Friday, December 14, 2012

What can we expect?

I returned home about 45 minutes ago from lunch with a friend and found my Twitter and Facebook streams flooded with responses to the Newtown massacre, in which 27 people so far have been confirmed dead - most of them children.

...and just watched President Obama, who seemed to barely hold it together for the five minutes that it took him to express the need for America to support the parents and others in Newtown who have lost loved ones.

In the second presidential debate between President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, held in October, this question was initially addressed to the President, with Mr. Romney having the opportunity to counter: "What has your administration done or plan to do to limit the availability of assault weapons?"

Here's how they answered:

 

The next day, NPR filed a report noting that, contrary to Mr. Romney's assertion, it is "not technically illegal" to have an assault weapon. Which raises the question, "Why not?" Why should anyone who is not active-duty military be allowed to have military-grade weapons?

The interviewee for this piece, Rebecca Metzler of U.S. News and World Report, also said that Mr. Obama's administration has been "absent on this issue."

When accepting the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 2008, Mr. Obama said one of my favorite things ever said by any politician: "the reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than they are for those plagued by gang violence in Cleveland, but don't tell me we can't uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals."

The only way that might be improved is by adding "...and the mentally ill," which he did in answering the debate question. But when he came to the point of answering the question most directly, he mentioned reintroducing a ban on assault weapons - and then went on immediately to talk about other factors behind violence. Mr. Romney then rode that train all the way to Looneyville, and wound up answering a question about assault weapons with a recommendation that parents teach their kids to get married.

The most noteworthy thing about the above clip is that it was unusual for gun control to even come up during the debates. The second most noteworthy thing is that, even in answering a question about it, both candidates very nearly dismissed it.

And we - both the press and the electorate, generally - let them.

The question was not about violence, or a culture of violence. It was about assault weapons. And America's political discourse, and political action, have been soured by the degree to which we allow political figures to avoid answering direct questions.

And here's the thing: the debate came only three months after the Aurora shooting, in which a dozen people were killed in a Colorado movie theater, and when President Obama alluded to it, he seemed to care at a level beyond the political. Likewise, in today's brief statement, he said that America needs to "take meaningful action about this, regardless of politics." And as a parent, he was obviously deeply, deeply shaken. He cares. And who could not?

But...we are not connecting some gigantic and closely-placed dots. Mentally unstable people are using military-grade weapons to kill people, including CHILDREN, by the dozens. Less than four months after Aurora, we elected - and in many cases, re-elected - 535 lawmakers for the country. Did we know where they stand on controlling the sale of military-grade weapons when we voted for them? Did that conversation even happen?

Some folks tried to start it, but did it ever grow beyond a whisper? Does the National Rifle Association really control the people that we elected to such an extent that those Senators and Representatives can't have the conversation?

Or have the media, in reporting on the NRA's influence, bought and propagated a lie? Does the organization's utter failure to prevent President Obama's re-election mean they are a paper tiger - and should we demand that the media treat them as such? 

Either way, what can we expect of the people we put into office? What can we demand of them?

I sat down just to help myself think by writing. Now I feel compelled to ask how everyday citizens can act. Our caring is not enough. Our caring will not prevent one more madman from carrying out one more massacre with a military-grade weapon. Well-crafted laws, well-enforced, will. We just hired 535 lawmakers. How can we get them to craft those laws?

The only answer that comes to my mind is, "By insisting on it, in large numbers, loudly and daily." How should that happen? I don't know. In a web-enabled world, it is easy to petition the White House, and there are already a half-dozen petitions on its website asking for some new action on gun control, plus another petition for declaring a mental health emergency and making a conversation about gun control part of improving the country's mental health.

But a White House petition seems unlikely to affect anyone in Congress. And neither the Senate nor the House of Representatives offer online petitioning on their websites.

I don't know much about politics, but I know this about people: we can expect only whatever we are willing to accept, and no more. We who are not willing to accept more insane tragedies like today's shooting must say so, in large numbers, loudly and daily.

How can we do that?
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