Since the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11, the federal government has expended incredible amounts of time, energy and capital on the image of American protection from foreign terrorism. The nation watched on live television as the Twin Towers caught fire and fell to the ground in New York City, and the Bush administration wasted no time in conditioning a chauvinistic fear of the “other” in the national psyche. Regardless of the validity of the narrative we were sold, there is no doubt that those lost lives will carry on in the fabric of the nation’s heart and soul forever.
The American government used the tragedy of 9/11 as a pretext to enter two wars in the course of three years. Our elected officials insisted that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were imperative to ensure our safety. The federal government was going to protect the American people from attacks on their own soil, no matter what the cost.
Let’s talk about American soil. Last week, Chris Harper-Mercer, 26, walked into a classroom building at Umpqua Community College in Oregon and killed nine students, leaving many others seriously injured. It was the 994th mass shooting in the U.S. in three years. After years of government-sanctioned abstract fears of foreign terrorism, it is time to redirect our conversation regarding who the clear and present enemies are to American safety – well-armed homegrown killers.
The official death total on 9/11, the all-time deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil, was 2,996 people. However, another number that stands out even more when talking about modern national safety emergencies is 11,208 – the amount of gun-related homicides in 2013 alone. That is over three and a half times the amount of Americans killed in the World Trade Center attacks fourteen years ago. After 9/11, the government took us to war – twice. And those wars cost American taxpayers approximately four trillion dollars. However, after years of sky-high rates of gun homicides, the American government still refuses to use its nearly unlimited resources to take a real stand against the unregulated gun market in this country. This market has proven to be a far more effective killer of Americans than the Taliban ever has. All the while, our leaders sit idly by and allow the NRA to control the national discourse on gun control legislation, while innocent men, women, and children are murdered daily without a sign of relent.
When we scroll through online images and news articles depicting the atrocities associated with the major shootings of the past decade and a half – Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Newtown, Sandy Hook, et al. – we somehow fail to acknowledge the violent reality of unregulated access to weapons. The process is heart-crushingly cyclical. The “incident,” we’ll call it, consumes social media for two or three weeks, maximum. We mourn. We do our part. We send our “Thoughts and Prayers to the Victims” [sic]. We effectively let ourselves off the hook until the problem returns to its rightful place under the amnesiac carpet, where it will stay for two weeks until a new batch of college students, or movie theater patrons, or church goers, or 20 or so second and third graders are once again led to the slaughterhouse by our collective inaction.
This cycle has repeated itself now 994 times in three years. That is almost one thousand opportunities to fight for justice, to advocate for victims and their families, and to prevent these heinous, inexcusable tragedies from occurring week after week. The problem here is not too much gun control, as many so often like to tell us. The fact of the matter is, gun control empirically just works. Between 1994 and 2014, the Brady Bill blocked more than 2.1 million gun purchases, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That is 343 purchases blocked every day. Convicted felons, fugitives from justice, and domestic abusers made up nearly 70% of firearm purchase applications denied from 1994 to 2010, according to the most recent data available.
Regardless of the irrefutable facts and data from all over our country and planet that indicate gun control is an effective curb to gun violence, that argument is almost overlooking the real point of all of this, the real division that is most disturbing of all. When did compassion for others stop carrying any weight in this country? When did the innocent individuals whose lives were cut short become statistics dehumanized by gridlocked political warfare? President Obama addressed the nation on the eve of the Umpqua shooting. He used the podium to invoke that mass shootings should not – no,cannot – exist in the self-proclaimed Greatest Country on Earth.
“Our thoughts and prayers are not enough,” he said. “They’re not enough.”
And he’s right, they are not. We should feel angry that members of our legislature are so hypocritically fixated on “protecting” unborn fetuses while ignoring the recent death of nine living, breathing Americans. When the issue is finally addressed, it will be met with partisanship and subsequent stagnation that fails to advocate for those who are no longer able to speak for themselves. However, it must be addressed, and it will be addressed, and here is why.
First of all, no Constitutional Amendment is exempt from legal regulation. The freedom of speech granted by the 1st Amendment does not grant you the right to yell “Fire!” in a public movie theater. The 21st Amendment, which ended alcohol prohibitions, does not grant someone the right to drive drunk or sell alcohol to minors. Obtaining a liquor license is an arduous process for reasons of public safety. Providing federal regulations on the 2nd Amendment does not mean that responsible, rational, law-abiding citizens will no longer be able to purchase a weapon to hunt or to have as protection. There is tremendous propaganda circulating around the idea that gun control means that the centralized government is going to overreach and snatch up everyone’s weapons. There is no other word for this besides false. The only purpose of limiting ubiquitous gun access by strengthening laws like the Brady Bill is to prevent mass death from feeling like something we can toss our “T & P” at and be on with our respective days.
Nobody is denying that many of these violent incidences have a strong mental health correlation. However, it is the willful negligence of our elected officials that has allowed this concern to go almost completely untouched. The fact that the GOP is using mental health as a distraction from talking about gun control legislation and simultaneously arguing against background checks is astonishing. The last time a universal background check bill reached the Senate floor was in 2013, following the Sandy Hook massacre, and the bill failed to garner the necessary bipartisan support. There were 46 votes to reject the proposed amendment, and 41 of them were preceded by the letter R.
Limiting access to firearms for individuals that have certain mental illnesses or violent tendencies is for the purpose of safety, not to limit Constitutional rights. James Holmes, the shooter in the 2012 Aurora movie theatre killings, was seeing a psychiatrist for serious mental illness when he purchased the gun he later used to murder 12 people. Jared Loughner, the shooter who killed 6 people in Tucson, AZ in 2009 was forced to drop out of community college one year prior to the incident after his teachers expressed concerns that he posed a threat to the community. John Houser, the gunman who opened fire in a movie theater in Lafayette, LA earlier this year had been ordered by a judge to be admitted into a psychiatric hospital six years ago. Elliot Rodger, the Santa Monica killer, was in psychiatric therapy, medicated for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, but despite this he was able to legally purchase the weapon he later used to kill six people.
However, this evident correlation isn’t news to our elected officials; this relationship has been long understood. Mass shootings won’t feel so commonplace if universal background checks, medical records and psychiatric assessments are required to legally purchase a firearm, otherwise the heart of the issue is being overlooked.
Following the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11, party lines briefly disappeared. Citizens mourned together, bills were passed in a matter of hours, and nobody valued partisan warfare over national allegiance. Two common goals were seemingly intact: advocate for those who were killed, and prevent further atrocities from occurring in the future. How is it that the American government was so willing to go to war for the nation’s safety then, yet so reluctant now to use its immense power to help legislate domestic safety?
It is once again time for that same unity, that same proactivity, and that same decisive inclination so present in 2001. It is our responsibility to speak up for the nine voices at Umpqua Community College that were silenced before their time, and for the thousands of shooting victims who preceded them. It is time to come together, and it is time to demand action, and it is time to stop settling for our Thoughts and Prayers.
The White House,. 2001. Address To A Joint Session Of Congress And The American People. Washington D.C: U.S. Government.
Vanderhart, Dirk, Kirk Johnson, and Julie Turkewitz. 2015. ‘Oregon Shooting At Umpqua College Kills 10, Sheriff Says’. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/02/us/oregon-shooting-umpqua-community-college.html.
Woolf, Nicky. 2015. ‘Oregon College Shooting Is 994Th Mass Gun Attack In US In Three Years’.The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/oct/01/obama-oregon-college-shooting-routine.
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Obama, Barack. 2015. Statement By The President On The Shootings At Umpqua Community College, Roseburg, Oregon. Washington: The White House.
McAuliff, Michael. 2013. ‘Gun Bill Background Check Amendment Fails, Other Key Provisions Follow’. Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/17/background-checks-bill_n_3103341.html.
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Larry, Buchanan, Josh Keller, Richard Oppel, and Daniel Victor. 2015. ‘How They Got Their Guns’.New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/10/03/us/how-mass-shooters-got-their-guns.html.
Yan, Holly, Steve Almasy, and Sara Sidner. 2015. ‘California Shooter Elliot Rodger Thought Plan Was Over In April’. CNN. http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/25/justice/california-shooting-deaths.