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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

What Is the Point of Talking About Guns in America?

It feels foolish to even ask for change anymore, and yet, we don't have another alternative.

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The United States just saw six mass shootings in four days, and I didn’t want to write a column about gun control because it felt like a waste of time.

I did a phone interview on Sunday with a London radio show about the shooting in Buffalo by a white supremacist, who referenced in his manifesto “replacement theory,” an idea that has been not unpopular in America for centuries and is still utilized by fear-mongering mainstream Republicans—including New York’s own congresswoman, Elise Stefanik—to raise money and galvanize voters. I told the British host that Republicans and their media needed to be held accountable for the violence their speech incites.

She wanted to know: Why was this person who had made known threats of fatal violence allowed to buy guns? I was annoyed at the question. Because it’s America! That is what we do: We allow people to buy guns. The most important thing in this country, always, is one individual American’s right to buy and do whatever the fuck he wants, regardless of how many people might die as a consequence of that “freedom.”

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Years ago, a group of white 6-year-olds were murdered in a mass shooting at an elementary school. If that didn’t change American gun laws, why would the murder of adult/elderly Black people change anything—especially at a time when one of the two dominant parties is comfortable being explicitly racist, and the other one won’t even call them out directly for it?

Yes, I was annoyed at being asked about gun control after a horrific mass shooting two hours from my home. And when my editor on this column suggested I write about the fact that there had just been six mass shootings in the span of four days, I was annoyed then, too. What should I say? Why? What would be the point? We do this every time. Mass shooting. Horror. Nothing. Rinse. Repeat.

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It took longer than I’d like for me to register that what I was really upset about was how the country I live in has conditioned me to feel like not caring is the only sustainable path. That murder—senseless, hateful murder—is something to just be accepted, and if you can’t manage that, then I guess try to ignore it? Ignore that Ruth Whitfield was killed in Buffalo because she stopped to get groceries after visiting her husband in a nursing home, a husband who still doesn’t know she’s dead, or why. Ignore that a doctor gave up his own life to save others in a California church because an aggrieved, entitled man decided he was angry at Taiwanese people. Ignore that in this country, you’re supposed to birth children, hold their tiny fragile bodies as they grow and get stronger, and send them to a school where the best you’ll be promised is that they’ll be taught how to hide in a closet or under a desk in case one of them comes to school with an assault rifle.

It’s embarrassing and infuriating and crushingly disappointing how distinctly American the mentality is that allows mass shootings to persist in this country. We’ve seen it replicated with our national response to covid: Too many people—the most vocal, entitled, angry people—believe that it is fundamentally un-American to make any kind of sacrifice for the safety and well-being of others. Wearing a light face covering might protect your neighbors and your children’s teachers in a pandemic? Too bad! A ban on military-grade assault weapons could prevent people from being senselessly killed in political violence? Nope, we don’t care. In the United States, the most important thing is to be able to do what I personally want, have what I want, and buy what I want whenever I want, and fuck anyone who says I should think for a minute about whom what I want might harm.

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God forbid Americans be asked to engage in a community-minded form of politics. A collective politics, a politics that seeks healing and connection and repair and rootedness. Why can’t that be American?

We need do something good. Something brave. Something aggressive and maybe unpopular with the noxious vocal minority but desperately needed by those who we keep telling can rely on us. As Democrats are unable to get anything substantive done legislatively right now without nuking the filibuster, POLITICO laid out three small things the Biden administration could do on its own that are better than nothing (and which 127 Democrats in Congress have specifically asked them to do):

— Issue new executive orders on federal gun licensing requirements and create a centralized task force to address gun violence.

— And name a new nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

— Finalize a regulation to crack down on so-called ghost guns before Democrats potentially lose control of Congress.

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No, I don’t really think the Biden administration or anyone in power is going to step up and do anything here, much less something bold or beautiful or brave. But still: What is engaging discursively in an honest politics of community and care in America if not managing to fantasize, against all available evidence, that people we put in charge of us might one day do one right thing? To give up and stop talking about it is to let them off the hook.

Correction: This piece previously identified the California shooter’s ethnicity as white. He is of Asian descent.