It’s long past the time for Americans to have a hard conversation about gun control and personal responsibility. Some will say it’s too soon for me to write this, and perhaps it is. There is never a good time for hard conversations.
Twelve people are dead and at least 50 wounded after a gunman burst through an exit door of a suburban Denver movie theater 15 minutes into the midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises”, threw a canister into the crowd filling the theater with smoke and began shooting. The 24 year old alleged shooter was dressed in black with a gas mask and bulletproof vest. His name is James Holmes, and it appears right now that he acted alone; the dreaded “lone wolf” scenario.
The scene outside the movie theater was chaos, with wounded patrons stumbling outside.
There is, as if yet, no word regarding the suspect’s motive. FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt told MSNBC the question is whether the shooter had some “dark trekkie like person’s reality and fantasy or is there a political or religious motivation?” He also made the point that the FBI’s worst fear is the “lone wolf” actor, because if someone chooses to commit an act, if they do it by themselves, they are the hardest to stop or catch in advance.
President Obama responded to the Friday morning shootings with a message of love and unity:
This I think is a day for prayer and reflection. So what I’d ask everybody to do, I’d like us to pause in a moment of silence for the victims of this terrible tragedy, for the people who knew them and loved them, for those who are still struggling to recover, and for all the victims of less publicized acts of violence that plague our communities every single day, so if everybody can just take a moment.
Yes, the President is right, we do need to come together. But must coming together always involve whitewashing the hard questions on the periphery? He also called for reflection, and sometimes reflection is uncomfortable. As we look into our national soul, can we see room for improvement? Do we see areas where we might be contributing to a culture of random violence?
Can we talk about gun control yet?
I don’t mean taking away people’s guns. I mean can we talk about gun control. Can we have a discussion about gun regulations? It doesn’t seem that we can even broker the topic, such is the NRA’s lock on our gun policy. For every 1 person who asks this question, there seem to be 10 knee jerk second amendment defenders who refuse to sift through nuance. Regulation and control isn’t the same thing as taking away. Why exactly do we need access to assault weapons?
Even New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg called for a conversation on gun control. “You know, soothing words are nice, but maybe it’s time that the two people who want to be President of the United States stand up and tell us what they are going to do about it, because this is obviously a problem across the country. There are so many murders with guns every day, it’s just got to stop.”
I acknowledge that the alleged shooter appears to have no criminal history, and so a deeper background check might not have stopped him. But this is no excuse for NRA funded Republicans pushing to get rid of Colorado’s Insta- Check system. He also had access to a variety of guns and ammunition. Police found two Glock pistols, one Remington shotgun, and one AR-15 Type assault weapon in his possession.
I’m not suggesting that gun control could have prevented today’s tragedy. I still want to have the conversation. I want to live in a country where we can have the discussion, freely without being shut down as anti-American because we are asking questions about our current gun policies.
71 people were shot in rapid succession, within a minute to a minute and a half. This would not have been possible with a handgun. One of his weapons was an “AR-15” (a magazine-fed, semi-automatic rifle). In Colorado, not only do you not have to register your guns, it’s prohibited to do so.
That reminds me of another subject it’s way past time America talked about – reckless free speech of public figures. I used that phrase deliberately to provoke the rightful defenders of free speech into auto-responding so we can get that out of the way before I finish my thought. Now, is everyone breathing? Okay. I’m asking why we can’t hold people accountable, even morally, for their reckless use of their free speech – whether that recklessness turns into a tragedy or not. It’s called shame and it has it’s place.
Now, ironically, many people will take the position that I should not dare to speak of the following out of love for others’ free speech and because I shouldn’t “politicize” this tragedy; the argument is that it’s politicizing a tragedy to hold people accountable for their words, but their choice to politicize the fans of a summer movie is free speech. If they hadn’t made that choice, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
While there is no reason to suspect that the Right’s conspiracy theories about the Batman movie contributed to the shooter’s motive, especially in light of the fact that the shooter appears to have been planning this for a long time, it does bring to mind the need to be accountable for our words. Fox News painted Batman fans as Obama thugs and Rush Limbaugh claimed the Batman film was Obama propaganda. But once again, I doubt they will be feeling any shame or second guessing their choice of words or their targets – movie going fans, in this case – who have no political office or affiliation and don’t deserve to be dragged into the paranoid world wherein the pundits of the Right operate.
But more to the point, I am not accusing Fox and Rush of anything except what is already established: they are consistently reckless with their speech. Somehow I am not supposed to say this now. I am supposed to be polite and not point my finger at the elephant in the room, and yet if I don’t say it now, if I wait, tomorrow they’ll tell me it doesn’t matter. They’ll tell me there is no proof that their words lead to actions, in spite of the many recent shooters who were following the mainstream Right’s paranoid rhetoric. When it comes from mainstream outlets on a daily basis, to expect that it does not seep into the culture is absurd.
On tragic days like today I wish America could have a sane conversation about gun regulations and responsible use of free speech by public figures. It seems instead that we’ve moved from targeting political opponents with crosshairs and then a random shooting of same person that also involved innocent people and a child around her, to the verbal targeting of random Americans as having a political side they have not even taken. When later that week, those fans are the victims of a mass shooting, it’s fair to ask if we can be more responsible with our speech.
If I had gone on national TV/radio and vilified fans of NASCAR as all being Romney thugs who were engaging in propaganda for Romney while at the same time pushing Stand Your Ground laws and access to machine guns, and then days later a shooter targeted NASCAR fans, you can bet I would be feeling some horror and shame, deserved or not. It’s called self-reflection and self-examination. It’s time we as a nation had a moment of self-reflection about the direction we’re headed.
I’m not saying Fox or Rush had anything to do with this; that is not the point. The point is, when you choose to vilify random people as thugs, you own those words. If those words come back to haunt you, you own that, too. It’s called personal responsibility for the general tone set in this country. Any human being with a soul who is on record as having vilified the fans of this film would feel bad today, even if their words had nothing to do with tragedy. On this subject, I was buoyed by many Republicans publicly condemning Republican Michelle Bachmann’s recent McCarthy-esque smearing of a well respected public servant, Huma Abedin. Words matter.
So on this day, I ask you if we can’t talk about gun control today, when can we? And if we can’t talk about the importance of taking responsibility for our reckless words, even when they are not the direct cause of a tragedy, when can we?
My heart and thoughts go to the victims and their families, and my hopes are with those critically injured that they make a full recovery, including the 4-month-old baby harmed. And we can’t forget those survivors who may be forever haunted by today’s tragic events. The President is right, we need to come together.
But sometimes we also need to have hard conversations about where we are going and the consequences of our complicit silence in the face of an obvious cultural problem. We have to stop enabling reckless rhetoric and the NRA’s power over our gun policies. We can’t do that if we refuse to look at the factors contributing to who we have become or if we fail to take responsibility for our rhetoric, which is not the same thing as taking responsibility for this shooter’s horrific actions.
In the same vein, the rush to judgment about the shooter’s alleged affiliations and motives are just as dangerous.