I have been on the sidelines of quite a number of handgun deaths in my life. Thank God, I haven’t really been in the crossfire, nor has any member of my family. But gun violence has come close enough to me to be very unsettling.
In the late 1980s, when I was a graduate student in German at Vanderbilt, a German exchange student, Thomas Weser, was gunned down in a parking lot on campus in the very early morning hours. The murder seemed to be a robbery gone wrong. It became a murder because the mugger had a handgun.
On Christmas Eve 1991, I was living in the Belmont Heights section of Nashville, a cozy suburban neighborhood near several university campuses. My kids were very young. We got along well with our neighbors. There were families all around us.
Diagonally across the street from us lived two brothers. They got into an argument in the middle of the night after much alcohol had been drunk. One brother fetched a loaded handgun and killed the other. Without the loaded handgun in the house, this argument would probably have remained a drunken fistfight, maybe a stabbing.
In February of 1997, our family accompanied my wife on a weekend trip to New York City. My wife had to attend an arts conference, and I was left to explore the city with the kids. On Sunday afternoon we wanted to go to the observation deck of the Empire State Building, but we weren’t sure whether we should wait until Mom got finished with her afternoon meeting. We decided that I would go ahead and take the kids up to the top while Barbara was in her session.
After we returned home to Northern Virginia, we learned that a man had opened fire with a handgun on the Empire State Building’s observation deck later that afternoon. Seven people were shot; one was killed, in addition to the gunman, who committed suicide. If we had waited for Barbara, we might well have been there to experience the shooting firsthand. Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani blamed weak gun laws for the rampage.
America’s latest adventure in easily available firearms is, of course, the massacre at Virginia Tech. As I have mentioned, my wife and daughter, who had visited Blacksburg the day before, missed this one by about 18 hours.
The world press paid close attention to this shooting for a long time. It was front-page news in just about all the newspapers of the world for four or five days. As I write this, nine days after the attack, major papers in Germany, Austria, France, and other countries are still reporting the aftermath.
The one thing the world press has emphasized, without exception, is their absolute bafflement at the U.S. gun laws–or lack thereof. We are the laughingstock of the world in this department. People from civilized countries around the world look at the apparent American fascination with guns and cluck in disapproving astonishment. The unifying theme is something like this: how can a great country such as the U.S., the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, continue to allow this to happen?
After all these years and decades, I cannot come up with an answer. The National Rifle Association seems to have our congressional legislators in a deathgrip. One mass murder happens after another, all carried out with handguns or assault rifles, and yet nothing changes.
The morning after the Virginia Tech shootings, I heard Washington Post sports reporter John Feinstein on WTWP. I wish I could find a transcript of his remarks. Essentially what he said was this: when gun owners and gun fans complain about the inconvenience or unfairness of having to register these deadly weapons, he is sick of hearing about it. Since 9/11 we have been subject to a series of ever more humiliating and inconvenient searches of our persons and property at airports. Nobody really complains, because that’s just the way the world is.
Well, the world is also selling deadly handguns on the Internet to psychotic young men, who then commit mass murder. Couldn’t we endure just a little inconvenience to combat such madness?
I am very angry now at our American stupidity. I am angry at the weak will of the majority of Americans who want stronger gun controls, yet who will not raise hell with their congressmen or senators about it. I am embarrassed to have to try to explain to my European friends and colleagues why Americans are still allowed to buy and carry handguns.
The cartoonist Pat Oliphant has captured my sense of befuddlement and rage.