Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sunday Reading

Did This Really Happen? — Edward Small went to Sandy Hook Elementary School.

I’ve always had two stock answers for people whenever they ask me about Newtown. One is, “It’s from the half of Connecticut that wants to be New York City.” The other is, “We invented Scrabble. After that, nothing really happened.” It’s a town of about 27,000 people where things don’t stay open past 10 p.m. and a boy digging a big hole is a story worthy of the local paper’s front page. It’s also where I grew up and made my first friends and got my first job and learned about 80 percent of what I know today.

And now, none of that matters.

It’s just after midnight at the end of a long day of shaking, crying, worrying, and telling several concerned friends that I’m fine. It’s only true in the narrowest sense, of course. Yesterday, 20 children were shot and killed in my old elementary school. I’m sad, confused, infuriated, and I want to do something about it. The problem is, I can’t think of anything that would actually matter.

I think that’s where a lot of the confused anger and despair I’ve been trying to deal with over the past 24 hours stems from: sheer, overwhelming impotence. The town and school where I have innumerable positive memories have both been suddenly torn away from me in the most grotesque way possible. I say that without exaggeration: we’re talking about a gunman who opened fire in an elementary school. That can’t be a real event.

When talking to friends and family about this, the one phrase that keeps coming up is “I can’t believe.” It’s a cliché, but also true in a very literal sense. I spent all day reading the headlines and the body counts, but part of me is still waiting for the grand reveal that none of this really happened because how could any of it have really happened? How could the elementary school where I wrote my first story and got in trouble for calling Ross Perot a butthead also be the site of the nation’s second-deadliest school shooting? I can’t reconcile the memories I have of Sandy Hook School with the events of today. They simply aren’t the same place.

In other words, the feeling of helplessness isn’t just coming from the fact that I can’t do anything about the murders on Friday. If anything, I’m still far too baffled as to how and why a fellow human being could kill 27 people–20 of them schoolchildren — to feel much of anything besides inchoate shock and rage. The helplessness comes more from the fact that my hometown doesn’t belong to me anymore.

What Will It Take? — From The New Yorker, Patrick Radden Keefe on gun control.

Do you feel that? That’s your sense of moral outrage dissipating.

It may still feel raw and vivid in the wake of Friday’s bloodbath in Connecticut. But if other recent massacres are anything to go by, our collective indignation has a half-life—and it isn’t long. The tender ages of the victims at Sandy Hook made the tragedy feel exceptional, and on television and Twitter, and at kitchen tables around the country, many of us expressed an urgent sense, over the past forty-eight hours, that something should be done. Even President Obama suggested that “meaningful action” is in order, though he didn’t elaborate on what that might entail, and notably absent from his remarks was the single monosyllable that might explain how one disturbed young man could walk into an elementary school and end twenty-six lives in a matter of minutes: “gun.”

One irony of the pernicious taboo on “politicizing” a tragedy is that in some especially thorny areas of policy—like, for instance, gun control—it is only a tragedy that can summon the political momentum for change. The original Gun Control Act passed in October 1968, following the demoralizing assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. The Brady Act owes its existence to the unsuccessful attempt on the life of Ronald Reagan.

But by 2011, when Gabrielle Giffords narrowly survived a bullet in the head, the dynamic of the debate had changed. “After the Giffords shooting, I thought something would happen with gun control,” a recently retired official from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms told me last summer. But nothing did. “Apparently, a member of Congress doesn’t count,” he said. “So now I’m wondering, what exactly does it take? Another presidential assassination?”

What does it take? If a congresswoman in a coma isn’t sufficient grounds to reëvaluate the role that firearms play in our national life, is a schoolhouse full of dead children? I desperately want to believe that it is, and yet I’m not sure that I do. By this time next week, most of the people who are, today, signing petitions and demanding gun control will have moved on to other things. If you want to understand why the gun debate can occasionally feel rigged, this is the answer: the issue is characterized by a conspicuous asymmetry of fervor. The N.R.A. has only four million members—a number that is probably dwarfed by the segment of the U.S. population that feels uneasy about the unbridled proliferation of firearms. But the pro-gun constituency is ardent and organized, while the gun control crowd is diffuse and easily distracted. In the 2012 election cycle, N.R.A. spending on lobbying outranked spending by gun control groups by a factor of ten to one.

A World of Maximum Guns — Ta-Nehisi Coates on arming to the teeth.

It is human to wish that Dawn Hochsprung, the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary, who died heroically yesterday, enjoyed some weaponry beyond her body. But are we then asking for a world in which the educators of small children are strapped? Do we want our hospital workers, our librarians, our baby-sitters, and little league coaches all armed? What is the message that such a society sends to itself and its children? What does it say about its government’s ability to perform the most essential of services–protection? And is it enough to simply be wholly sane? What do we say to the ghost of Jordan Davis, shot down over an argument of loud music, by a man who was quite sane? And where does it end? If more mass killers don body-armor, should we then start fitting ourselves in kevlar too?

This is not my area of expertise, so I am open to your thoughts. But I would hope to not live in a country where it is easier for a kid to access a gun, than it is for an adult to access the vote.

Don’t Be Afraid, Democrats — Steve Kornacki says it’s safe for them to advocate for gun control (or gun safety or whatever you want to call it.)

The Democrats’ cowardice on guns traces back to the fateful election of 2000. Clinton, despite his aggressive pursuit of gun control measures, fared relatively well with rural gun-owning populations in his 1996 reelection campaign. But those same voters turned hard on Al Gore in ’00, shifting Kentucky, Missouri, West Virginia, Arkansas and Tennessee to the Republican column. A victory in any one of those states – all of which Clinton carried twice – would have made Gore president. Democrats concluded that they’d scared off rural, lower-income white voters who had traditionally supported them – and that guns were the big reason why. A new consensus emerged: Gun control could no longer be a central component of Democratic messaging. So it was that John Kerry in 2004 and Obama in 2008 and 2012 did their best to ignore the issue. Kerry went so far as to embark on a goose hunt in rural Ohio just before Election Day.

In terms of political strategy, there’s been one obvious shortcoming to this approach: It hasn’t worked. Kerry did no better than Gore in West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas, and Obama has failed to win any of those states in two elections now. What’s more, there’s been no improvement in Democratic support among gun owners in any election since 2000. As Nate Cohn pointed out Friday, the lesson Democrats should be drawing from Obama’s two victories is that they can win nationally without the pro-gun vote. The Democratic coalition continues to evolve and grow, and the rural white voters who were key to its success generations ago have become a reliably Republican constituency.

What’s more, Democrats continue to be painted as the party of gun confiscators by the NRA and its allies. Even though there was nothing in Obama’s first term record for them to object to, the NRA bitterly fought his reelection this year, treating him as if he were Michael Douglas’ character in “The American President.” In other words, Democrats are already paying the political price that comes with being the gun control party. So if they believe in it, why not just say it – and act on it?

The answer typically provided to this question is that there are a number of Democrats in Congress from states with large gun-owning populations – think Joe Manchin and Jon Tester – and that the party’s current posture makes it possible for them to win. But a better way of understanding the success of these Democrats is that it’s come in spite of the national party’s reputation. Democrats like Manchin and Tester are already winning over voters who believe national Democrats want to take their guns away; this challenge will be exactly the same if national Democrats actually do start pursuing gun control again.

Doonesbury — Wall Street’s worst nightmare.

Photo: Eric Theyer/Reuters

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