On Wednesday, high school students across America staged a walkout to memorialize 17 young people killed by a gunman with an AR-15 — and to demand from Congress gun-control legislation aimed at stemming America’s epidemic of mass slaughter.
They gathered in our capitol and at the scene of tragedies left unaddressed — Parkland, Fla; Newtown, Conn.; Columbine, Colo. Most of the nation found their passion and eloquence profoundly moving. But the NRA dismissed them with a tweet: “I’ll control my own guns, thank you.”
And so I thought back to my senior year in college — 1968 – and wondered yet again if this will ever stop.
My memories now are as intense as was my hope and anger then. The assassination of John F. Kennedy, five years earlier, had been followed by the murder of his brother and Martin Luther King Jr. After Robert Kennedy died, President Lyndon Johnson deplored the 6,500 gunshot deaths we averaged every year. Too many guns, he said, were “bought by the demented, the deranged, the hardened criminal, the addict, and the alcoholic.”
But the implacable opposition of the NRA stymied his efforts to pass meaningful gun-control legislation. Lamented Johnson, “We’ve been through . . . too much anguish to forget so quickly.”
Surely no one who walks through the seemingly endless expanse of Arlington National Cemetery ever forgets it. Beginning with the Revolutionary War, we have sacrificed 1.2 million Americans. In itself, the tragic toll of war is difficult to grasp. But even harder to reckon are the human costs: of husbands, wives, fathers, sons, and daughters; of loss potential and blasted hopes; of kindnesses which will never be; of lives forever shattered. And so we mourn the losses of Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, the wars of our last half-century.
In that same half-century, from the assassinations of King and Robert Kennedy until now, gun deaths by murder, accident, and suicide have claimed over 1.5 million Americans — 300,000 more deaths than all the wars of our history.
Here we can find no nobility, no consolation, no parades or speeches or monuments or national days of remembrance. Nothing but 50 long years of slaughter and sorrow — over five times more deaths every year than when Johnson mourned our forgetfulness — with no end in sight.
Amid the comprehensive moral and intellectual collapse of the GOP, nothing captures its utter bankruptcy more than issue of gun violence.
Republican officeholders claim that gun ownership keeps us safer. But a 2012 study by the Violence Policy Center showed that for every justifiable homicide there were 36 criminal gun deaths. As for domestic violence, a study by researchers at Boston University found that in states where gun ownership is highest, so is the rate of women who are killed by people they know.
Relentlessly, the NRA and GOP deploy the “slippery slope” argument — that any legislation to prevent criminals, terrorists, the unstable, and the abusive from acquiring guns is a step toward confiscation. This marks the absolute bottom of American political discourse — rooted in fear, lies, and hysteria.
After a showy spasm of sympathy following Parkland, Trump and the GOP hid behind the NRA’s proposal for arming teachers.
Do they also believe — to pick another tragic example — that the only protection for the black churchgoers murdered in Charleston would have been bringing guns to their place of worship? Do they ever ask themselves if our society truly is that helpless?
As for the gun used in Parkland, Republicans cite the supposed difficulty of defining an “assault weapon” — without, of course, trying to address the problem. Otherwise they are reduced to insisting that Americans have the right to purchase any gun they want, including military-grade weapons designed for mass killing. But such guns are hardly necessary or even suitable for self-defense; as for hunting, their use on a deer would yield ground venison.
In truth, it hardly matters what Republican officeholders believe. In 2016, the NRA spent over $52.6 million in independent expenditures to influence federal elections. All but $265 went to Republicans, those pious proposers of “thoughts and prayers.” In return, the GOP gives the NRA anything it wants. Donald Trump, a man without conscience, is their exemplar.
Now, heedless of history, America’s youth are calling them out. How many of us will help?Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.