On Sunday night, President Obama spoke at an interfaith service for the victims of the horrific elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn. Not surprisingly, it was a poignant and moving speech, hitting all the right notes:
Here in Newtown, I come to offer the love and prayers of a nation. I am very mindful that mere words cannot match the depths of your sorrow, nor can they heal your wounded hearts. I can only hope it helps for you to know that you're not alone in your grief, that our world, too, has been torn apart, that all across this land of ours, we have wept with you. We've pulled our children tight.
The sad, horrible, tragic fact is that none of what we are witnessing is surprising. Shocking, yes, but not surprising. After all, we know this cycle all too well. It's one of the defining features of modern America. We have a mass shooting. We're sickened as we see it unfold. Then we're saddened as we learn the particulars about the victims. Our politicians somberly express their condolences. Many of them will mention something about how we really have to do something about this. A few will mention the need to examine our gun laws, only to be immediately rebuked and told that this is hardly the time to get "political." The discussion is put off. Services are held. Then the nation moves on, even if the town and the families involved never can. And then we do it all again in a few months. Or weeks.
It's time to finally break this well-worn cycle. And this time we can feel that the public is determined not to follow the bloodstained script.
Our reactions to these tragedies are not a zero-sum equation. Feeling anger doesn't mean we can't also feel sadness and grief. And it's clear that millions of us are furious that 20 innocent children have been added to the lengthy roll call of victims of gun violence, and of our failure -- actually, our refusal -- to break this cycle.
You could see this anger in the reaction -- especially on Twitter and other social media -- to the Obama administration's first statement on the tragedy. "There is, I am sure -- will be, rather -- a day for discussion of the usual Washington policy debates, but I do not think today is that day," White House spokesman Jay Carney said hours after the shooting, touching the usual base of implying that it somehow dishonors the victims to have the temerity to discuss the factors that contributed to their deaths. And note that not only were we not supposed to talk about policy now, but the expectation was that when we did, it would be the "usual Washington policy debate." Again, this wasn't a surprising statement. That's what's usually said. And it usually works. But this time it hasn't. This time the public wants action -- not business as usual in D.C. "I have to wonder if Jay Carney is aware of how perfectly he's parroting the NRA's talking points," said Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. "That's exactly what they say after every mass shooting. 'It's not the time.' But the time never comes."
Later on Friday, perhaps reacting to the public demand for action, the White House tepidly went a little further. "As a country we have been through this too many times," the president said in a statement at the White House. "We're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics."
"Meaningful action" -- a wonderfully vague phrase that, in Washington parlance, usually means the exact opposite of what it would appear to mean. The pushback on that flaccid phrase was immediate, as well. "Calling for 'meaningful action' is not enough," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. "We need immediate action. We have heard all the rhetoric before. What we have not seen is leadership -- not from the White House and not from Congress. That must end today. This is a national tragedy and it demands a national response." And the next day, on Meet the Press, Bloomberg hammered home the point again. "It's time for the president to stand up and lead," he said. "His job is not just to be well-meaning. His job is to perform and to protect the American public."
And so on Sunday night, in Newtown, the president stepped up the rhetoric:
We can't tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change... In the coming weeks, I'll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement, to mental health professionals, to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.
But, again, notice the language: "Whatever power this office holds." Well, the presidency holds many clearly delineated powers, but much of the presidency's powers lie in what the office holder chooses to make of it. Let's hope he'll approach this threat -- one that killed almost 32,000 Americans last year alone -- with the same assertiveness.
In his speech, the president asked, "Because what choice do we have? We can't accept events like this as routine."
Actually, we do have another choice -- the choice to do nothing and allow more innocent victims to be sacrificed. In fact, that's the choice the White House has made so far. As Charlie Savage reports in The New York Times, the administration shelved proposals its own Justice Department came up with to improve background checks in the wake of the shooting of then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The proposals included things like making sure agencies reported those listed as mentally incompetent to the FBI, increasing mandatory minimum prison sentences for "straw buyers" who buy guns for those who fail a background check, and requiring private gun dealers to do background checks. As Savage points out, many of the measures could have been done by executive order, but "the proposals were largely filed away without action."
Clearly, the White House did make another choice. Though it would be wrong to accuse the administration of not doing anything. As Buzzfeed's Andrew Kaczynski notes, "during his first year in office President Obama signed into law more repeals of federal gun policies than President George W. Bush did during his eight years in office." As the president himself boasted in an op-ed two months after the Giffords shooting, "my administration has not curtailed the rights of gun owners -- it has expanded them, including allowing people to carry their guns in national parks and wildlife refuges." In the same piece, he also called for "the beginning of a new discussion on how we can keep America safe for all our people."
But an authentic version of that discussion -- not the ersatz one we have after every mass shooting -- would include an honest examination of why so many Americans feel the need to own guns. And why politicians in turn feel the need to brag about expanding access to guns. It's hard to imagine how guns could be any more accessible than they already are. America currently has nearly 300 million guns owned by civilians. And another 4 to 7 million hit the market each year. Here are some other sobering statistics:
• Nearly 100,000 Americans are wounded or killed by guns each year.
• The secondary costs associated with gun violence (judicial, medical, security) are estimated at $100 billion a year.
• Since Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were shot in 1968, more than a million Americans have been killed by guns.
• Children aged 5 to 14 are 13 times more likely to be killed by guns in American than in other industrialized nations.
• Of all children killed by guns in the 23 richest countries, 87 percent are American children.
• There have been five mass shootings since Obama took office, three of them since July.
• And as Nicholas Kristof points out, more Americans get killed by guns every six months than have died in Afghanistan, Iraq, and every terrorist attack in the last 25 years combined.
And, of course, it's just the mass shootings that make the front page. The everyday gun violence that would be national headlines in most countries is just standard local news here. In the shadow of the Newtown shooting, here's what's also happened across our country in the last few days:
• Indiana: A man who owns 47 guns threatened a school.
• Alabama: A gunman wounded three in a hospital and was killed by police.
• California: A man fired 50 shots in a crowded mall parking lot.
• Nevada: A man murdered his wife and then killed himself at a hotel.
• Illinois: One man was killed and two women wounded in separate shootings.
• North Carolina: A man killed his wife and his mother-in-law.
Just another couple of days in America. And these tragedies don't even elicit the usual political platitudes. We just accept them as part of our daily lives.
Despite the carnage, some even claim that more guns are the answer -- that if, say, if we armed the 7 million teachers in America, we'd all somehow be safer. Mother Jones actually looked at 62 -- yes, 62 -- mass shootings in the last 30 years: "In not a single case was the killing stopped by a civilian using a gun." And since 2004, when the assault weapons ban expired, seven of these mass killings involved assault weapons.
Studies cited by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, show that more guns lead to more violence:
"We found that across developed countries, where guns are more available, there are more homicides."
"After controlling for poverty and urbanization, for every age group, people in states with many guns have elevated rates of homicide, particularly firearm homicide."
"We found that states with higher levels of household gun ownership had higher rates of firearm homicide and overall homicide."
And according to the Brady Center, those who own a gun are 4.5 times more likely to be shot in an assault.
Nancy Lanza, the mother of the Newtown shooter, and his first victim, is a case in point. "She prepared for the worst," Marsh Lanza said about why her former sister-in-law owned multiple guns. But, as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, "Nancy Lanza's weapons did not prepare her to defend against the worst, they prepared her to be destroyed by the worst -- along with her neighbors and several small children."
And more lives are going to be destroyed as more and more states make owning and carrying a gun easier. Eight states now allow guns in bars. Louisiana allows them in churches. In Missouri it's legal to carry a gun while you're drunk. In Kansas, you can carry your weapon in K-12 schools. And the day before the Newtown shooting, Michigan's legislature passed a law allowing people to bring guns into schools, classes, dorms, and stadiums.
The standard-issue excuse is that there are always going to be crazy people and stricter gun laws won't prevent them from attacking. But stricter laws will prevent those attacks from being so deadly. The same day as the massacre in Newtown, a man attacked a school in China. Twenty-two children were injured, but none were killed -- because the assailant was armed with a knife, not a gun. As James Fallows writes:
That's the difference between a knife and a gun. Guns don't attack children; psychopaths and sadists do. But guns uniquely allow a psychopath to wreak death and devastation on such a large scale so quickly and easily. America is the only country in which this happens again -- and again and again.
And yet, as Nicholas Kristof points out, we regulate all sorts of things that aren't nearly as deadly as guns. "Why can't we regulate guns as seriously as we do cars?" he asks. "The fundamental reason kids are dying in massacres like this one is not that we have lunatics or criminals -- all countries have them -- but that we suffer from a political failure to regulate guns."
This week, millions of Americans will be traveling to see their loved ones for the holidays. But for 30,000 of them, this will be their last holiday season. We know with a Nate-Silver-level of certainty that 30,000 Americans will not ring in 2014 because they'll be victims of gun violence.
Another certainty: that more and more Americans are ready to reject this grisly status quo. Less certain is whether President Obama will lead the way.
All too often on this issue, he has shown a gift for eloquent rhetoric, but no follow-through with specific "meaningful actions." We all know what actions need to be taken -- starting with a ban on the sale of weapons that are only good for mass murder.
The best way to honor the victims of Newtown is to take a clear-eyed look at everything that led to their slaughter. Especially the fatalistic conventional wisdom that says we'll never be able to prevent this from happening again. And again and again and again and...