Remembrance on Memorial Day
We All Are Now on Active Duty
Memorial Day is here again – too soon, it seems for those of us Baby Boomers for whom time seems to be speeding up. So many of us have loved ones to remember on this day. The fortunate who survived past wars and lived full lives, if they were lucky, but are no longer here. And the far too many who unfortunately, mostly through the random chances of war -- who knows when or where the deadly bullet, grenade, artillery shell or bomb came from -- made the ultimate sacrifice so that those of us here today can be thankful for the protection they provided us.
But on this Memorial Day, it saddens me, and I suspect all those reading this post, that those whom we remember, if they were alive today, would be sad – probably many angry -- about the current state of the country they once protected or died protecting.
A country that is more than deeply divided politically than at any time in my lifetime, even more so than during the upheavals of the 1960s. But more dangerously for the future of our democracy, a country that is gripped with fear. (And with apologies to former President Obama, fear is a much more powerful driver of behavior than (the audacity of) hope).
Those addicted to the likes of Tucker Carlson – and he’s far from alone, Republican politicians all over the country have repeated the Great Replacement theory (msn.com) -- are fearful of being “replaced” by others with a different skin color. Fear that has turned to hate. And hate that has turned into mass murder. Charleston. El Paso. Orlando. Buffalo. Uvalde. Not counting the mass murders driven by other forms of rage. Columbine. Sandy Hook. Ft. Hood. Las Vegas. Parkland. Sutherland Springs. With seemingly no end. An article in the New York Times this week provided a generic headline for our times: “Gunman in ___ kills ____.”
Gun “rights” extremists fear that common-sense gun “safety” regulations which Justice Scalia explicitly allowed for in the 2007 Heller case, will somehow intrude on the rights of “law-abiding citizens” to own guns. The millions of Americans who buy more guns every year, meanwhile, are afraid, too – of the nutcases and criminals who already have them or, too easily, can get them. The fear is easily understood. After declining for years, the homicide rate has turned up, clearly exacerbated by the pandemic. Murders in 12 of America’s large cities hit all-time highs in 2021. https://abcnews.go.com/US/12-major-us-cities-top-annual-homicide-records/story?id=81466453/.
Even if Congress somehow, in Uvalde’s wake, enacts minimalist common-sense gun safety legislation this year – background checks, red flag rules, along with more funding for mental health and school security – which it should, it is obvious that much more needs to be done. Consider this shocking statistic from Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal, with whom I normally disagree but still recognize as a brilliant writer and intellectual provocateur: half of the 20 million guns sold annually are clip-fed semiautomatics “of the sort handy for slaughter.” There is no justification – I repeat no justification – for any civilian to own such weapons, even with background checks and red flag laws (which inherently will be imperfect). By any standard of common sense, such weapons ought to be banned, as they have been in Australia, Great Britain, New Zealand and most recently in Canada.
But unlike those other countries, where mass gun murders ended or sharply declined after assault weapons were banned there, in America there are already so many such weapons out there a ban on future purchases by itself wouldn’t touch. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do the obvious and try. More so, it argues for finding ways to get as many of those assault weapons out of the hands of those who now have them. An obvious idea, borrowed from Australia, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/congress/australia-s-mandatory-gun-buyback-inspires-u-s-activists-few-n855361: have the government offer to buy back these weapons (at a discount, so no one could profit by buying more while the legislation is debated) during some limited time period after which anyone still owning an assault weapon would have to register those guns and pay an annual tax, or otherwise be guilty of a major felony.
Chances of any that happening in this environment happening any time soon? Between slim and zero. And even if the ban/buyback/felony idea could make it into law, the felony part could not be enforced without triggering major violence, perhaps even revolution, given how many Americans now own semiautomatic weapons and would be willing to die, and take police with them, before turning them in peacefully or even paying an annual tax.
So, what is left to be done? Franklin Roosevelt famously counseled the country in 1933 that the “only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” and so he began a series of fireside chats to calm the nation down during the depths of the Depression. But the days of families huddling around the family radio, with only a few national channels are long gone. And no one person today has the ability to calm the nation’s nerves like FDR once had.
A second predictable response, one I’ve already heard from some politicians, is for more people to buy semi-automatic weapons themselves, ratcheting up the arms race. This almost surely will happen, as it has in the past when passions temporarily have put “gun control” or “gun safety” on the political agenda. But like nuclear weapons, where the threat of mutually assured destruction (so far) has prevented the state owners of these weapons from unleashing them, mass shooters are not rational. They know they will be killed, or put away for life, even before they start (and as much as I support more resources for mental health, let’s face it: not many would-be active shooters are unlikely to volunteer for mental health counseling; it’s the easy access to assault weapons that is the problem). Moreover, more semi-automatic weapons at home means that many more kids or teens, like the Sandy Hook shooter, will find their way of getting to them, with disastrous results for themselves (suicides) or others (murderous rampages).
A third response is prayer, which we inevitably see a lot of after each one of these tragedies. If prayer makes you feel better, calms your nerves, gets you through your grief, gives you strength to go on after setbacks and tragedy, then, by all means, pray.
But to be brutally honest, prayers or faith have not protected the mounting numbers of victims of mass shootings. Or any shootings for that matter. Or the innocent victims of war, right now in Ukraine. Or the countless innocent victims of wars through the centuries. Or some of the million who have died so far from COVID who didn’t have access to the vaccine in time. Or the countless numbers of people who suffer and die from a laundry list of diseases, accidents, natural catastrophes, every minute, every day, every year. The countless number of bad things happening every day to good people. Or need I mention – the Holocaust.
If you still believe in prayer for any reason, do not let prayer substitute for action. Learn CPR and other life-saving techniques in case they’re needed to help your loved ones or strangers. Do good things for other people whenever you can: it helps them, and makes you feel good too.
But most important, vote like your life, and the lives of your children and grandchildren depend on it, because they all do. Work hard to get others who may up until Uvalde were likely to sit this mid-term out – and according to polls so far, that counts too many Democrats – and persuade them they now just have to show up in November.
But now two more brutally honest facts. In this upcoming election cycle, because Republican office holders or seekers are so overwhelmingly opposed to any form of gun control (er, safety) legislation, Republican and independent voters who are “pro-life” for already born human beings have no other choice than to vote Democratic, which in this political cycle for other reasons, is likely to be a bridge too far for the vast majority of them. But in the future Republicans who put life first must dig deep and be honest with themselves and change their party by voting for candidates in primary elections who favor much stronger gun safety legislation.
Now, here’s the second brutally honest fact. Even with stronger gun safety laws, it is by no means clear that the current Supreme Court will uphold them. In upcoming weeks, the Court is expected to strike down a New York law restricting concealed carry. https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/supreme-court-may-soon-loosen-gun-laws-as-nation-reels-from-massacres/ar-AAXJglm. If that happens, it will be interesting to see how the Court majority will distinguish, or even if it is mentioned, Justice Scalia’s carve-out for sensible gun safety legislation, especially regarding concealed carry, quoted in the PS below.
It is tempting to say that if the Supreme Court will simply overrule whatever gun safety legislation is passed – either by Congress or the states – what’s the point? My best answer, for now, is to wait and see what language the Court uses in the New York case. Maybe the Court will confine its ruling to the unique circumstances there and say that its ruling wouldn’t affect other types of legislation – say a ban on assault weapons -- which unlike handguns were not around when the framers wrote the Second Amendment. And if future election returns run heavily against legislators supporting even looser gun legislation, even this Supreme Court, like those in past, might pay attention. [If that doesn’t happen, the only recourse left is the late Justice Stevens’ idea: repeal the Second Amendment. I know this sounds hopeless now. But as mass shootings continue, who knows?]
Fourth, in theory there is always the option of leaving the country. But that means giving up all that is still right with America. It may mean not seeing your family again. And in practice, leaving is realistically possible only for techies and the already wealthy, who can find well-paying jobs or who can buy their way into other countries with sensible gun laws and high standards of living. The rest of us, like or it not, are stuck.
We must instead just get used to living with the fact and the fear that at any time, a bullet with our names on it will find its way to end our lives. I know, I know, for most of us – who can afford not to live in violence-plagued neighborhoods – that means living with a very low probability event. But that probability is no longer zero, it is growing and unfortunately probably will continue to grow. Already that “low probability” event has changed the lives of entire generation of students – the “lockdown generation” – who have become used to quarterly “active shooter” drills. Meanwhile for adults, admit it: don’t many of you when going out in public have that little voice in your head telling you to be aware constantly of your surroundings, being alert to where the nearest exit is?
So, this is what America has become. I don’t know about you, but I feel a profound sadness, and yes anger. It’s not anywhere near as bad as being on the battlefield where the loved ones we remember this day breathed their last breath. But make no mistake, we now all live, every day, on another kind of battlefield, one we thought we’d never see when we were growing up, and surely not the kind that those who died for this country thought would be our new normal. On this Memorial Day, we now know we are all on active duty, the rest of our lives - if we are lucky.
P.S. For those who haven’t read these words from Scalia’s 2007 Heller opinion that first held that individual gun ownership is protected by the Second amendment, read them again (this is the summary from one of the “headnotes” from Scalia’s opinion, bolding and underlining added).
“Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”
These words should be read right after the Pledge of Allegiance at all NRA conventions.
P.S.S. I apologize again to subscribers for not having posted in a long while. Again, work has intruded, and frankly, I haven’t enough to say that isn’t already being said in the public square. Hopefully, my next post will be more uplifting, and following more quickly.