It was one of those weeks of revolting paradoxes, with mayhem to match.
On Monday the bombs went off at the Boston Marathon, killing three people and wounding 170. Two days later, a different sort of bomb went off when the U.S. Senate voted down the skimpiest of gun control legislation: making background checks universal, banning high-capacity gun magazines, and banning assault weapons, three measures that in no way assaulted the Second Amendment anymore than libel and defamation laws assault the First.
President Obama called it a “shameful day.” Given the week’s context, it was an understatement as dissonant as the celebration that followed the capture of the second alleged Boston bomber was jubilant. But the triumph buried the shame.
In the strictest sense, there’s no connection between the Boston bombing and the Senate votes. One is a matter of terrorism. The other is a matter of gun control. Or gun rights, if you prefer. At least that’s the conventional assumption.
But the two cannot be separated except by deceptive rationales that absolve a gun culture of the bloodletting it tolerates day in and day out while the rarest of terrorist event is treated as a national emergency.
The latest effort to get some gun control legislation passed was the result of December’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school. Under any definition, Adam Lanza, the Newtown murderer, was a terrorist, his attack no less an act of terrorism than that of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian who massacred 77 people in July 2011. That Lanza had no connection to white supremacists or Islamists or Chechen separatists in no way diminishes the terror he inflicted, and that his assault weapon—an AR-15 style rifle—made more efficiently lethal (just as it had been for James Holmes when he killed 12 people in the Aurora, Colo., shooting in July).
But Aurora and Sandy Hook were only extremes of an aberrant norm that falsely evades the definition of terrorism. Let’s review. In the four months since Sandy Hook, at least 3,530 Americans have been killed by firearm. That’s 500 more than died in the 9/11 attacks, and 1,300 more than the total number of American soldiers killed in Afghanistan in 12 years. In Florida alone, at least 226 people have been killed by firearm in that span, including at least 23 children, three more than the number of children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary.
For all that, the Florida Legislature did the U.S. Congress one better. It did not even seriously consider any gun-control legislation, preferring to stick with Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam’s boast, the same week as Sandy Hook, that Florida had logged its millionth concealed weapon permit.
Colleen Conklin, the Flagler County School Board member, seems to think that the Sandy Hook shooting changed the way we think of school security forever, and that that’s one of the reasons local voters may be eager to approve an extra levy in June, since the levy will beef up school security and ensure the presence of armed cops on all campuses. Voters should approve that levy. But if they do, it’ll have very little to do with security: the conversation about gun violence simply hasn’t changed enough to compel any political response. Sandy Hook was a shock, not a shift. The Senate proved it last week. The Florida Legislature has been proving it all spring.
Because if the overwhelming majority of gun owners are responsible (and they are), and the majority of America’s 300 million guns aren’t used in crimes (they aren’t), the problem can be isolated: it’s the criminal. It’s the mentally ill. It’s the lax enforcement of laws. It’s the absence of armed guards in schools. It’s never the guns.
But the rampage carries on. By year’s end, we’ll have another 30,000 to 35,000 deaths by firearm. Many of those, like suicides and accidents, aren’t acts of terrorism. But to consider murder victims and their families—not to mention many of the 60,000-odd people injured by firearms every year—somehow outside the toll of terrorism requires a perverse cleansing of the term. It diminishes the impact of a murder on families and communities while disproportionately heightening the impact of terrorism of the sort we experienced in 2011 or in Boston last week.
Yet the likelihood that any of us will be the victim of an act of terrorism is incalculably remote. The likelihood that we’ll be the victim of gun violence this year is one in 3,000. The odds are grimmer over a lifetime, and grimmest in the South.
Last week’s enduring moral isn’t authorities’ swift and commendable ability to hunt down two amateur terrorists. It’s the shame of a nation that has perverted the meaning of violence. There is the unacceptable kind. That’s “terrorism.” And there is the acceptable kind. That’s the 30 daily murders by gun. The kind the Senate said there’s no need to do anything about. The kind we cannot allow to interfere with gun worship and the NRA’s five-times-a-day call to prayer.