The question asked by columnist Kathleen Parker in my local paper was: “How many children have to die before ‘they’ do something?” Then she confided: “I have written this column before.”
Since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, around a week before Christmas in 2012, more than 400 people have been shot and killed in some 200 school shootings. Sandy Hook took the lives of 20 little children and six adults. It was pure horror and most people shuddered, but it was a British journalist, Dan Hodges of the Daily Mail, who put the horror in context for me. He wrote in a Twitter post: “Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.”
Hodges’ words have been quoted and requoted in the five years since that bleak Christmas in Newtown, because Americans have so far proved incapable of seeing what is obvious to the rest of the world: as long as guns are freely available, the slaughter will continue.
But the killing of 14 students and three members of staff of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on February 14 may have marked a turning point. This time, there have been survivors, young students in their late teens, who are articulate and who are now speaking out. They are also acting out, in the best sense of the expression, by staging ‘die-ins’ by lying down outside the Florida Legislature, as if they had been shot. They are raising hell in a civilised manner and they have made it clear that the cold-blooded murder of students and teachers is no longer bearable.
Some have chosen as their slogan words that speak to all Argentines: “Never again.” (In Spanish, “Nunca Más”). I was moved when I saw the homemade signs defiantly proclaiming those words. They hold out the promise that is possible to take on the gun lobby, gun fanatics and the multi-billion dollar industry that has corrupted most politicians.
The words “Nunca Más” are more significant than the students who are chanting those potent words in English realise. Those words belong to Argentina, where they signalled the end of the 1976-83 genocidal military dictatorship and the start of a process of justice that continues to this day.
In Argentina the military regime’s Process of National Reconstruction has come to be recognised in all its horror as “radical evil.” I feel that philosophical term fits the imposition of a gun culture and the emergence of a state of mind in the US population that allows otherwise decent people to shrug off or ignore mass murder.
In his inaugural address, US President Donald Trump, as ever unquestionably reading what was on the teleprompter, said: “This American carnage stops right here and right now.” He described the gun scourge perfectly but unknowingly, because he was not talking about the obvious.
However, reality was brought home to him by one of the young people who survived the massacre. Samuel Zeif was part of a group of people who were invited to the White House to meet President Trump, a week after the mass murder, to talk things over in a listening session.
“Never, never let this thing happen again,” the 18-year-old told the president. Then he went on to tell him what to do. “How did we not stop this after [the school shooting in] Columbine? After Sandy Hook?” he asked the president. The youngster then referred him to the solution that the Australian government came up with, after a shooting attack involving a semi-automatic rifle in which 35 people were killed. Young Zeif, who lost his best friend in the Florida attack, told the president: “In Australia, there was a shooting at a school in 1999. And you know, after that, they took a lot of ideas, they put legislation together, and they stopped it. Can anyone here guess how many shootings there have been in the schools since then in Australia? Zero.”
Samuel slipped up on the date, but the mistake further validates his point. The shooting happened three years earlier, in 1996, and in the response to the Port Arthur massacre, as it is known, gun-control laws in Australia were tightened. Some 640,000 weapons were handed in to the authorities.
Samuel hammered home his point by telling the president that he couldn’t understand why a 17-year-old was allowed to buy a “weapon of war” – the AR-15 semi –automatic rifle that was used to kill his fellow students.
The AR-15, which has been used in countless mass shootings in the US, can be purchased so easily that around 1.5 million are sold annually. There are almost more guns than people in the United States, an estimated 300 million weapons. There is no way of knowing how many AR-15s there are, but it is the most popular weapon of all. The figure must be in the millions.
The National Rifle Association, which is at the heart of this radical evil, calls it “America’s rifle.” Contributions, essentially bribes, to politicians from the NRA help to explain why a law banning the AR-15 was allowed to expire in 2004. And the chances of any real effort to emulate Australia by banning weapons of war happening may be measured by the fact that Donald Trump received the largest contribution from the NRA, US$11,438,118, for the 2016 elections. As president, he later thanked the organisation for their support, saying: “You came through for me and I will come through for you.”
When I began working as an editorial writer at The Post and Courier, in the 1980s, the paper strongly backed gun-control measures. One of its eminent editors, English-born Francis W. Dawson, was shot dead in 1889. The paper took the murder to heart, until there was a change of publisher and the paper’s traditional repugnance for gun crimes was forgotten. For a while, I presented our arguments to the NRA zealots for what is called “sensible gun control.” (How could gun control not be sensible?} The NRA guys were extremely unpleasant and insulting, but within the bounds of civility. Our editorials on gun control though also prompted more extreme responses, including death threats, which I did not take seriously.
Despite the grip that the radical evil of gun worship has on the United States, this new “Nunca Más” movement must be taken seriously. A generational change that could remake the United States may be in the making. Let’s hope so.