After Virginia Tech

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground….
I know. But I do not approve.
---“Dirge Without Music,” Edna St. Vincent Millay

Friends have been checking in with me since the Virginia Tech shooting. Has this week been wrenching for me? Am I having a hard time?

They ask because my brother was shot to death six years ago. His future mother-in-law murdered both him and his fiancée in a spat over the apartment they shared.

And I have to answer—Well, not exactly. I’m horrified, and I’m sad. But is this shooting so different from all the others this week? It is entirely unsurprising. This was going to happen. It should be expected—though the media coverage has nourished the collective illusion that it shouldn’t be.

12,000 people are murdered in the U.S. every year with firearms—most of those with handguns. That’s 32 in a typical day. At year’s end, these 32 specific victims will not make a dent in the statistic for 2007—though these specific 32 families will reel for the rest of their lives.

40 million people in this country own guns: most of us are familiar with such statistics. The Glock 9-millimeter semiautomatic—one of Cho’s guns, America’s favorite murder weapon, and the gun used to kill my brother—is inordinately powerful and fires two bullets per second. Its sole purpose is to kill people effectively. Can we honestly be surprised when dozens of people daily pick up guns and do exactly that? The week of the Virginia Tech shooting, Los Angeles reported an especially large homicide toll: 9 of the 17 victims were 18 years old and under, and one was 2 years old. All 17 victims were shot. In Philadelphia, a man became the 100th victim of the year, after a 14-year-old boy and a 26-year mother of four—after last year’s all-time high of 400 murders. In Dallas, a man was shot to death just five months after the birth of his first child. In Marshfield, Wisconsin, a father killed his two children.

No, this will happen. Most of the guns will be purchased legally. Some of those will be stolen, but a great many of them will be wielded by the legal owners. Some of the killers will have criminal records, but a great many will not. Some will have documented mental health problems, and a greater number will not.

Yet the responses to the Virginia Tech shootings—from the gun and gun-control lobbies, and from the rest of us—have mostly failed to fully take for granted a high murder rate in a country that is heavily armed. The gun lobby predictably trots out its canard that the victims should have been carrying guns too. More guns, fewer murders: that’s one of its standard arguments. And yes, a guns-for-all policy on college campuses might have saved some of this week’s victims, but fortunately, university leaders have been countering that we would see many more victims overall.

The gun-control lobby has been equally predictable. They have focused first on whether the guns were legal, and then—surprise, they were!—on how the background check could have missed Cho’s skirmishes with the mental health profession. But why? Even if Cho could have been stopped, so many other killers have passed these background checks with flying colors, and so many more will continue to do so. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has been successfully backing laws to keep guns out of the hands of “people who shouldn’t have them” for over 25 years—with no dramatic or even significant decrease in gun deaths.

Can gun laws that do not outlaw handgun ownership possibly reduce the annual rate to 10,000? That’s highly optimistic—and why wouldn’t they have done so already? Do gun-control victories matter when they do not make a real difference? The major gun-control advocates have been passionately fighting the battles they feel they can win. Perhaps the time has come, however, to passionately fight the battles that need fighting.

And the rest of us? The outpouring of grief and shock this past week? The nation has been grieving deeply for the horrific murders of 32 people this year, but on the whole, accepts the 12,000 murders one by one. And when we grieve while not acknowledging that this will happen again—and that it will happen regularly… When we say it is unacceptable in a country with 200 million firearms…That’s an act of mass denial.

To back the right to gun ownership is a wholly legitimate belief—but only if the death toll that comes with it is acceptable to you. However, if you believe the high murder rate is an unacceptable tradeoff, then not arming the populace is the only form of gun control that will ever make a significant difference.

So do I find the tragedy at Virginia Tech wrenching? Yes, I am saddened. I am frustrated, and I do not accept it. But also, no—at least, no more than usual. I grieve every day. The essential question in the aftermath of these shootings is—Why don’t you?

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