After another horrific shooting that left at least 19 elementary school students dead in Texas, President Biden asked the right question: “Why? Why are we willing to live with this carnage? Why do we keep letting this happen?”
But Biden ducked the obvious answer: Because Americans value the right to own personal weapons of mass destruction more than they value the right of those 19 children and two adults who were also killed to live — and more than they value the right of those 10 people who were killed at a Buffalo grocery store earlier this month to live. In fact, they value it more than they value the lives of anyone killed by the non-stop gun violence in this country. Not all Americans believe in the right to massacre our fellow citizens — just enough to elect and reelect representatives who reflect that value system in Washington, and will stop any federal measures to limit who can acquire a military-style assault weapon without background checks for mental health issues.
When it comes to values, we live in strange and scary times. Between book bans and attacks on school curriculums from the right and cancel culture from the left, the First Amendment is under attack from all sides of the political spectrum. The Supreme Court is poised to say that because the Constitution does not say anything specifically about a right to abortion, the rights of the unborn take precedence over the rights of the already born.
Meanwhile, the Second Amendment says nothing about the right to own an AR-15 assault rifle. But with help from politicians bought with gazillions in contributions, the gun lobby uses the language of a document that dates back to the 18th century to hold the country hostage. Somehow, the right to own 21st-century weaponry is protected by the vague and confusing wording of the Second Amendment: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” And the right to own a military assault weapon is considered more important than the supposedly inalienable rights granted in the nation’s Declaration of Independence: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
With each mass shooting come the same arguments from the gun lobby and their acolytes, and from people, like me, who believe in regulation, not as a cure but worth whatever reduction in gun violence it might accomplish. I don’t know how anyone can listen to Nicole Hockley, the mother of Dylan Hockley, 6, who was killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., and not believe the country should unite behind her mission to do something to stop another parent from experiencing such pain.
The parents of those killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in 2018 share the same searing loss. But neither they nor survivors like David Hogg, a 2018 graduate of the school, have yet to get the country to move past the trauma-induced outrage on one side, and the other side’s indifference to it. That’s been true since the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, where 12 students and one teacher were killed by two gunmen.
After the Texas elementary school shooting, it was rhetorical business as usual on cable TV, with the usual talking heads making their usual talking points. It was all very predictable, and that includes Biden’s remarks. As The New York Times put it, “The president took direct aim at gun manufacturers and their representatives in Washington. But he made no specific gun control proposals nor called on Congress to vote immediately on legislation.”
Biden did ask: “Where in God’s name is our backbone?”
He rightly seemed to be posing that question to himself, as well as to the rest of us.
Biden is under political attack from all sides. His poll numbers are terrible. He has a job approval rating of 41 percent, and only 16 percent surveyed in the latest Gallup poll are satisfied with the direction of the country. I don’t think that assessment is entirely fair, but it is what it is. Events like the Texas elementary school shooting do nothing to change the feeling that we are staring into an abyss.
But if Americans don’t like the direction of the country, Americans have to change it. What direction will we choose to go? Right now, those who value the right to own assault weapons over a school child’s right to life are running the show. As always, Shakespeare says it best: Noise without action is sound and fury signifying nothing.