September 17, 2013

It's the guns

It's the guns, people - the guns! The guns!!

Judging by the early reactions, a lot of focus will be placed on the mental state of Aaron Alexis, the shooter who mowed down 12 people in a US military facility before police shot and killed him in a running gunfight. Guns don't slaughter people, goes the argument, crazy people do.

Which I think is beside the point: how many rational mass shooters have there ever been in the sad, long history of these sorts of incidents? His mental state notwithstanding, had he not had have access to guns, how many victims would he have been able to claim with, say, a knife? A baseball bat? Bow and arrow? A slingshot?

It's the freaking guns.

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Conservatives, predictably, are howling that the shooting at an armed Navy base in the shadow of the Capitol Dome refutes the argument for gun control -- Washington, DC has some of the strictest gun control laws in the nation (something that irks the GOP-led Congress to no end).  But NPR and others are reporting that Alexis, the shooter, purchased at least one of the three weapons he used in nearby Virginia, a place with such permissive gun laws firearms may as well be sold in vending machines.

It's the same deal in Chicago, where the city itself has clamped down on guns but the criminals who want them simply traipse over the state line to Indiana, or buy them from smugglers. In that city last year, more than 400 people -- most of them African American boys and young men -- died from gun violence, helping push homicide as one of the leading causes of death nationwide for black males ages 15 to 35.

Until we can force people to go through metal detectors at state lines, however, stricter uniform gun laws, nationwide, are the only defense we have against random gun violence and mass shootings.  But flimsy doesn't even begin to describe the national patchwork of laws designed to prevent another Navy Yard. Or Aurora. Or Oak Grove, IL. Or Pearl River, KY.

Authorities have long held my former home, Virginia, responsible for the lion's share of illegal guns available and/or used in crimes along the Eastern Seaboard -- a situation known as the "Iron Pipeline." It's not unusual for police to trace weapons used in gang or drug-related shootings in New York, Philadelphia, Washington and urban points north, south or in between to the gun stores that pepper the Old Dominion's landscape, especially along the I-95 corridor.

It's no surprise things haven't changed: even though Virginia was the site of the worst mass shooting on a college campus and one of the worst mass shootings in American history -- a 2007 incident that cost Virginia Tech, the state's premier land-grant university, dearly in blood and treasure -- the state legislature continues to block sane gun-control laws, pass new pro-gun measures and, without conscience, advance the NRA's insane, perverted agenda of a weapon in every pot.

Not even the blood of 20 first-graders and their teachers could convince them that guns are the problem and not the solution, or loosen the death grip the NRA has on Republican and conservative Democratic lawmakers nationwide.  Indeed, the organization believes that more people carrying concealed weapons is the answer -- NRA President Wayne LaPierre's illogical, mind-blowing and widely discredited argument that "only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun."

There were plenty of good guys with guns at the Navy Yard yesterday; it's an active US military installation with armed checkpoints and plenty of side-armed Marines and sailors still in a wartime posture. A flood of Metro police officers stopped Alexis dead - but not before 12 people were slain, several more were injured and plenty of lead filled the air during his final gunbattle with cops, a situation that could have led to even more bloodshed had bystanders been caught in the crossfire.

If you want to argue that mental illness is the primary factor in mass shootings, ladies and gentlemen, I give you Exhibit A: lawmakers who respond to senseless tragedy not by changing what we know isn't working but by reinforcing the pro-gun laws even though we are already awash in them: 90 guns per 100 people at last count.

It's the freaking guns, people.  It's the guns.

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In Colorado last week, two state legislators who backed tighter gun laws in the wake of the Aurora, CO, movie theater shooting that killed 12 people and wounded 70 a year ago (and 14 years after two suburban Denver high school students mowed down 12 schoolmates and a teacher in what has become pop-culture shorthand for senseless, unprovoked mass shootings) were ousted from the state legislature for doing the right thing.

The lawmakers in question, Colorado Senate President John Morse and state Sen. Angela Giron, both Democrats, had strongly supported stronger, long-overdue gun-control laws in the wake of  Tucson, Aurora and Sandy Hook.  They sided with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's pro-control Mayors Against Gun Violence and reportedly accepted campaign funds from the deep-pocketed mayor for their gun-control positions.

Yet that outrage, in the eyes of the NRA - lawmakers viewing a national tragedy in their home state as an opportunity for progressive change and prevention of death - would not stand. State Republicans, sensing a golden political opportunity, linked arms with the NRA and punished the two Democrats, setting up Morse and Giron for recall votes, the first such elections in state history.

Both Giron and Morse lost their seats, proving the power of NRA spending and propaganda ("They took your guns! Freedom!!") and a polarized electorate that's apathetic on one side. Giren's district is 47 percent registered Democrat, but GOP turnout there reached an estimated 38 percent for the recall.

It's the freaking guns, people.  It's the guns.

*        *       *

Alert: the following scene may be too graphic for younger viewers or those with delicate constitions.

When I was a young reporter on the cop beat in the mid-1980s, when Richmond led the nation in per-capita homicides, I'd usually show up at a crime scene after the body had been hauled away. But late one Friday night, I arrived on a homicide call in the northside -- an especially messy outdoor killing -- before the body had been removed.

It was a grisly scene: body fluids coated the inside of the car in which the victim had been shot, and a fairly large pool of blood had congealed on the street on the passenger side by the curb. The deceased was a young black man, around the same age as I was, from what I could tell.

As I quizzed the night duty lieutenant at the scene for bits of information about the crime, my brain suddenly shifted to something I'd always wondered about: how did the cops get rid of blood on the street after a crime like this?

His answer was simple: "We call the fire department."

As if on cue, a Richmond Fire pumper truck showed up and parked behind the car.  Firemen hooked up a hose to a nearby fire hydrant, turned it on and aimed. Within minutes, the high-pressure spray had washed the macabre puddle down a nearby culvert; by the time I left the scene, there was barely a trace of blood on the asphalt.

Although stomach-churning, it feels like the right analogy here: after each of these incidents, we are shocked and horrified, and vow never again.

In the upcoming days, the Washington Post, the New York Times and countless networks will run heart-wrenching stories of the victims and lives lost, and report on overlooked warning signs and missed opportunities to stop Aaron Alexis before he opened fire on his coworkers one cool fall day in Washington. We'll empathize with loved ones and promise to take action.

Until the NRA shows up with a high-pressure hose filled with money, washing the blood from our collective consciousness.

Until that money convinces us to forget that the Navy Yard shooting has happened before, too many times in too many places.

Until we believe that there's another Aaron Alexis, another Adam Lanza, another James Holmes, another Kip Kinkel, and another Dylan Klebold or Eric Harris at a gun store somewhere in America, listening to the voices in their heads, legally arming themselves for a final bloody assault against innocents, a senseless crime that will shock and horrify us. Again.

It's the freaking guns, people.  It's the guns.

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