For decades, lies about gun violence have sustained policies that get many people killed. Tops Fresh Market in Buffalo, New York, and Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, now enter America’s list of mass shootings. It is a list of intense sorrow and shame. And it is a list we too quickly forget.
We are a patriotic nation but profoundly misguided in our security priorities. Last December, the House and the Senate passed the national defense budget of $768 billion for President Joe Biden to sign.
After the horrific 9/11 terrorists attacks that murdered nearly 3,000 of our citizens, America was galvanized to develop the Transportation Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security and went to war in Afghanistan to close down al-Qaida terrorist training grounds and to end the Taliban regime that gave them protection. We waged a war on terror.
According to Department of Justice data, in 2001, America also faced the tragedy and suffering caused by 11,348 firearm homicides. Our homegrown firearm killings that year were more than triple the loss of life on 9/11. And yet almost no attention was paid to that fact, and no national effort was made. The difference? The 9/11 attacks were terrifyingly dramatic. They were a mass death event with airplanes crashing into towers in Manhattan, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. These deaths occurred in tight, localized spots — ground zeros — and in a tight time frame, maybe two hours. It was mostly caught on camera, and the world watched the footage of this compressed horrific event.
So it seems our country cares deeply about our men and women who serve in the military in “harm’s way” — theaters of war such as Afghanistan and Iraq — but seems not to recognize how open-access gun laws force all citizens across our country to walk each day in “harm’s way.” Check the numbers. Our overseas military casualties from the last several years do not come close to the homeland casualties from firearm homicides.
But the suffering of most of America’s families and communities caused by gun violence is unattended by the national media because it occurs in a tragic series of unrelated incidents all across our country and all across the year. Each incident — this holdup gone awry, this local store robbery, this gang shooting, this family argument that got out of hand — is perhaps registered in a local paper or TV news program, but it is really quite boring with the same old sad plotlines. No national news attention is given this steady drumbeat of our society’s tragedy seen week after week and month after month. These little stories of firearm killing don’t make the national conversation.
This is why only big “mass shootings,” defined by the Congressional Research Service as the shooting of four or more people, garners special attention. If it has the extra drama of a shooting at an elementary school or a high school, the press is all over it.
The National Rifle Association has functioned as a key advertising arm of gun manufacturers that benefit through heightened sales, and the NRA pumps up its money stream of dues-paying membership numbers by its sustained messaging that individuals and families are everywhere threatened by hostile strangers with guns even as “gun-grabbing” liberal politicians want to leave families, schools and communities defenseless.
The NRA solution? Responsible adults should buy guns for protection. Gun sales flourish as gun companies sell guns that get used in violent crimes, and these terrible events spur an arms race as “law-abiding citizens” are encouraged to buy guns for personal and home defense.
The NRA declares that it is a dangerous world and that responsible parents will get a gun to help ensure their family’s safety. Crime data shows, however, that in the vast majority of firearm homicides — 66% or so — the perpetrator is a member of the family, a friend or an acquaintance. The gun purchaser may intend to buy it for target practice, home protection or hunting, but children live in the home, and their friends visit, and years later during a fight — often fueled by alcohol — someone may grab the gun for different purposes.
The perpetrators of our recent mass shootings, like most of these horrible cases, were “law-abiding citizens” until they weren’t. And by then, it is too late. In NRA-speak: “An armed society is a polite society.” No! It is just an anxious, violent and profoundly grieving society.
If homeland defense and national security mean anything, why aren’t we banning assault weapons and weapons with big clips that are so regularly being used to kill our citizens? Why aren’t all police departments going on strike to pressure our nation to keep their lives safer by banning the sale of assault rifles and handguns with large clips?
Guns may be described by the military as “light arms,” but when they are spread across American society in high numbers, do they not constitute weapons of mass destruction?
William French is an associate professor of theology at Loyola University Chicago with an emphasis on environmental sustainability, global security, environmental ethics, and war and peace studies.