Laslo Boyd: Blood on all our hands

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We have seen this movie before.  The words are so predictable, familiar even before they are uttered.  It’s as if everyone, from shocked survivors to grieving parents to on-the-scene law enforcement officials to the Comforter-in-Chief President, is working from a well-worn script.  There are always a few “never again” comments, some “this time has to be different” pleas as well as “guns don’t kill people” and “it’s really a mental health problem” responses.

And then we wait for the next time, which will come as surely as the rising of the sun, the next mass shooting that will shock and dismay us, but not for long.  The epidemic of gun violence is certainly a public health disaster of the first order.  Sadly, it is the single clearest evidence to the rest of the world of “American exceptionalism.”

Do we, as some Second Amendment extremists have argued, just have to accept the occasional, or even frequent, mass murder as the cost to be paid for the cherished right to bear arms?  Are guns the Holy Grail of our Constitutional system, more important than any other freedom?  Are these killing machines triumphant even in the face of overwhelming evidence that our gun obsession undermines our ability to be a civilized society?

The numbers are staggering but seem to make no difference to our elected officials.  How many school shootings have occurred in 2015?  How many deaths since Newtown, or Virginia Tech, or Columbine?  How do deaths by gun in this country compare to loss of life to actions of terrorists?  How does deadly violence by firearms in the United States compare to that of every other civilized country in the world?

You’ve seen the answers to all those questions frequently and watched as they get updated after each new tragedy.  Last week it was a small town in Oregon.  Will we make it to the publication of this column without another example of the staggering cost of our indifference to human life?  We all know that it won’t be much longer before it happens again.

It’s not even as if we are totally in the dark about how to reduce the level of gun violence.  After a single mass shooting, Australia passed tough and effective laws.  Countries in Western Europe don’t have the carnage that is an accepted fact of life, actually of death, in this country.  And there is clear evidence that States such as Maryland and Connecticut which have tougher gun regulations have less handgun violence.

There is no perfect solution but we do know how to make a difference.  Background checks work.  Waiting periods definitely help.  Eliminating the gun show loophole would prevent purchases without any record.  Improving data systems to reduce the likelihood that people with restraining orders or confirmed mental issues or histories of violence get access to guns is another common sense step.

Banning assault weapons and high capacity magazines would reduce the ability of someone with a weapon to massacre large numbers of victims.  These weapons are good only for killing and maiming.   Constructing obstacles to collecting data on gun violence is proof positive that there are people who are totally indifferent to the deaths that occur on such a regular basis.  Some of them even profit from the manufacture and sale of killing machines.

Yet everything I’ve written up to now is well known and has been argued after every mass shooting.  Rational arguments, facts, statistics, evidence of approaches that work, have had little or no impact.

Tweets and Facebook posts will not make any difference.  Angry speeches by the President have no effect.  Even the heartfelt admonitions of parents who have lost a child in a senseless shooting are not changing the political debate.  A different approach is needed.

This effort requires more obsession, more persistence, more willingness to confront lawmakers than gun control advocates have been willing to show up to now.  Much of the problem is a lack of political will on the part of elected officials.  They need to be shown that there are political consequences for their cowardice. 

I hate to use the comparison, but the dogged efforts of anti-abortion forces, even after multiple Supreme Court decisions legalizing the procedure, is a model that needs to be considered.  Just as they use pictures of fetuses to try to shock legislators, it may be time to surround the offices of Congress with photographs of the victims of handgun violence.

While there have been successful efforts in a few states, the tide has been running the wrong way in many others.  Open carry is now more prevalent.  More college campuses have been forced to allow students to bring guns to campus.  The Federal law on assault weapons was allowed to expire.

As a start, the numerous groups working on gun regulation need to coordinate strategy, share resources, and engage in joint efforts.  Public opinion polls show strong support for background checks and other steps that could make life for Americans safer, but that support has not yet been effectively translated into political action.

President Obama led a failed effort to passed national legislation after Newtown.  Why haven’t there been constant attempts since then?  If House Republicans can try to repeal Obamacare over 50 times, why can’t gun control advocates engage in an ongoing effort to pass meaningful legislation? 

If your answer is that Republicans control both houses of Congress, that answer isn’t good enough.  Political pressure, relentless and ongoing, needs to be applied to Republicans—many of whom have gone over to the Dark Side on this issue--and to Democrats—even the ones who are supporters but who don’t think the time is right.

The time wasn’t right for those students who went to college in Oregon one day last week and will never get a chance to go back.  Being numb or frustrated or even losing over and over again isn’t a good enough reason to stop trying.

Gun violence is eroding the quality of life in the United States.  Failing to confront it is a gigantic moral failing on all our parts.   Let’s stop having the same futile conversation and demonstrate that insanity will not keep winning.


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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.