Kenneth Rexroth began his beautiful 1952 elegy to the old Wobblie Eli Jacobson this way:
“There are few of us now, soon
there will be none. We were comrades
together, we believed we
would see with our own eyes the new
world where man was no longer
wolf to man, but men and women
were all brothers and lovers
together. We will not see it.
We will not see it, none of us.
It is farther off than we thought.”
These days, those bleak opening lines frequently come to mind when I consider the situation of America’s gun control advocates—of whom I have long been one. I have been involved in opinion journalism for more than 40 years and in that time have engaged many of the most contentious issues of a turbulent and angry age—capital punishment, reproductive rights, farm labor, marriage equality, immigration, police reform. But on the matter of rational firearms regulation, the position that I and other like-minded advocates have advanced has been completely and decisively defeated.
It’s a defeat that weighs on my mind in the wake of Sunday’s horrific slaughter in Orlando.
Since the Roberts Court’s decision in the Heller case that the Second Amendment confers an individual right to gun ownership, all but a handful of jurisdictions—like California—essentially have abandoned any attempt at meaningful gun control. When the gun control debate began in earnest in the 1960s, we basically were speaking of sporting arms when we spoke of gun ownership—rifles and shotguns that were used for traditional pursuits like hunting or target shooting. Coming from a shooting and hunting family as I do, I respect those sports and the right of Americans to pursue them. Some of my own happiest boyhood memories are of Autumn Saturdays spent hunting quail with my father.
But today, the majority of guns in private hands are precisely the ones most in need of regulation, easily concealed handguns—particularly the semiautomatic variety with high-volume magazines and military-style assault weapons. Why Americans have been drawn to these guns in such numbers is a complex question that I won’t belabor here, but the result is clear: Among the world’s nations, only war-ravaged Yemen is more heavily armed on a per capita basis than the United States.
We have become a country of sleepwalkers in willing thrall to deadly illusion and the consequence is a nightmare from which the rest of us now are powerless to awake.
The Orlando killer, a vocal homophobe as well as a radical Islamist, had twice been questioned by the FBI because he was in contact with Islamic radicals. One of them became the only American citizen to perform a suicide bombing in Syria on behalf of the so-called Islamic state. Yet he was able to go last week and buy the AR-15 assault-style rifle and 9mm Glock handgun he used to kill half a hundred and wound half a hundred more. There was an armed guard at the door of the night club night club he attacked, an off-duty police officer trained in use of his sidearm. It did neither him nor any of the other victims any good when the killer brought to bear his military grade fire power.
This is the country we have not just allowed ourselves to become, it is the one a majority of us have insisted we bring into being. We have become a country of sleepwalkers in willing thrall to deadly illusion and the consequence is a nightmare from which the rest of us now are powerless to awake.
In the remarks he delivered from the White House Sunday, President Barack Obama noted that the Orlando massacre was “the most deadly shooting in American history. The shooter was apparently armed with a handgun and a powerful assault rifle. This massacre is therefore a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school, or in a house of worship, or a movie theater, or in a nightclub. And we have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be. And to actively do nothing is a decision as well.”
He is tragically right.
Over the next few days, we will hear the usual suspects—the NRA’s professional gun apologists and their cowed political allies—roll out the same excuses for how nothing could have prevented the Orlando slaughter, with the possible exception of arming everybody in the night club. In the aftermath of the Newtown atrocity in which more than 20 small school children were gunned down in their primary school it became clear that nothing can or will be done rationally regulate firearms.
Americans have decided to behave irrationally when it comes to guns, and apparently no volume of gore, no toll in innocent lives cut short, no amount of grief suffered by shattered families and circles of friends ever will shake them back into reason.
Our society’s wolves simply will go on being wolves to man.