- Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
And the politicians most snugly in the National Rifle Association’s pocket – including President Donald Trump, Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Rick Scott and the state propaganda network that is Fox News – tried desperately to change the subject, to make it not about a troubled 19-year-old legally obtaining a weapon of death that fires up to 45 rounds per minute.
Instead, Trump, who accepted more than $30 million of the NRA’s blood money, said the real problem was mental illness. Rubio, who pocketed more than $3.3 million, the sixth-highest in the entire Congress, said gun control couldn’t have averted this tragedy, using the kind of dim they’ll-just-do-it-anyway logic that makes you wonder why we bother having stop signs. Scott, who has an A-plus rating from the NRA and will speak at its annual meeting in May, demanded the resignation of the FBI director after news broke that agents hadn’t followed up on a tip about shooter Nikolas Cruz. And Fox News (and Rush Limbaugh) took up the predictable-enough mantra that the answer to this sort of violence is to arm teachers to the teeth, because more guns is always a panacea to what ails us.
To cap it all off, in an unhinged weekend tweetstorm, the president signal-boosted a stunningly dumb talking point that the FBI was too focused on Russia to stop the shooter, as if the Miami field office and the bureau’s counterintelligence agents were one and the same. It was a new low even for him, using 17 dead bodies as a flak jacket to shield himself from the ever-intensifying collusion inquiry.
After all, if Trump were so worried about mental health, he wouldn’t have repealed a regulation designed to stop people with mental illness from obtaining weapons. Nor would he be cutting mental health funding. And if Scott were so concerned about accountability, perhaps he might turn his attention to his own Department of Children and Families, which, after an inquiry prompted by Snapchat posts of Cruz cutting his wrists, deemed him a low risk for violence to himself or others; he might also try to fix Florida’s utterly broken mental health system. As for Rubio, he’s always been and always will be a vacuous cipher; there’s no reason to expect him to grow a spine now.
The real issue isn’t mental health (though that’s something we should improve) or school security (MS Douglas had an armed guard). Nor is it the FBI’s apparent screw-up, though that’s certainly something worthy of further investigation. The real problem is the United States’ – and Florida’s – pernicious gun culture. And that needs to be addressed head-on.
Consider this: While the U.S. comprises less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it produces nearly a third of its mass shooters – 90 mass shootings from 1966–2012 (which wouldn’t include Las Vegas, Pulse or Parkland), compared to 18 for the runner-up, the Philippines. And gun-homicide rates are 25 percent higher here than in other high-income countries.
And those facts can directly be linked to this one: The U.S. is No. 1 in the world for gun ownership, with 89 guns per 100 people. The next closest country? Yemen, with 55. In fact, Americans – who, again, comprise less than 5 percent of the world’s population – own nearly half of all civilian-owned guns in the world.
Ours is a country where deranged people can purchase assault rifles with no problem; where mass killers can load up on all the ammo and large-capacity magazines they want and legally buy bump stocks that turn their assault rifles into fully automatic assault rifles, as was done to deadly effect in Las Vegas last year; where handguns can be bought from private sellers with no background check; where even after the Sandy Hook massacre of children in 2012, NRA-beholden Republicans filibustered an attempt to expand background checks and Democrats joined them to spike a new assault-weapons ban; where a bill to block people on the no-fly list from getting guns didn’t even get a vote; where any hint of reform is matched by an avalanche of pro-gun hysteria and obfuscation.
The state of Florida, meanwhile, has been given an F by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Here, you don’t need a permit to purchase a handgun or other firearm, and you don’t need to register these weapons. (You do, however, need a permit to carry a concealed weapon, as the legislature mercifully defeated an open-carry bill in 2016, though the permitting process is pretty lax.) In Florida, as we learned last week, while you need to be 21 to legally buy a handgun, you only need to be 18 to purchase an assault rifle, as Nikolas Cruz did.
Not coincidentally, according to the Giffords Law Center, the states with the tightest gun laws tend to have the fewest gun deaths. In short, less guns equal less killing.
Yet since the horror of Pulse, Scott and the Republican legislature have failed to pass a single gun-reform measure. Sen. Linda Stewart’s bill to ban assault rifles wasn’t even allowed to be debated. And after what was then (but is no longer) the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, the Republicans made it even easier to use the Stand Your Ground defense against gun-related charges.
We know what laws will make a difference – not that they’ll prevent all mass shootings, but that they can make them less common and less deadly: We can ban assault rifles and high-capacity magazines. We can require background checks on all gun purchases. We can raise the age to buy any firearm to 21. And we can do all this without significantly infringing on Second Amendment rights. (The entire concept of Second Amendment rights is due for an overhaul, but I’ll leave that column for another day.)
Which is why it’s so infuriating when NRA-cuckolded politicians tell us after one of these shootings that now isn’t the time to talk about guns, or that we shouldn’t politicize a tragedy. After Parkland, Rick Scott offered a variation on this chickenshit theme: “There’s a time to continue to have these conversations about how through law enforcement, how through mental illness funding that we make sure that people are safe.”
That time, presumably, is some other time, certainly not now, probably never, because this isn’t the debate they want to have, especially not when everyone’s pissed off and paying attention. But this is exactly what we need to be talking about right now, before the moment slips away. What’s more than that, we need to turn this moment into a movement, into a collective primal scream that says, “Never again!” That is the only bulwark against a powerful political lobby and its pliant politicians who want to put the brakes on anything resembling reform.
As terrible as this last week has been, one thing has given me hope that maybe, just maybe, this time will be different: the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who have stood up and cried out, “No more.” On Sunday, they announced national marches for gun control in Washington, D.C., and other major cities on March 24, which will follow a March 14 student and teacher walkout being organized by the Women’s March.
As MS Douglas junior Cameron Kasky told CNN this weekend: ‘This is about us begging for our lives; this isn’t about the GOP, this isn’t about the Democrats, this is about us creating a badge of shame for any politicians accepting money from the NRA and using us as collateral.”
Another student, David Hogg, was even more pointed to CBS: “We’ve seen a government shutdown, we’ve seen tax reform, but nothing to save our children’s lives. Are you kidding me? You think now is the time to focus on the past and not the future to prevent the deaths of thousands of other children? You sicken me.”
And then there’s the uber-impressive Emma González, a senior who gave an impassioned speech at a gun-control rally that went viral: “We are going to be the last mass shooting. We are going to change the law. That’s going to be Marjory Stoneman Douglas in that textbook, and it’s all going to be due to the tireless efforts of the school board, the faculty members, the family members and most importantly the students.”
According to the Washington Post, President Donald Trump spent the weekend in Mar-a-Lago watching these kids on TV. “He knows he has to do something,” one associate told the Post. A Broward County commissioner added that Trump said he welcomed the students’ activism and seemed open to some form of tighter gun laws.
The president, of course, having few ideological bearings, can reverse himself on a dime, so there’s no telling whether this will stick once the NRA’s backlash comes. Still, even if that happens, what these students are doing is absolutely remarkable. To borrow from a movie that came out long before they were even a twinkle in their fathers’ eyes, they’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take this anymore.
And if they – if all of us – can sustain this energy, not just for the next month but for the next few years, and if these students and their generation show up at the polls in November and again in 2020, then change will come.
So don’t you dare tell me not to politicize this tragedy. And don’t ever tell me now is not the time.