It is very difficult to come up with coherent thoughts upon the news of the latest mass shooting in America, in which a shooter walked into an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and fired guns numerous times upon children and adults. Details remain hazy and evolving, but the AP is reporting 27 killed, 18 of them children (update: 20 children have been reported dead), a brief bit of information that says far more than we can react to in any reasonable, objective manner. Instead, there's that familiar swirl into emotional chaos, a sinking heart, the feeling of nausea, this time worse: These were kids. This is a shooting with more deaths than occurred at Columbine. As we grasp for details and logical reactions, what come forth are instead raw emotions. Horror, sadness, disgust. Fear; concern for our own loved ones, desire to protect them. Empathy for those directly affected. Hatred of whatever it is that's gotten us to where we are, and anger that it seems to be a place in which we are stuck, as a society, and not just stuck, but getting worse and worse. In July, following the mass shooting in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater, the Washington Post published an infographic showing the 11 deadliest shootings in the U.S., 5 which happened after 2006. What is wrong with us?
Shootings of various types have happened again and again in the year I've written about news for The Atlantic Wire, and every time there's another (like in Colorado, or more recently, in a Portland mall), we feel, I think, a compounded reaction based on the human helplessness we tend to ignore or deny in most of the rest of our lives, plus a sense of hopelessness about humanity, and our role in that. All other news becomes meaningless. What do we say; what do we do? Some people are evil, perhaps, but how have we helped them to get there, or how have we failed to stop them? And if it's not our fault, who can we blame? Some options: parents, communities, the law, medicine, a society that makes it easy to purchase guns. A society that can't come to terms with even, really, talking about gun control in any reasonable way that doesn't devolve into anger and name-calling and semi-apologies. A society that blames the timing in which we open up these discussions. People who "politicize" such matters, and people who fail to when they should. The shooter himself. The choices are endless and they all get their time in the blame spiral, because it's really hard to know what to do with all of that dark awfulness. But blame doesn't really help us cope, not in the long-term, and it certainly doesn't help us fix things. Just look at the news.
Responding to reports of the Newtown school shooting, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said President Obama is watching the news "as a father" and that there will be a day in which we review the nation's gun control policy, but "today is not that day." So when is the right time to talk about gun control, or about gun violence, or about what caused the deaths of, according to the latest reports, more than 18 kids today? Because we keep putting it off, just getting angry at each other, pushing further into our little corners and defending things we think we know: If we feel that gun ownership laws in this country are part of the problem, we say lax gun control clearly led to this horrific event in a town thought by its residents to be "the safest place in America." If we think people should have the right to own guns with minimal constraints, we say that guns don't kill people, people kill people. And this is why we have to talk—really talk—about gun control: It's not deniable that guns make it easier for people who want to kill people in large numbers to do so. A gun used by the suspect was identified by a law enforcement source as a .223 calibre rifle, and while the NRA has pushed for the end of bans on such weapons, it's hard to imagine a good purpose for the type of gun pictured being legal in any sort of public sphere. It's also undeniable, inherent to their very existence, that guns do make for a shift in any power dynamic: Why would one who defends gun ownership bother to defend his right to own guns unless it did in fact put him in position of control over someone who doesn't have one, or make him "equal" to someone who does? And yet, sure, having stringent gun control laws—or, in a dream world, no guns at all—doesn't mean people won't kill people. It does, however, mean that fewer people will be able to easily acquire guns with which to kill people. How many scenes like today's photo of bawling children being led to safety do we need before we can come together and say that that would be a good thing, that something really does have to change? If we can't fix humanity, if we can't make all people good, can we at least make it harder for people who want to do harm to kill? Can we talk about this without reverting to name-calling and aggression toward each other that a therapist might say stands in for how we feel about this shooter and what he's done? Can we talk about this now? And if we can't, why can't we? Why haven't we already?
Because these things are in some ways just not comprehensible, and because how we get along and do better together is easier said than done, we don't, or we haven't. Our quibbling and failure to change is sickening, though not as sickening as the thought of the crime itself, and maybe that gives us all some sense of control over our internal emotional spirals of fear and pain. Still, when we claim that people are "politicizing" when instead we should mourn (could we perhaps do both?) or that people are being irresponsible by talking about any of it before we have all the facts, we are really just saying one thing. We hurt. We don't know what the hell we're supposed to do about any of this. Kids died; a twentysomething man killed a bunch of kids. Did we let him do this? While we were all fighting and blaming and yelling at each other, and our elected officials, or most of them, were studiously addressing other problems because it's not the right time yet, did we just let another one of these terrible incidents happen?
One thing is sure: Talking about guns, gun violence, and the children and adults we lost today is something every parent and every person who loves anyone else is going to be doing at their own dinner tables tonight, and even before that, throughout the day. We're going to have to talk about this; we're going to have to form coherent thoughts; and we're going to have to stop simply cleaving to our agendas and our selfish little opinions of what we want and what we think we should have—and when "the right time is"—if this is ever going to get any better.
The faces of those kids in the photo that's being used to illustrate this news story tell us we have to do something, soon, because sometimes it really is too late.