One hundred and fifty years after Gettysburg, we are again met on a great battlefield in a nation divided by guns.
Some 50,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died at Gettysburg over three days. But today’s battlefield extends across the nation in a pattern of gun violence without end. Over the years, that has become many Gettysburgs. Nearly 120,000 Americans were murdered with guns in the first decade of this century alone.
We’ve grown numb to a level of gun violence that stuns the world, but a feeling of shock and sorrow pierced the nation just before Christmas when that annual toll came to include 20 children slaughtered in Newtown.
The deaths of those innocents has renewed a call to do something about guns. President Obama both heard and felt the summons. He commissioned Vice President Joe Biden to lead a task force to explore ways to reduce gun violence. Biden will report his group’s recommendations by Tuesday.
Biden is expected to recommend sensible steps. Reinstate a ban on assault rifles. Close the loophole of sales at gun shows that don’t require background checks. Ban high-capacity ammunition clips.
His task force also is likely to call on Hollywood and the video game industry to curb their glorification of gun violence. Finally, the group will press for ways to better help the mentally ill and to prevent them from obtaining guns.
The need for such steps is written in blood not only in Newtown but also in our midst. Last week as the Biden task force weighed what to do about guns, the news in the Triangle included a man shot and possibly paralyzed in a home invasion in Raleigh, a man fatally shot outside a Durham convenience store and a memorial service for a mother and father who were fatally shot in their Wake County home last weekend.
Meanwhile, police arrested a 26-year-old woman in Mount Holly and accused her of shooting at random passing vehicles; a 16-year-old walked into a California high school with a shotgun and shot one student and fired at another before surrendering; and James Holmes, who killed 12 people and injured 70 others at a suburban Denver movie theater, appeared at a court hearing, stirring memories of a slaughter just five months before Adam Lanza forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Many gun-rights advocates say the occurrence of such violence demonstrates the need for guns, not for the regulation of them. They are rallying around the recent case of a Georgia mother who shot a burglar five times as she protected herself and her two children. But no one is proposing taking handguns away from law-abiding citizens.
There are certainly cases in which guns provide protection, but the safety of having ever more and bigger guns is an illusion. The FBI recorded 19.6 million background checks for gun purchases last year, up from 16.5 million in 2011. There are now 88 guns for every 100 Americans. At this rate, we will soon be a nation in which, in per capita terms, everyone will be armed. We know, profoundly, that not everyone will be safe.
It’s discouraging that the nation drawn together by Newtown divides back along old lines when it comes to preventing not only future Newtowns but also the daily loss of life.
The National Rifle Association’s representatives met with the vice president Thursday and immediately took a predictable stand. They wanted no new limits on guns.
“We were disappointed with how little this meeting had to do with keeping our children safe and how much it had to do with an agenda to attack the Second Amendment,” the NRA said in a statement.
So it goes with the NRA. But that’s not the way it should go any longer. The nation has reached a point – the madness has reached a point – at which the NRA should no longer define the debate that, for its members, means having no debate. Biden is ready to push the president. The president is ready to push Congress. This is a national moment. Those who want tighter controls on guns should not let it pass.