 48 hours of each other, these two episodes make an instructive if grisly compare/contrast exercise. In China the deranged man was 36 years old; in Connecticut he was 20 as far as we know. Both chose to vent their rage on an easy target and on the most vulnerable in society.
The difference, of course, was the weapon each brought to school. In China Min Yingjun slashed children with a knife. In Connecticut Adam Lanza unloaded with a variety of guns. And that, in turn, explains why the parents in China will nurse their injured children back to physical and emotional health while parents in Connecticut will spend the rest of their lives grieving.
These two tragedies remind us of two things. First, Americans are not necessarily any more prone to violence or mental illness than any other people. But more importantly, easy access to guns makes the lethality of our violence staggering in comparison with any other developed country.
That we are a nation awash in guns is not simply an accident of our gun-slinger past. It is the more recent consequence of a concerted campaign by the National Rifle Association to make this country safe for firearms. The NRA has become the most feared lobbying group in Washington for reasons that elude me. The adage used to go that Social Security was the "third rail" in American politics and that no politician would dare touch it. Now, some politicians talk blithely about privatizing Social Security and turning it over to investment bankers, but no one has the courage to propose restrictions on guns.
In its relentless campaign to make ours the most heavily-armed nation in the world the NRA has relied on a reasoning that must make George Orwell spin in his grave. More deadly weapons make us all safer! Any restrictions on gun ownership is an assault on our liberty! The NRA's Wayne LaPierre is to the nation's health and safety what Grover Norquist is to its fiscal policy. Both inhabit a "bizarre world" free of empirical data and common sense. In fact, as several studies have demonstrated, gun owners are much more likely to be killed or injured by guns than those of us who don't keep a Glock under the bed.
And while LaPierre has successfully made guns more sacred than apple pie (it seems almost obscene to mention motherhood given how many mothers just lost their children), politicians who kowtow to the NRA have, in turn, appointed and confirmed judges who have expanded the interpretation of the Second Amendment beyond all reason.
As historian Saul Cornell has unarguably demonstrated, the current "standard" model of Second Amendment interpretation that has been upheld in the federal courts is based on a reading of the amendment's history that is incomplete or simply wrong. It was a nice bit of timing that the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the Illinois gun control statute right in between the shooting at an Oregon mall and the massacre in Connecticut.
So let's just be clear: In 2009, over 15,000 Americans were murdered, roughly 40 every day. Sixty percent of those -- more than 9,000 -- were killed with guns. For comparison, in England 39 people were murdered with guns. If the UK had as many people as the U.S. that figure would rise proportionally to 195. Those aren't typos: 9,100 vs. 195. Soccer hooligans in England punch each other in beer fueled rages; in Philadelphia a man was shot on the subway for wearing a Chicago Bull's gear after arguing with the shooter about a 76'ers game.
The root cause of this kind of violence and the mental illness that often underlies it are complicated and perhaps, in the end, inexplicable. "Guns don't kill people," read the NRA bumper-stickers years ago, "people do." But it is unarguable that people with easy, almost unlimited, access to guns are able to kill people a lot more easily than people who can't buy guns by the shopping-cart load at the local big box.
I entertain no illusions that even these murdered children will prompt craven politicians finally to address our epidemic of gun violence any more than Aurora or Virginia Tech or Columbine did. And if I'm correct that our anger and sorrow about Newtown will pass without changing our political debate about guns, then it will force us to confront this: The NRA has not simply succeeded in making easier to buy a gun than it is to vote in many states, it has successfully made us all indifferent to the killing.