“A Robin Redbreast in a Cage/Puts all Heaven in a Rage,” wrote the poet William Blake. But there is something far more hideous that can put heaven, and all of us, in a greater rage.
It is the murder of children.
After slaying his mother at home, a deranged 20-year-old gunman named Adam Lanza shot 26 people to death in the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Twenty of them were children, sixteen of whom were 6-year-olds and four 7-year-olds. As gruesome details emerge, we ask: Where and how can we vent our rage against this unimaginable atrocity? How could these 20 children, absorbed with alphabets and additions, meet such a fate? One more week of school and, like millions of other schoolchildren, they would have been off for the holidays. Instead, for these families, and indeed for the rest of us, the joyous holidays will be infused with enormous sorrow. The little ones have left a vacuum that nothing in this earth is large enough to fill.
America has always been a gun country and is becoming more so every passing year. Our toddlers grow up with video games that sanitize violence. We send young soldiers (drawn mostly from minorities) to distant and dubious wars to kill nameless and faceless “others.” We wage video wars in foreign countries via drones that wreak devastations among families and tribes but are justified as inevitable collateral damages. We supply three-quarters of the world’s arm trade. Internally, there are at least 200 million guns circulating in a population of 311 million. (Some estimate put the number of guns as high as 300 million, including illegal weapons). Every year, four million new guns enter the market. We are saturated with guns, to the extent that 30,000 Americans are killed by guns every year. Ninety-two per cent of domestic-violence murder-suicides involve guns.
The irony is that sales spike after the kind of mass slaughter that occurred in Connecticut. Gun stores can barely meet demand for firearms. Many Americans fear that since the government will not enact gun control laws, they are on their own against the psychopaths. Others fear that the government is about to take away their rights to own firearms, so they rush to get one. A besieged mentality feeds on itself and gun sales rise exponentially.
It is impossible to detect potential killers and human time bombs. Only a week ago, Jacob Tyler Roberts, 22, armed with a stolen semi-automatic rifle, went on a rampage in a shopping mall in Oregon that left two people dead. “Jake was never the violent type,” Roberts’ ex-girlfriend told the media. “His main goal was to make you laugh, smile, make you feel comfortable.” Jaime Eheler, 26, the gunman’s close friend and roommate, said, “Of everyone in my entire life, if I could put them on a list of how crazy they are, how likely they are to snap, I’d put him at the very bottom. He’d be the very last person.” Eheler added that her friend had a “weird look on his face” when he left their house.
But what alarm can a mere “weird look” set off? After all, it is common among mass killers to mask their murderous rage with preternatural calm. Trying to detect human time bombs before they explode is a futile task.
But there is something we can and must do as a nation: Enforce strict gun control laws. The useless debate about Second Amendment rights has run its pathetic course. The government must step in and make it difficult for people to buy assault rifles and other firearms, particularly without any federal background check. The statistics has been in for over a decade. As the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof pointed out, the “national firearms agreement” of 1996 in Australia that reduced the number of firearms in private hands by one-fifth dramatically reduced the number of mass shootings. “In the 18 years before the law, Australia suffered 13 mass shootings – but not one in the 14 years after the law took full effect. The murder rate with firearms has dropped by more than 40 percent and the suicide rate by more than half.” In neighbouring Canada, “the law requires a 28-day waiting period to buy a handgun, and it imposes a clever safeguard: gun buyers should have the support of two people vouching for them.” As a result, mass murders are rare in Canada.
The dangerous National Rifle Association (NRA) and the gun lobby (should more appropriately be known as the child-killing lobby) who equate gun ownership with masculinity and alpha male are out of control and must be decisively defeated. There is enough support in the country to make it happen. All the arguments that NRA use to propagate its murderous philosophy are blatantly false. NRA claims that mass murders do not happen more often in America than anywhere else. Or that more Americans are protected by guns than killed by them. Or that (and this is the worst) guns don’t kill people, people do. These are outrageous and damning lies.
“We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics,” said President Obama after the Newtown shooting. What exactly does “meaningful action” mean? This type of lawyerly language and platitudes will no longer do. The President does not have to win any more election. He is free from having to bow before powerful lobbies like those sponsored by the NRA. He needs to use the presidential bully pulpit as a moral calling to draft a tough gun control law and present it to Congress for ratification. He can then take his case directly to the American people and convince them that demanding both freedom and firearms in equal measure leads to the kind of unthinkable violence we saw in Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Oregon, and now Connecticut.
It is tempting to conclude that America’s schools, colleges and malls have turned into killing fields. They have not, but neither are they remotely as safe as we have the right to expect and demand. Without a comprehensive gun control law, these places will attain that terrifying distinction sooner than we may think. Does President Obama have the courage to meet this challenge?
Hasan Zillur Rahim is an educator and a technologist working in Silicon Valley. His specializes in advancing education through technology.