[The following is an excerpt from my thesis, which finds poignancy on this day.]
In Newtown, Connecticut, the fourteenth day of December, 2012, dawned like any other: frigid winter air latent with holiday spirit greeted those who awoke with the sun. Students throughout the town prepared for school, willing the day’s passage so the weekend could be just a step away. Around seven hundred young students buttoned their coats, zipped up their boots, and donned their hats, ready for another day at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The peaceful Thursday morning in the picturesque New England town did not last long. Shortly after 9:30 am, when the doors to Sandy Hook Elementary locked, Adam Lanza used an assault rifle to shoot his way into the school. Gunfire echoed through the hallways; teachers ushered students into bathrooms and closets. Lanza focused his ire on two classrooms – one contained kindergartners and the other, first-graders. He shot without discrimination and without regard to the sanctity of life. Twenty students, aged 6 and 7, and six adults died in the massacre, which quickly become one of the bloodiest mass shootings in American history. As follows many acts of such cowardice, Lanza took his own life when law enforcement approached him. In a matter of minutes, a specter had been cast over the peaceful town, one that left deep scars whose pain – though numbed – lasts time indefinite.
Unsurprisingly, the tragedy had a deep impact on the American public. A Quinnipiac University poll taken a month after the shooting found that 92 percent of Americans supported universal background checks for firearm purchases. Ninety-one percent of gun owners also favored that policy (Quinnipiac University 2013). Political scientists often contend that there is no such thing as “public opinion” because viewpoints are fractured or incomplete (owing to weak ideological preferences or a lack of information; Converse 1964). A 92 percent majority, though, represents a strong public will. Lawmakers reflective to the wants the national public ought to have passed legislation expanding the gun background check system.
That opportunity arose with the Manchin-Toomey amendment, bipartisan legislation aimed at closing background check loopholes. With Joe Biden presiding over the Senate and a survivor of the Tucson mass shooting watching from the gallery, 46 Senators voted against invoking cloture. The amendment failed, 54-46, despite having overwhelming public support. In the wake of the second largest mass shooting in American history, the United States Senate acted contrary to the will of the public and opted to make no legislative fixes designed to prevent future calamities.
Post-mass shooting America is defined by inaction. Politicians tweet their thoughts and their prayers; citizens watch, aghast with horror, as the news unfurls. Fear skyrockets. Gun sales and stocks surge in the coming days. No laws ever get passed. In fact, states tend to loosen gun laws in the years after horrendous mass shootings – a perverse act whose logic defies universal physics. It’s a dance, steps known by all, choreographed to absolute perfection. Move in sympathy, rhetorically twirl support and calls to action, leap around the issue, blaming everything from mental health to Islamic radicalization, but always step around the real issues: guns in America.
The politics of fear almost always trumps that of logic. Political leaders tell us that we need more guns to keep ourselves safe; the NRA runs dark ads warning us our liberty is being threatened. They say we need good guys with guns to stop the bad guys with guns. Because what we all need most during a time of complete terror, fear, and panic – to name but a few emotions present during a mass shooting – is more guns and more bullets wielded by (well-meaning but) ill-trained amateurs. Adding killer force to a darkened movie theatre, as in Aurora, does not fix the problem. Arming every teacher in America mocks the idea of school safety. Putting guns in the hands of all in malls, permitting – urging – them to shoot at a suspect when there are hundreds of innocent bystanders around, so easily hit with a stray bullet from an inexperienced marksman. You don’t solve chaos by introducing more disorder to the system. You prevent the chaos from happening in the first place. You do that by restricting access to guns.
It’s now been three years since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. In those three years, mass shootings have become a daily occurrence; we’ve become almost immune to the hashtags, the President’s heartfelt messages, the editorial boards desperately calling for legislative action. And still, we, as a country, continue to do nothing, content to let 300+ million firearms work their way around the country, satisfied with hopes and prayers that one doesn’t fall into the hands of someone committed to violence. We don’t have a solution – we have a “hold your breath and hope the next mass shooting doesn’t happen for a while” approach. It’s insanity – actual insanity – to believe the problem will be fixed after continuing to change no variables in the equation. We’re letting people die because we choose fear over answers.
It’s been three years since 20 young students and 6 Sandy Hook employees saw their lives – brimming with promise, shining with prospects eternal – cut short because of America’s insistence that all have access to deadly force. Their blood, and that of all who have died since, is on our hands because our hands are too scared to write and pass legislation that addresses the root problem: guns.