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War At Home

Bob Herbert

Perhaps the most breathtakingly obscene aspect of American society is our absolute and utter refusal to deal with the murderous gun violence that lays its awful blanket of blood and sorrow across the families of thousands upon thousands of victims each and every year.

On Friday, even the presumed safe harbor of an elementary school in suburban Newtown, Conn., was defiled when the school was invaded by a young man armed with military-style assault weapons. Try to imagine the sudden horror of the six- and seven-year-olds in two first-grade classrooms as the gunman, who had already killed their principal, opened fire on the children themselves. He would kill a total of 26 people, including 20 children, before taking his own life.

How many times will we allow these atrocities to occur before we find the courage and the will to intervene? What is the point of having a self-governing society if we can’t—or won’t—protect kindergarten pupils from the flood-tide of killing set loose by a gun culture that has gone stark raving mad.

There is no way to overstate the horror of gun violence in America. Guns have killed well over a million Americans since Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were murdered in 1968. That includes victims of homicides, suicides and accidental shootings. Nearly 100,000 people are shot in the U.S. every year and more than 30,000 die from their wounds.

Gun violence since 1968 has killed more Americans than all the wars in all of U.S. history combined.

Mass killings occur with the frequency of changes in the weather. All Americans know they might erupt at any time and anywhere—at work, at a mall, in a movie theater, on a college campus, in a kindergarten classroom.

I’ve covered what seems like an endless stream of these shootings, and always with a tightening in the stomach that has something to do with the absurdity of the loss of life and our hapless, cowardly unwillingness to do anything about it.

I remember a cold, rainy Good Friday afternoon in Pittsburgh a few years ago when I encountered a gray-haired 60-year-old woman sitting on a stone step outside a house where a terrible shooting had occurred. A candle flickered beside her. She was reading from a prayer book and smoking a soggy Newport cigarette. Police officers in a squad car a half block away were keeping a close eye on her.

The woman eventually whispered, “I’m the grandmother of the kid who killed those cops.” The police officers she was referring to were named Stephen Mayhle, who had been 29 years old; Paul Sciullo, 37; and Eric Kelly, 41. They had responded to a disturbance at the house and been met by the woman’s grandson, who was 22. He was armed with a variety of weapons, including an AK-47 assault rifle, and he was wearing a bullet-proof vest. The officers had no idea of the horror they were walking into. The young man killed them all.

On the same day that the three cops were murdered, a man in Graham, Wash., named James Harrison shot his five children to death and killed himself.  The children were young: Maxine, 16, Samantha, 14, Jamie, 11, Heather, 8, and James, 7.

On the day before those shootings, a man in Binghamton, N.Y., invaded a civic association and shot 17 people. Thirteen of them died and the gunman killed himself. The public had become so inured to mass shootings by then that the murder of 13 people in one fell swoop wasn’t even considered that big a story. To this day, few people know about that shooting.

Three days after the mass killings in Pittsburgh and Graham, Wash., a man in Priceville, Ala., grabbed a handgun and murdered his wife, their 16-year-old daughter, his sister, and his sister’s 11-year-old son. Then he killed himself.

I could go on but you get the idea. The last time I had even a flicker of hope that we might do something about this insane carnage—that we might try to bring some rational sense of control to the 300 million or so guns in our society—was the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords in January 2011. The congresswoman was badly wounded and six people were killed, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl.

The hope was misplaced. Nothing was done.

On Friday, in an emotional address to the nation, President Obama said, “Our hearts are broken.”

Our hearts should feel broken every day. A few days after the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, in which 32 people were killed, I had lunch with Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund. “We’re losing eight children and teenagers to gun violence every day,” she said. “As far as young people are concerned, we lose the equivalent of the massacre at Virginia Tech about every four days.”

If we were serious about lowering the levels of gun violence, about reducing the insane numbers of deaths, we would take immediate steps to:

  • Register all firearms in the United States.
  • License all gun owners.
  • Require criminal and mental health background checks of all gun purchasers, with no loopholes for gun shows or any other forms of sale.
  • Ban all semi-automatic weapons.

That’s your starting point. Anything short of that is not serious. 

Read How Lax Gun Laws Arm the Mentally Ill