In a shameful irony, the latest public shooting rampage in America occurred in a place where law enforcement has defiantly decried gun control. Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin has opposed Oregon’s new law expanding background checks to private gun sales. Prior to that, in the heated debate over new gun measures in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre that took the lives of 20 children, Hanlin was one of several Oregon sheriffs who wrote the White House to warn he would not cooperate with federal officials on any new laws he deemed an unconstitutional restriction on the right to bear arms.
Hanlin is cooperating with officials now as they investigate the deadliest shooting in Oregon’s history. A 26-year-old-man with at least three guns stormed onto the campus of Umpqua Community College Thursday and killed nine people and wounded several before being killed by police.
Hanlin did do one laudable thing. He told the media he would not name the shooter, so as to “not give him the credit he probably sought, prior to this horrific and cowardly act.” But that novelty means nothing in the face of his — and America’s — cowardice on guns, no matter how horrific the massacre.
And no matter the number of massacres. From 1982 to 2011, a public mass shooting occurred every 200 days, according to researchers at Harvard and Northeastern universities. But since then, public mass shootings — defined as four or more people being killed in public areas by an assailant largely unknown to victims — now occurs more like every two months. The tragedy in Oregon comes after this summer’s massacre of nine African-Americans in a historically black church by an allegedly racist assailant.
According to the FBI, the number of “active shooter” incidents, defined as “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area,” more than doubled from 6.4 a year in 2000-2006 to 16.4 a year in 2007-2013. Those active-shooter incidents claimed the lives of 468 people and left 557 others wounded.
No other developed nation in the world has this madness. And this does not even touch the everyday insanity of homicides and suicides. In a new CNN compilation, 316,545 Americans died from gun violence from 2004 to 2013, more than 1,000 times the 313 Americans who have died from terrorism, and still 10 times more than the toll of 9/11.
We’ve gone to war in Afghanistan and Iraq fighting terrorism, yet there remains no fight against the deadliest terror we actually face. We allow the NRA and the gun lobby to wield power like developing-country dictators, impoverishing intellectual discourse and celebrating jubilantly at every legislative defeat of gun control as blood flows on streets, campuses, military bases, and in lonely bedrooms where depressed people who might otherwise survive a pill overdose instead put a bullet to the head.
That was driven home to me Thursday when, by coincidence, my wife and I saw “O Beautiful” at Emerson Stage. An intense student production, the play was significantly about right-wing talk shows fueling gun ownership in suburbs despite their relative safety, and how that contributed to the suicide of a bullied teenager who got his hands on a family gun.
That was on my mind when I read President Obama’s response to the Oregon massacre. Reduced to mourner-in-chief by the defeat of universal background checks after Sandy Hook, he rightfully pleaded for Americans to think about the families who have lost children to gun violence and “think about how they can get our government to change these laws, and to save lives, and to let young people grow up.”
When will the we finally allow young people to grow up in a nation with serious gun control? Columbine did not make the nation answer that question. Neither did Virginia Tech or Sandy Hook. Will Umpqua Community College help us think about changing laws, in a county where the sheriff vowed to ignore them? It could, if people like Hanlin come to see their interpretation of the Constitution as a delusion.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.