In Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” U.S. troops in Vietnam were portrayed as practicing a form of mental gymnastics whereby they eased their consciences after shooting someone in half by giving them a Band-Aid. As I watch my country process the latest mass shooting, it occurs to me that in a very real sense Americans brought the mental gymnastics and massacres of Vietnam home in the form of the M-16 assault rifle.
The “civilian” version of the M-16 (AR-15) has become “America’s Rifle,” according the NRA, and there are more of these rifles in the hands of American civilians now than were in the hands of U.S. military personnel in during the Vietnam War. The killers of Columbine, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, Colorado Springs, and Orlando used AR-15s or other assault-style weapons, and these are our My Lai massacres. (The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that the weapon used in Orlando and initially described by Orlando police as an “AR-15-type assault rifle” was a Sig Sauer MCX, originally designed for the U.S. Special Operations forces.)
As we prepare to bury another 49 victims of yet another massacre, we’re also busy performing mental gymnastics. Our 24-hour news cycle is busy recycling the same shallow “analysis,” and viewers nationwide are responding with the same “heartfelt” sorrow. But nobody anywhere is or has actually done anything that could realistically prevent such massacres from happening — so they keep happening.
Once again a crazy person got hold of an assault weapon and used it to commit mass murder. By “crazy” I don’t just mean someone with mental illness; I think politically or religiously motivated terror attacks are their own kind of crazy, whether the attacker is diagnosable or not.
Once again, talking heads are all over the media talking about crazy people: Who are they? Where do they come from? How did they get their guns? How do they choose their targets? Were they acting alone? As if asking these questions can or will prevent future massacres, as if we can convert psychobabble into bulletproof vests.
No process would be reliable
Listen: Crazy people just are, and they always will be. There is no study or screening process, or background check, or database that can or will reliably identify all crazy people. Furthermore a plethora of seriously legitimate problems with any scientific attempt to identify crazy people, not to mention human rights and privacy problems associated with such attempts, make any such project an exercise in futility. The truth is a person can be perfectly sane one year and mad as a hatter the next for a variety of reasons ranging from drug abuse to PTSD, and every “radicalized” person was once … not radical.
When are you going to do your screening and studying and understanding and whom are you going to choose to screen, and study, and understand? What are we going to do, screen everyone over the age of 10 every six months for their entire lives? Screen them with what? Screen them FOR what? And then what are you going do? You’re going to create a big national data base of crazy people and put them on exclusion lists of some kind? We can’t even manage our TSA No-Fly lists and you think this is how we’re going to stop massacres? Need I remind you that in several of the last mass shootings the murderers either did or would have passed background checks and FBI investigations?
Hey, several science-fiction writers just called and they want their plots back.
U.S. vs. England
Studying these attackers and their attacks might have some intellectual value, but as far as preventing further attacks is concerned I can tell you what we need to know right now: These people should never get their hands on assault weapons. The difference between England and the U.S. isn’t that we have more crazy people. The difference is that crazy people in England don’t have assault weapons.
The solution isn’t some kind of magic “profile” that we can use to keep assault weapons out of the hands of crazy people. Whack-A-Mole may be a fun arcade game, but it’s a poor excuse for security. The solution is keeping assault weapons out of anyone’s hands. The truth is, no one actually needs these weapons outside of the military — so trying to discern who should or shouldn’t have them is a fool’s errand. No one should have them. We simply need to ban the sale of these weapons and create a program to buy them back from civilians who realize they don’t need or want them anymore.
The problem isn’t making a sales ban (We had a sales ban, we can make another one), the problem is deciding to make one. All these big crocodile tears, and flags at half mast, and vigils, and moments of silence are just Band-Aids assuaging our collective conscience. The truth is we’ve decided that having assault weapons is more important than the lives of children, dancers, co-workers, clinic workers, and even loved ones. We’ve witnessed one massacre after another and have done nothing to stop them; we just apply Band-Aids afterwards. The choice we’ve made?: Sure massacres are awful, but I guess we can live with them as long as we get to keep our AR-15s and Glocks.
Accept the choice or make a new one
So I have to say I’m no longer impressed with the tears and prayers and other Band-Aids we offer up after every massacre. Hey, you made your choice, so now either make yourself comfortable with that choice — or make a different choice!
If you’re interested in what the nuts and bolts of a workable assault-weapon ban might look like, I’ve outlined an example here.
Paul Udstrand is a photographer and writer who lives in Minneapolis. A version of this article appeared in his blog, Thoughtful Bastards.
WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.)