The shock of Newtown, Conn., is its Norman Rockwell quality. It is a sampler of a place with high-steepled churches and the usual gathering spots — coffee shops and such, and repeated testimonies to the serenity of the town. But what happened there — the sheer horror, the incomprehensible number of victims — tends to obscure how ordinary the death of children by gunshot has become. This is a collective massacre long ignored. Really, guns don’t kill people. Apathy does.
I cite now a report from the well-regarded Children’s Defense Fund. In 2008 and 2009, 5,740 children — “one child or teen every three hours, eight every day, 55 every week for two years” — were killed by guns. In 2008, 408 of them were under the age of 15; 148 were under 10. A year later, 354 under 15 and 151 under 10 were killed by gunfire. All in all, 34,387 children were wounded by guns in those two years.
A disproportionate number of those kids were black or Hispanic. African-American children accounted for 45 percent of those victims, but were only 15 percent of the total child population. Sometimes, they’re merely sitting on a stoop or leaving a church. The newspapers almost daily report such tragedies.
What the ghetto, the inner city, the blighted neighborhood, the storied ’hood itself have in common with the bucolic Newtown is the mayhem of guns. This is a national calamity; a national absurdity. Great legal minds in this country are marshaled in the cause of keeping us armed to the teeth. The National Rifle Association insists on the purported right to be armed in the workplace. Employers blanch — it can be awkward to fire an armed recalcitrant, I imagine — but there is a supposed constitutional right to bear arms, the U.S. Supreme Court affirms, as if this is the nation it was in 1789.
I got my first and last weapon in the army. It was the vaunted M-14, and I was told to love it. I had to call it a weapon or a piece or a rifle, but it was never a gun — 20 pushups for that — and I had to clean it and disassemble it and, under pain of court martial, make sure it was free from rust.