The nation's initial reaction to the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was one of stunned disbelief followed by an abiding grief. For the families, it was more than they could bear, their loss shattering and inexplicable, images of their broken and ravaged faces indelible. Flags were flown at half-staff, and spontaneous memorials filled television screens.
But the overwhelming sadness, while it seemed to ripple across America, a heavy stone dropped in a still pond, was not the only response to Newtown. And the contrast has been stark.
While the grim details of the Sandy Hook shooting emerged, gun owners across America rushed to fill their arsenals, fearful of new restrictions regarding the sale of guns and ammunition. Suddenly high-capacity, 30-round magazines were selling for five times what they sold for pre-Newtown. Gun store shelves stood empty. Requests for background checks increased by almost 60 percent compared with the same period in 2011 as people applied for permits. Sales of assault weapons such as the Bushmaster .223 surged. Gun shows, where such weapons and ammo can be purchased, no questions asked in some states, continued unabated.
And we heard a reaction to Newtown that is even more unsettling and revealing. What was once thought to be a far-right, fringe element has seemingly gone mainstream. A growing number of people, including some in Congress, again expressed support for what is, in truth, a dark narrative — some might call it a surreal fantasy — one that springs from a deep well of paranoia and anger.
Again it became clear that what binds many Second Amendment literalists to one another is the belief that the federal government is a threat to their liberty and its objective is gun confiscation, thereby rendering the guardians of freedom defenseless.
This belief is fundamental to many gun owners and organizations such as the NRA, hence there can be no rational, reasonable debate regarding gun control, or a compromise reached, for the purveyors of this conviction are convinced that they must possess weaponry at least equal to that possessed by the government. And so we find ourselves at an impasse. What seems so self-evident to a majority of Americans — a ban on weapons designed for war — is not self-evident to the NRA.
And there are those who are consumed by an elaborate fantasy involving Armageddon-like armed confrontation, a Hollywood script starring well-armed militias, bunkered in houses or wilderness caves, fighting pitched battles with a tyrannical enemy, an enemy of their own construct.
This baroque ideation is what fuels "patriot" groups." According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, these groups oppose the "new world order" (however that is defined). They engage in elaborate conspiracy theories and advocate or adhere to extreme anti-government doctrines.
Their numbers have escalated since President Obama was first elected, for reasons that have yet to be fully articulated. In 2008, there were 149 such groups. Today there are 1,274 and counting.
And finally comes the reaction by the NRA, including members of Congress, to the comprehensive proposals made by Vice President Biden's task force and ratified by President Obama. Briefly, Biden-Obama call for a reinstatement of the ban on assault rifles; ammunition magazines limited to 10 rounds; mandatory background checks for all gun purchases (closing the gun show loophole); a crackdown on those who lie on permit applications; and a federal ban on gun trafficking (straw purchasers). As well, Congress will be asked to pass a $4 billion measure intended to rehire or retain 15,000 police officers. Research into gun violence by the CDC is proposed while reiterating that it is lawful for health care providers to report threats of violence.
What is immediately striking about the proposals, buttressed by executive orders, is that they are eminently reasonable. Clearly, there is no attempt to overturn or truncate the Second Amendment.
But again the response has been revealing. Immediately, gun owners, and some in Congress, spoke of "impeachment," suggesting that the president has trampled on the Second Amendment and is "acting more like a king than a president." Others have threatened a civil war. And floating in the conspiratorial ether is the belief that the federal government perpetrated Newtown as part of an elaborate plan to confiscate the nation's guns.
One of the children who sent a letter to President Obama regarding Newtown wrote: "I know laws have to be passed by Congress, but I beg you to try very hard."
Indeed. We should all try very hard, for consider the numbers: Eight children and teens die every day, some 2,800 were killed in 2009 and 116,385 since 1979.
The NRA has declared they will "stand and fight" any restrictions on gun ownership. Is this not a fight worth having?
Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.