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Gun Crazy


“How many more will have to die before we say enough is enough? How many more senseless deaths will have to be counted before we enact meaningful firearms control in this country? How many more of our pastors, rabbis and imams will have to preside over caskets of innocent victims of gun violence because a nation refused to stop the proliferation of these small weapons of mass destruction?”

—Rev. Bob Edgar, General Secretary, National Council of Churches


Fountain Day at UAlbany came and went. No freezing rain this year. No injuries. No drunken carousing—or at least, not much. Just students and beach balls and the spray of 150 fountain jets raining down on them on a sunny April day.

I don’t doubt for an instant that every parent of every one of those students, every administrator and every educator ringing the academic podium breathed a prayer of relief: All had gone well and all was well and there was no tragedy here to mourn.

And so the days move on. The Virginia Tech students returned to their campus on Monday. The flags climb back up to the tops of their flagpoles. The world changes day-by-day, hour-by-hour. We set aside one horror because another one is vying for our attention; the news of our world is so often news of horror. Soon the coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre will slow to a trickle. The speculation about how the mentally-deranged Seung-Hui Cho slipped through the cracks and into the annals of history will fade. Still—we will mourn for a long time. And we will always remember the crime by its chilling numbers:

Thirty-three murdered men and women.

Two guns. One madman.

We would do well to recognize too brutally obvious facts:

The actions of a destructively-violent madman are not predictable.

The actions of a gun are.

Who could have known that Ralph Tortorici, convinced he had a microchip implanted in his penis, would take a room full of UAlbany students hostage and gravely shoot one of them?

Who could have known that John Hinckley, vying for the favors of Jodie Foster, would target the presidential motorcade and shoot President Ronald Reagan and his staff members?

Who could have known that John Schrank, acting on orders he claimed he received from William McKinley in a dream, would shoot Teddy Roosevelt at close range?

Who could have known that Mark Chapman, believing he was Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield, would shoot and kill John Lennon?

Who could have known that John DuPont, convinced Olympic wrestler David Schultz was part of an international conspiracy, would shoot and kill him?

Who could have known that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, fans of Hitler’s ‘final solution’, would shoot and kill 13 people before shooting themselves?

Who could have known that Charles Whitman, an honorably discharged Marine, would fatally stab his mother and his wife, then shoot 43 people from the top of the tower at the University of Texas at Austin, killing 13 of them?

Who could have known these men would do these things? And who can doubt the predictable accuracy and performance of their weapons of choice? It’s the NRA bromide: People kill people. It’s a question of intention.

But guns kill people by design.

Of course, we all know that Seung-Hui Cho bought his guns legally. He bought one in March. Then he had to wait 30 days before buying the second one. Virginia laws let you buy only one gun a month, 12 in a year. (Many food pantries won’t let their hungry clients visit them that often.)

Cho got his ammunition clips on eBay from a gun shop in Idaho.

Of course, it’s true that Cho had already been declared legally mentally ill so he shouldn’t really have been allowed to buy a gun in any state. But Virginia court officials now argue that because Cho required only outpatient treatment, they were not required to submit his information to the federal databases for background checks.

“Our country is the laughingstock on the rest of the planet because of our devotion to unlimited gun rights,” E.J. Dionne wrote in a recent column. “On Thursday [April 19] an Australian newspaper carried the headline: “America, the gun club. . . . Why are our politicians still cowering before the gun lobby after Virginia Tech?”

National Council of Churches general secretary and a former member of Congress, the Rev. Bob Edgar expresses the frustration of many: “Faith leaders have spoken up continually about the epidemic of gun violence in our country. Despite repeated calls from faith and community leaders to Congress and presidents, nothing ever seems to get done to stem the tide.”

In 1999 President Bush, then-governor of Texas, argued against gun-control legislation after the Columbine shootings, reasoning instead that better parenting, not passing laws, was the best way to prevent school shootings.

“I don’t think we ought to be selling guns to people who shouldn’t have them,” he said, memorably, during the 2000 Presidential Wake Forest debate. And a week ago White House spokesperson Dana Perino deflected questions about President Bush’s current thoughts on gun control, stating that the time was not right for such discussion.

“Everyone’s been shaken to the core by this event,” Perino said, “and so I think what we need to do is focus on support of the victims and their families and then also allow the facts of the case to unfold before we talk any more about policies.”

Out of respect to the mourning families of the victims of the largest mass shooting in United States history we should postpone any talk of policy change? To echo the heartbroken sentiment of Shakespeare’s King Lear, “O, that way madness lies.”

And there has already been too much of that.

—Jo Page

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