My daughter was born on Christmas night, which makes December a busy month for our family. This year she further heightened the drama of her ninth birthday by coming down with the flu on Christmas Eve. Over the next few days, her 103-degree fever segued into earaches and sneezing, and then a throaty, booming cough, which added a festive note—like the sound of someone ripping apart wet cardboard boxes—to the household’s holiday merriment.
And so I found myself at the pharmacy of our local grocery store shortly before New Years, waiting to pick up an antibiotic prescription. Over the years, I must have spent several full days of my parental life at this pharmacy, waiting for eardrops, nosedrops, cough medicines, and all the other potions required to keep my family healthy and relatively mucous- and vomit-free. Sometimes I sit on the self-service blood pressure machine and stare vacantly at the locked glass case of nicotine patches while I wait; sometimes I shop for soup or Kleenex. Sometimes I browse the magazine rack.
This month, I see they have Prevention magazine (“11 Moves for a Flat Belly!”), and Women’s Health, and Arthritis Today. Esquire is there; Bill Murray looks happy on the cover of GQ. Selena Gomez and Kristen Stewart and a scattering of Teen Moms fling their hair across the covers of OK and the Star. And right next to Tiger Beat and the Collector’s Edition of Us Weekly with 6 Huge Posters of One Direction, are the gun magazines: Gun World. Guns & Ammo. Shooting Times. Combat Handguns. Concealed Carry.
I know that glossy magazines are not the best place to look for evidence of our society’s moral superiority. But it seems self-evident that when guns outnumber Kardashians on your newsstand, there’s something very wrong with what you’re selling. I don’t mean the magazines, necessarily. I mean the culture that produces and consumes them.
I’m tempted to find a manager and ask why the store carries so many gun magazines, except that I’m pretty sure I know the answer: Because people buy them. And guns are perfectly legal to own, protected by the Second Amendment, so why shouldn’t the neighborhood grocer, who sells me medicine for my sick children, sell magazines about guns?
Of course, I don’t see any pornography on the newsstand, and that’s also legal, and protected by the First Amendment. And I’d bet cash money that people who shop at my neighborhood grocery store would buy pornographic magazines. But porn isn’t for sale here; I imagine the manager would explain that it doesn’t reflect the store’s family values, or community standards, or whatever you like to call them. Pornography, though it is perfectly legal and extremely popular, is commonly regarded as bad for people—even worse, it would seem, than deadly weapons. The only indication on the magazine rack that guns might be harmful is People magazine’s cover tribute to the 26 victims of the Sandy Hook shooting.
But the juxtaposition of spray-tanned celebrities and dead children and gleaming semi-automatic pistols is a message in itself, and it speaks of a rupture in our social fabric.
Any time we suffer a severe loss or injury, we’re confronted with a universe turned upside down—one in which right and wrong fail to operate as we have always understood them. We have to adjust to the fact—which we normally keep well away from our conscious awareness—that the world is not fair; that life and death are often whimsically decided; that we and our loved ones are not, in the universe’s eyes, all that important.
That knowledge can be agonizing, and incorporating it into our new, post-trauma world view is central to the process of grieving. The realization of our own vulnerability changes everything; it drives some people to despair and others to religion. Yet a tragedy like Sandy Hook confronts us with an even more horrifying revelation: That not only is the universe often uncaring and cruel, but the society we live in—the one we have helped build—is likewise random and callous.
It should not be this way. We know, deep down, that we can’t do much about the arbitrary nature of the universe. Illness and accident and senescence are ultimately beyond our control. Even the existence of violent people—that small fraction of the population who will harm without reason—is something we can understand rationally as a probable outcome of numbers and behavior.
But our society is supposed to be different. It exists for no other reason than to provide some measure of predictability, to shield us collectively from that which is preventable. Our commonly held beliefs, our priorities, and our laws have come into being precisely because our species seeks to reduce tragedy and senseless loss. Humans have invested so much time and energy in this collective project, and accomplished so much through it.
In the light of a tragedy like Sandy Hook, all our efforts to build a decent, stable society seem undone. Why on earth does human civilization exist, if not to keep children safe from sudden death? What is the point of all our civic debate and hallowed freedoms if they privilege a man’s desire to own as many guns as he likes over the right of a six-year-old to come home from kindergarten alive?
The sense of betrayal is staggering. In a civil society, we look to our fellows for mutual strength and protection. And while laws can’t protect us from all the random chance in the universe, they can greatly reduce our risk of random violence and loss. If they don’t, something is fundamentally wrong with the social contract.
Something is wrong when your fellow citizens argue, in broad daylight, with no sense of shame, that the slaughter of young children is a price we must pay for certain intangible freedoms. Something is wrong when politicians propose armed guards in schools as a logical step toward improving our way of life. Something is far wrong when gun manufacturers and the National Rifle Association can valuate our children in the currency of their own bottomless need for power.
When our weapons are more precious than our children, our society is broken, just as surely as something was broken at Penn State, where Jerry Sandusky was enabled to abuse boys for years; or in the Catholic church, where horrific damage to children was covered up for generations, to protect the institution’s authority. I remember very few people standing up for the rights of child molesters during the Sandusky scandal. The Vatican tried that tactic, but gave it up after belatedly realizing that the sexual abuse of children inspires in all decent people a visceral disgust, like our response to cannibalism or incest.
So when did children become an acceptable loss? When did shooting them to death cease to be taboo? Sometime, I guess, during the last few decades, as America was force-fed propaganda, entertainment, marketing campaigns, and legislative initiatives asserting—with no evidence whatever—the goodness of guns. What have those years turned us into? Is this a fine, strong, healthy country that we’re living in? No. It’s a paranoid, hyper-aggressive, violent one; unable to protect its most innocent and vulnerable citizens; bereft of solutions for its most pressing problems.
And so Sandy Hook leaves us outraged and desolate. Is this why we have we paid our taxes, cast our votes, put up with all the petty inconveniences of living with people we don’t always like? Is this the country that men and women have fought and died in wars to preserve? Is our common goal to build a nation where children are protected, or one where firepower is unlimited and profit is maximized? We seem to have reached a point where we must choose one society or the other.
A community where a mentally unbalanced person can easily and legally procure multiple high-powered weapons and ammunition is a very dangerous place. A community whose members will go on record stating that the laws that allowed that to happen don’t need changing is in denial. And a community whose leaders propose armed guards in schools really can’t claim to have functioning leadership. There are better ways to protect against the random nature of the universe than locking children into de facto prisons. There are more civilized responses to mental illness than a state of siege warfare. We can find them.
But in order to implement them, we have to be heard over the shouting of those who value their guns more than their countrymen. And it pains me to say this, because I’m a believer in dialogue, and negotiation, and compromise as ways to reduce violence. But I’ve come to realize, in the aftermath of this latest massacre, that there is no way for me to have a conversation with people who still see no need for restricting access to guns, because they hold values I will never share.
What’s more, it has become painfully evident that many of the superficially sensible arguments in favor of senseless death aren’t even about values, really. Like climate change denial, they are stalling tactics used to divert us from making change. Which is why my New Year’s resolution, and my response to the deaths at Sandy Hook, is this: I will no longer waste my time and energy on those whose only goal is to waste my time and energy. I will work to reduce the availability of guns in this country, and I will not engage with anyone who opposes that work.
I don’t know how you produce a human being who responds to the shooting deaths of twenty children by arguing that we need more, not fewer, guns. If that kind of slaughter doesn’t change their mind, I don’t know what would. And I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t say whether they would respond well to therapy. But in a civic sense, these people represent a damaged part of our system. I think if we want to change things for the better, we’re going to have to route around them.
Part of me hates to give up on them. But this loss is not without its consolations. Because it means that this year, I won’t feel obliged to chase down data to disprove yet another stupid fucking argument about Switzerland. I won’t feel compelled to link for the umpteenth time to the Harvard Public Health Study on defensive uses of the gun that gun advocates won’t read, or can’t understand. It will no longer be my job to point out that John Lott and his research have been discredited by numerous reputable scholars, including the National Academy of Sciences.
I won’t have to waste time bookmarking academically vetted research showing how “stand your ground” laws increase homicides. I don’t have to respond to assertions that if I don’t know the difference between a fully automatic and semi-automatic firearm, I have no grounds to even enter the debate. I won’t have to suffer the arrogance of people who believe their willingness to sacrifice other innocent humans in the cause of freedom somehow makes them noble.
This is a wonderful feeling. And my hope is that it will give me the energy I need to talk to other people, like the manager at the grocery store, and the parents at my kids’ schools, about guns. It will free me up to encourage and thank leaders who stand up to the bullying of the gun lobby. It will let me direct my energy toward making a stronger and safer society, instead of bickering with would-be Rambos.
We can’t change the nature of the universe; we may not even be able to change human nature, much. But we can create meaningful change in the communities where we live. That change, the reassertion of decency, will happen in a million small steps. And the first step I’m taking is to walk away from the gun advocates, before someone gets hurt.