Probably the last thing we need right now is someone else writing another opinion about the horrible tragedy that took place in Aurora, Colorado early last Friday morning, but I'm going to do it anyhow, because I think there are things that need to be said that won't get said otherwise.
At this point, we all know the basic story: that a person dressed in black body armor and armed with a military assault rifle, a shotgun, and several pistols entered a theater and began shooting people at random, murdering at least 12 people in cold blood and injuring another 58 (including an infant only a few months old) before surrendering to police outside the theater.
There are three aspects to this story that I think are worth noting, and each one deals in its way with the rights we have as Americans (and vociferously defend) and the responsibilities that go along with them (which tend to get much less attention).
The first point is that we refer to the man in custody as the "alleged" murderer ... because our Constitution provides for the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven in court.
The second is that the "alleged" murderer has asked for a lawyer ... which is his right as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution.
And the third is that the "alleged" murderer used legally-purchased firearms, which he was perfectly entitled to own by the terms of the Second Amendment to the Constitution.
For better or worse, the ownership of firearms is one of our most cherished rights, and guns are deeply ingrained in our history and our culture. Richard Slotkin's book Gunfighter Nation: the Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America, is an interesting overview of how the legends of steely-eyed gunfighters and noble frontiersmen who used their guns to tame the "Wild West" shape our view of history and form the foundations of modern America. The Second Amendment to the Constitution, much debated but never seriously challenged, grants all citizens the right to "keep and bear arms."
The problem is, as I've written here before (most recently, last Friday ... before I had heard about the massacre in Aurora), that we have raised gun ownership to the level of a national religion - to the point where it is impossible to have a rational discussion of the problems that arise from the unrestricted ownership of all types of firearms in an era that is very different from that of the Founders who drafted the Second Amendment.
I lay full blame for the situation at the festooned altar of the National Rifle Association, which has done for guns what Grover Norquist has done for taxes: prevented all attempts at rational discussion of serious problems.
Once again, let me say - as I do every time I write about this problem - that I absolutely support the right of Americans to "keep and bear arms" as guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. But I don't think that this precludes a rational debate over the problems that arise from this right. Here's a question to start with: why does an ordinary citizen need a military-style assault rifle with a high-capacity magazine?
Again, I blame the NRA for our inability to have this discussion. With its irresponsible, hyperbolic ranting about "jack-booted thugs" waiting to swoop down and steal guns from law-abiding citizens, and its knee-jerk opposition to the least hint of limits on gun ownership, it has spun up unthinking Americans to a level of hysteria that stifles a clear-eyed debate on a serious issue. Columnist E.J. Dionne wrote eloquently about this problem yesterday in his article titled The NRA's Gag Rule Stunts a Gun Debate.
Strong defenders of gun ownership argue that if we all walked around armed, gun violence would diminish, because we'd all be able to defend ourselves. I have my doubts about how safe I am when surrounded by people packing iron in bars (which is legal here in Virginia, as it is in Tennessee, Arizona, and Georgia), but that's a personal thing. They also argue that any limits on gun rights, however well-intentioned, represent the start of that slippery slope that ends with midnight visits from those jack-booted thugs so feared by those who are more afraid of their elected government than they are of criminals.
The NRA mantra is that "Guns don't kill people, people kill people." Of course, it really ought to read, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people...and people with guns kill more people at a time, more quickly."
Okay, I'm done with this useless discussion for now. The situation will not change, and we will have the same discussion in another few months, when the next mass murder occurs. But this seemed as good a way to waste my time as any on a dreary Sunday morning.
Have a good day. Wear body armor. More thoughts tomorrow.