The shooter at the ballpark where congressmen played, who injured several before being killed himself, bought his semi-automatic rifle more easily than high-potency Vitamin D. Certainly it was easier to get than painkillers. You don’t need a prescription to get a gun. All you need is the will, a wallet, and two hands. In fact, you don’t even need two hands: the guns today fire so fast, one will do. You don’t even much need two eyes. You can do all the damage you want with your eyes closed.
I suppose this should be old hat to most of us. It is to me. But something about the shooting on June 14, 2017, at a baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia, that critically wounded two—including Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana—violated my well-built-up defenses and cynicism about violence in America.
I know the statistics—how every two years more Americans are killed by guns than during the entire fourteen years of the Vietnam War. I know the demurrals of the kind offered by President Obama and others after Orlando and Sandy Hook and San Bernardino and Santa Barbara: “Life is tragic.” I learned that on August 2, 1985. That was the day my unhinged sister took the life of our sixty-year-old father and then took her own. So I know life is tragic, and I’ll never not know it, every day of my life.
Prior to this family disaster, I was one acquainted with guns. I hunted birds as a teenager. I shot an M-1 while training to be an Army officer. I lived in Alaska for two years, one in a cabin twelve miles outside Fairbanks with no running water and a roommate who shot snowshoe hares out the front door while cartridges landed in my typewriter. I know what it means to enjoy a thick, juicy moose steak from a friend down the road. My good friend, the writer John Hildebrand, who lives in Wisconsin, has a hunting rifle or two and once kept a pistol in Alaska bear country where the two of us built his cabin. The cabin was later overtaken by the wilderness.
I know nature and the heart of man. And that, untended, unloved, the heart grows dark indeed. But we cannot legislate anger out of existence or legally ban it from the human heart. Nor can we outlaw mental illness. It is part of the mystery of the overwrought human brain—which is one beef I have with the Creator. I have no explanation, not even in my faith, for my sister’s suicide, nor the ten-year schizophrenic torture that preceded it. As Edgar says about his mad master on the heath in King Lear, “Who alone suffers, suffers most i’ th’ mind.”
Nor, finally, can we legislate kindness. Yes, we can and should enforce laws against hate crime, to encourage social, political, racial, and gender justice. But you can’t pass a law making people hold a door for an old lady.
So then what can we do about an angry, mentally unstable, and unkind man shooting up congressmen while they’re fielding grounders? The answer should be painfully clear, even—or perhaps especially—to our money-besotted, deer-in-the-headlights, stupefied political representatives themselves. Get rid of the hardware of rapid-fire death! Otherwise, congressman, you are destroying your own ball game. And our civil life with it.
“Absolutely no one is responsible for this deed except the individual who carried it out,” wrote Charles Lane in the Washington Post the day after the shooting. He is wrong. The fact is, every congressman who has not given this country what the vast majority want—major new controls on the hardware of easy death, and with it the chance for a respite from terror—bears some responsibility for this shooting. And that includes, with terrible irony, Representative Scalise himself, who has been in the forefront of relaxing gun laws—sponsoring a 1999 bill in Louisiana that protected gun manufacturers and gun-store owners from lawsuits, as well as 2011 federal legislation that allows concealed-weapons carriers to cross states lines nationwide. Will Scalise rue the day he earned his A+ rating from the National Rifle Association?
Much was made of the need for more congressional security after the Alexandria shooting, and there was praise of the armed guards who acted to save the scene. But a different, more troubling conclusion can be drawn, though almost no one drew it. The only security guards on site were Scalise’s and they clearly and tragically did not protect him. The simple reason: when a shooter uses a rapid-firing military-style gun, the bullets come too fast. The shooter brought home this basic fact in a matter of moments. In the process he scared a republic where it breathes—at a baseball park, where the elected representatives of our cherished democracy were exposed like children. This was a violation of a sacred American cultural space—from home to the fences—a place of joy and fellowship. We were all shaken, even more than usual.
But is Congress?
I have watched with growing incredulity the violence taking over American life since we lost my sister and my father within seconds on that hot August morning thirty-two-years ago. In the aftermath our family did everything it could to promote saner gun laws. My mother met with her congressman, Rep. Anthony Beilenson of California, who went on to provide a key vote in the 1996 assault-weapons ban. We sued the store that sold my sister the gun, with no evident qualms, while she was in the midst of a visible psychotic episode. Even though the case was thrown out by a judge’s contemptuous and contemptible ruling, the store’s reckless behavior finally caught up with it (a mother pleaded in person with the store not to sell a gun to her suicidal daughter; they did anyway, and the girl killed herself). Now it is mercifully out of business. But other such stores thrive, and guns pass easily through the mails and internet with even less scrutiny. Click on “Gun,” add to cart. Why does this continue to be tolerated?