Columbine happened 23 years ago. How is America still no further forward?

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Hal Stoelzle/AP</span>
Photograph: Hal Stoelzle/AP

If you want to ponder how deeply broken and dysfunctional our system of governance is, all you have to do is to reflect upon the fact that our nation experiences regular mass murders of schoolchildren by gunmen, and these mass murders are followed by no meaningful political action. To sit with that basic fact for even a few moments is to feel like you are beginning to lose your grip on reality. It sounds like the gut-roiling reveal from a horror movie, or a dystopian novel about the wealthiest country in the history of the world, which has at its heart a horrible secret. We are that country, and our wealth is soaked in blood. Our learned helplessness on the issue of guns is so deeply rooted that many people – including, unfortunately, our elected leaders – cannot even see how much of our system must be ripped apart, if we ever want to stop seeing massacres.

It should make all of us queasy that we are still here, wringing our hands. The school shooting at Columbine happened 23 years ago. There is no generous interpretation for the past 23 years of inaction. We all bear some of the blame, in the sense that we have acquiesced to a cycle in which many of the people in charge today have failed over and over again to make serious gun control a reality, as thousands and thousands of Americans have lost their lives. But that’s a little too pat to get at the heart of what is really happening.

The cold truth is that our political system does not care about dead children; it cares about money. We don’t have gun control for the same reason we don’t have many other things that are plainly necessary and good and that would save many lives, like public healthcare: because not having those things enables a certain group of people to get rich. And that class of rich people funds an even smaller class of politicians, who are tasked with protecting their interests, in exchange for living the nice life of a congressman or governor.

This straightforward and cozy arrangement, multiplied by many dozens of industries, is at the heart of how our political system operates. It just happens to be the case that the weapons industry forces its handpicked politicians to step over dead bodies before they walk into the office. It’s clear by now that no matter how many murdered children are laid at their doorstep, they are untroubled by taking that step.

Americans own more than twice as many guns per capita as any other country on earth, a good demonstration of what happens when you give unfettered capitalism an entire constitutional amendment to use as an advertising slogan. We have allowed ourselves to become a paranoid and insane nation, where millions of people arm themselves because they live in fear of the millions of other people who armed themselves in fear. At the heart of this circular firing squad, smiling, sits the gun industry, which sold nearly 20m guns in America last year alone, earning itself tens of billions of dollars. What separates the gun industry from more mundane businesses is that in order to sustain and grow itself, it must foster both a constant atmosphere of fear, tied together with a carefully nurtured sense of grievance. Customers must be afraid – afraid of imaginary home invaders, and afraid that any gun control measure will deprive them of the ability to defend their families from imminent death. Such fear is good for business. The fact that this deliberately provoked thirst for self-defense is itself fueling the countless bloody deaths of innocent people is just a cost of doing business for gun manufacturers, who would prefer that you not recognize or remark upon the grim irony of it at all.

The paranoid heart of all of this is the NRA, which turns money into political influence and has done more than any other organization to keep us all trapped in this nightmare. Despite their best efforts, though, a majority of Americans say they support stricter gun laws. The average citizen’s experience of a gun is far more likely to be being shot by one, or killing themselves with one, or having a family member or friend do so, than it is to be some “good guy with a gun” fantasy of saving innocents from crime. So why, after all of the logic and outrage and dead bodies, are we still in the same miserable place?

Marches are not going to change it. We have marched. Anguished people full of pain and loss marched for gun control after the mass shootings at Columbine, and at Virginia Tech, and at Sandy Hook, and at Parkland, and in Las Vegas. The worst pictures imaginable and the greatest grief on earth have not changed it. The system is immune to this sort of influence. So we need to change the system. That means that when we speak of gun control, we need to speak of campaign finance reform, to prevent a heartless and deadly industry from buying a protective shield of venal congressmen who exist to block any bills that might save lives at the cost of reducing profits. When we speak of gun control, we need to speak of ending gerrymandering, so that political minorities cannot consolidate power in ways that prevent desperately needed reforms from being passed.

When we speak of gun control, we need to speak of how the existence of the US Senate gives white, rural states disproportionate power, and we need to speak of how the cynical pleas for “civility” towards the powerful serve to insulate them from the consequences of their own policies, and we need to speak of how unregulated capitalism has allowed behemoth tech companies to suck so much money out of the journalism industry that the public doesn’t hear these things spoken about much at all.

We need to talk about the whole system. When we find ourselves in a situation so interminably resistant to change in the face of the most extreme catastrophes, the problem is that we have built a system that serves money instead of humans. March for gun control, by all means. But then turn your attention to the companies and the politicians who live well while so many people die, and think about what it is going to take to dislodge them from the place they have been perched so comfortably for so long. Reality is proof that we are not yet radical enough. We have an entire political system that doesn’t work. We need to break it in order to change it. If we can’t do that, the price is more broken bodies.

  • Hamilton Nolan is a writer in New York City. He is currently writing a book about the labor movement

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