When there are mass shootings in America, whether it was the murder of 14 people in San Bernardino this Wednesday or the murder of 10 people at Umpqua Community College in Oregon just this October, my mind inevitably turns to the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech.
That act of mass murder, which left 32 victims dead, spurred a furious and divisive national debate over gun control. And yet, as one of the last mass shootings of the Bush era, that debate was still somehow less fraught and more productive than those so far under President Obama, who by his party and race is far more polarizing on such issues simply by being president.
It is little wonder that while Obama has in both recent shootings clearly signaled his desire for gun control measures to abate the killings, he has also sounded increasingly hopeless that it will happen.
"Somehow, this has become routine," he said. "The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. We've become numb to this." And nothing changes. "This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America."
Maybe something will change; maybe this time we will manage to act. But it's difficult to be anything but pessimistic, and when I think about why that is, my mind goes back again to Virginia Tech and 2007, when the New Yorker's Adam Gopnik wrote what is, to me, the single most powerful paragraph I have read on the subject:
The cell phones in the pockets of the dead students were still ringing when we were told that it was wrong to ask why. As the police cleared the bodies from the Virginia Tech engineering building, the cell phones rang, in the eccentric varieties of ring tones, as parents kept trying to see if their children were OK. To imagine the feelings of the police as they carried the bodies and heard the ringing is heartrending; to imagine the feelings of the parents who were calling — dread, desperate hope for a sudden answer and the bliss of reassurance, dawning grief — is unbearable. But the parents, and the rest of us, were told that it was not the right moment to ask how the shooting had happened — specifically, why an obviously disturbed student, with a history of mental illness, was able to buy guns whose essential purpose is to kill people — and why it happens over and over again in America. At a press conference, Virginia's governor, Tim Kaine, said, "People who want to ... make it their political hobby horse to ride, I've got nothing but loathing for them. ... At this point, what it's about is comforting family members ... and helping this community heal. And so to those who want to try to make this into some little crusade, I say take that elsewhere."
Many things have been written and will continue to be written on America's gun ownership rate (the highest in the world), its gun violence (the worst in the developed world), and the political and social forces that keep this from changing.
What Gopnik captured was not just the horrific costs of gun violence or the frustrating politics of gun control, but the special sort of anguish that we inflict on ourselves in the United States by forbidding any meaningful conversation around the tragedies that unfold over and over again.
There is an unwritten American rule that the aftermath of a mass shooting is the wrong time to talk about gun control. As Gopnik wrote, this logic would be recognized as absurd if applied to anything else: "The aftermath of a terrorist attack is the wrong time to talk about security, the aftermath of a death from lung cancer is the wrong time to talk about smoking and the tobacco industry, and the aftermath of a car crash is the wrong time to talk about seat belts."
Gopnik ended his piece with a call to ban handguns — a political nonstarter in 2007 and, in 2015, something that would be unimaginable to even discuss. That fact itself, that his concluding line has become more politically unthinkable rather than less, seems to drive home his point: that mass shootings will continue in America, and that Americans will refuse to seriously debate whether our culture of gun ownership is worth the costs.
"There is no reason that any private citizen in a democracy should own a handgun," he wrote. "At some point, that simple truth will register. Until it does, phones will ring for dead children, and parents will be told not to ask why."