Grief for the lives lost and the families devastated, and a sinking feeling that we are utterly lost in a sea of violence – that’s our first reaction to the slaughter in San Bernardino, California, that left 14 dead and many more wounded.
We really don’t know yet what to make of the shooters’ purported radical Islamic ties or their arsenal of weapons, but we do know that they, like shooters with many other motivations, have sown havoc and mowed down innocent people.
This will surely be the worst holiday season ever for the families of those who died, and the wounded and the witnesses will carry scars from this trauma that last a lifetime.
But it’s a measure of how ordinary mass shootings have become that within hours the public discourse moved beyond shock and sorrow to the familiar debate about whether more guns or fewer guns are the solution.
A mass shooting — defined these days as one in which four or more people die — happens, on average, once a day according to the ShootingTracker website. (What other country has a website to track such mayhem?)
According to Nicholas Kristof, who writes for The New York Times, more Americans have died from guns in the past four years than died in the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq combined. We’re up to one gun death every 16 minutes.
Yet Black Friday was an all-time record breaker for gun sales. And gun rights advocates will be quick to point out that the guns in San Bernardino were bought legally in a state with fairly tough legislation.
We now have approximately 357 million guns in a country of about 317 million people, and it’s pretty clear that having more guns than people is not making our nation safer.
President Barack Obama points out that people who are on no-fly lists can still legally buy guns. Others cite research showing that 40 percent of gun sales do not involve a background check. Sensible gun-control legislation ought to be a no-brainer, especially when polls show overwhelming public support for universal background checks.
So should improved mental health care. Mental illness hasn’t actually been shown to be a common cause of mass shootings, but it certainly plays a role. And mental illness and access to a gun are clearly a fatal combination in the 61 percent of gun deaths that are suicides. Gun suicides cost 19,392 people their lives in 2012. But the calls for improved mental health care — which come mostly from anti-gun control Republicans — are meaningless without dramatic increases in funding for it.
This gridlock — which at moments like these seems to have gone on forever — is what makes so many of us feel helpless, hopeless and unbearably sad.
But we need to pull ourselves together and act. We need to hold our elected leaders accountable for passing sensible gun control legislation, and fully funding mental health care — including housing for the chronically mentally ill people we have abandoned to roam our streets.
In a democracy, each of us bears some responsibility for the state of our nation. No matter how sad and frustrated we are, it’s up to us to figure out how to stop this mayhem.