When President Obama addressed the families and colleagues of victims of the mass shooting at the U.S. Navy Yard in Washington last week, he lamented what he called a sense of "creeping resignation" among Americans toward the epidemic gun violence that has taken so many innocent lives in recent years. "Our hearts are broken again," he said, yet we seem unwilling to do what is necessary to prevent a recurrence of these shocking tragedies — and so, inevitably, they will happen again. "Clearly we care," Mr. Obama said, but "the question is do we care enough" to finally do something about it?
Americans have been arguing over guns and the laws that are supposed to keep them from falling into the wrong hands since at least since 1963, when former President John F. Kennedy was cut down by an assassin's bullet in Dallas, prompting a national outcry over the easy availability of firearms. Kennedy's killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, had purchased the weapon illegally under an assumed name and had it delivered to a post office box he rented for that purpose.
Yet although legislation was introduced in the Senate that same year to ban mail order purchases of firearms, it wasn't until after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968 that such an obviously reasonable restriction on firearms sales was finally signed into law. Since then, the powerful gun lobby represented by the National Rifle Association has worked tirelessly to block or derail any attempt to limit sales of firearms, including the cheap handguns known as "Saturday night specials" and military-style semiautomatic assault rifles with large ammunition magazines that have been used by criminals and the deranged to gun down innocent people across the country.
The NRA and its backers insist on painting every proposed restriction on firearms ownership and purchases as an unconstitutional violation of Americans' civil liberties by an oppressive government, and they have been supported by a conservative Supreme Court that unwisely overturned long-standing precedent in the interpretation of the Second Amendment. And as usual, Congress seems paralyzed in the face of the gun lobby's deep-pocketed supporters. Mr. Obama undoubtedly was correct in his observation that if the deadlock is to be broken, the change will not come from Washington but from citizens across the country telling their representatives that they are fed up with living in the homicide capital of the developed world and sickened by lawmakers' seeming inability to do anything about it.
As the president noted, the murder rate in the U.S. is three times what it is in other advanced countries, and the murder rate with guns is 10 times the rate in those nations. "I do not accept that we cannot find a common sense way to preserve our traditions, including our basic Second Amendment freedoms and the rights of law-abiding gun owners while at the same time reducing the gun violence that unleashed so much mayhem on a regular basis," he said. "There's nothing inevitable about it. It comes about because of decisions we make or fail to make." Yet we continue to make the same decisions we always have made, putting the rights of gun owners and the narrow interests of the gun lobby above every other consideration, including common sense.
There will always be criminals who manage to get their hands on guns, and no law by itself can completely eliminate the possibility that mentally disturbed individuals will wreak havoc on innocent people using weapons they never should have been allowed to possess. But tragedies such as last week's shooting that left 13 people dead and eight injured should be rare and isolated incidents, not the regular occurrences they seem to have become in recent years. We cannot accept them as part of the normal course of life that we are powerless to change. They are not and must never be viewed as simply the price we pay for living in a free society because that would lead us down the road to anarchy.
"Our hearts are broken," the president said. Yet in our grief we must also find the courage and strength to heal the broken system that, against all decency and logic, allows such senseless slaughter to continue. If not for ourselves but for the generations who come after, we can't afford to give up the fight to enact more sensible gun laws aimed at keeping firearms out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them.
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