Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Symbol of surrender to the gun lobby

        A metaphor for a nation: Terrified students hustle across a school parking lot, their hands in the air.

It happened the other day at Umpqua Community College in Oregon: hands in the air. It happened at Columbine High School. It happened at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois and Central Arkansas.

It has happened at 142 schools – yes, 142 -- college, high school, elementary -- since so many children died not quite three years ago at Sandy Hook Elementary. That's about one shooting per week.

Hands in the air. The ones still escaping, the psychological victims of another gun atrocity, know not what to think, what to do, where to go – exactly like the country that would protect them.

This is the country that, as British wit John Oliver observes in wonderment, caught one shoe bomber and now requires every air traveler to shed shoes at check-in. But do anything about the gun carnage in its midst? No way. Just count bodies and pray.

We've had 986 mass shootings since Sandy Hook. Add the crime-of-passion shootings, the suicides, the drive-bys, the accidental deaths. What's the toll?

Well, let's put it this way: Just this year the gun carnage – 9,948 dead – is more than three 9/11s.

         Where is Dick Cheney when we need audacity and overreach? Where are the spare-no-expense resources? Where's Homeland Security?

This is the public safety issue of our time, and we are less proactive about protecting people from random shootings than we are about trans fats.

Arming more Americans? Arming teachers? It doesn't work. It can do just the opposite. More innocents can get killed.

This happens even when police intervene in the chaos of a mass shooting. In 2012, nine bystanders were wounded by counter-terrorism-trained New York police in an armed confrontation at the Empire State Building.

So what's the answer? Literally, it's to treat guns as the public safety matter they are, just like automobiles. The answer is to register firearms and license their owners. The answer is to prohibit or revoke permits for those unfit to operate a killing machine.

In the absence of something that wouldn't prevent gun ownership for the law-abiding but would change the reckless gun culture we've cultivated, we need to take action aimed at keeping guns out of the wrong hands.

Few Americans by now oppose the concept of background checks to prohibit gun ownership to criminals, the mentally ill, juveniles, non-citizens and more. But what happens when the background check system fails?

Democrats in the Senate have proposed a bill to close a loophole that made it possible for Dylann Roof to obtain a firearm before his shooting spree at a Charleston, S.C., church.

Called the "default to proceed" loophole, the ambiguity in the law means that if a gun dealer doesn't get back FBI background check authorization in 72 hours, the transaction can proceed anyway.

As with so much pertaining to guns in this country, the loophole exists because the whole of gun policy is sculpted for the convenience of gun owners and sellers, rather than any inclination to protect the public.

The problem confronted by the bill in question sounds like an obscure matter, but in 2012 alone, the loophole allowed 3,722 people who otherwise would have been ineligible – people with criminal records or mental health issues -- to buy their precious guns.

Back when all were filled with religion in the "war on terror," the principle was that we would do everything at our disposal to prevent further terrorist attacks.

What Dylann Roof did was a terrorist attack. What the shooter in Oregon did was a terrorist attack. For years it has been one terrorist attack after another.

We have to stop denying that we are arming home-grown terrorists. Let's put our hands down and put them to work. Let's change a culture that makes the fates of helpless people secondary to pieces of metal that propel pieces of metal through the air.

Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.  

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