The slayings of five Dallas police officers and the wounding of seven others Thursday night were the most devastating assault on police since 71 officers died in the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
There is a message in that comparison. For while the nation has been fixated on the threat of terrorism returning from abroad, it has been unable to adequately respond to the daily terror at home: the toll of gun-related deaths. There is the daily carnage of criminal, suicidal and accidental shootings and every several months a horrific mass shooting carried out by a deranged gunman armed with a military-style, high-capacity rifle.
The events of last week – two police-involved shootings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota and the Dallas protests over those shootings that ended in the slaughter of police – were deeply colored by race. The officers in the two earlier shootings were white, and the black assailant in Dallas told police he wanted to avenge the police shootings of black men by killing white people, especially white officers.
But what the United States saw last week was not a race war. It was the toll of too many and too powerful guns. The men shot in Louisiana and Minnesota might have been misjudged because they were black, but police fired on them – whether rightly or wrongly – because the men were in possession of guns. Guns are so pervasive in the United States that police rightly fear that any traffic stop or street encounter could involve a confrontation with someone armed. That fear can literally trigger overreactions.
In Dallas, the police were outgunned by a military veteran with an assault rifle. On videos of the incident, the assailant’s rifle booms with staccato firings. It sounds like video from a war-torn city in the Middle East. But it is a great American city with bullets ripping through the ranks of police who were protecting the right to protest, a brutal confrontation between the First Amendment and the Second.
Too much for the NRA
After the massacre in Orlando, Democratic lawmakers staged a sit-in on the floor of the House to demand that Congress finally do something about the open access to guns. Their demand was a common sense one. People suspected of terrorist ties who are banned from boarding commercial airplanes should be banned from buying guns. But even that was too much for servants of the National Rifle Association who run Congress. House Speaker Paul Ryan adjourned the House early rather than address the gun issue.
But the sound of Ryan’s gavel has been drowned out by the sound of gunfire.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch struck the right tone and pointed to the right response Friday.
“We must continue working to build trust between communities and law enforcement. We must continue working to guarantee every person in this country equal justice under the law. And we must take a hard look at the ease with which wrongdoers can get their hands on deadly weapons and the frequency with which they use them.”
The dead have never swayed pro-gun-rights lawmakers before. Even the carnage of 20 dead first-graders couldn’t move them to restrict the type of military-style rifle that was used at Sandy Hook Elementary. Even the tears of anguished Sandy Hook parents in the gallery could not change their votes.
But this time the dead and wounded include officers hit by the worst attack on police since Sept. 11. The nation mobilized then. It should now.