Thursday, January 17, 2013

The price we pay

Twenty four years ago today, Patrick Purdy fired a Chinese-made AK-47 assault rifle into the playground at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, Calif., killing five children and wounding 29 others and a teacher — then killed himself.

Law enforcement authorities said Purdy was upset that Asian immigrants were taking whites' jobs. All of the children killed and some of the wounded were Cambodian or Vietnamese immigrants.

His wasn't the first school shooting, of course. Ten years before, a teenager named Brenda Ann Spencer shot into a schoolyard from her house in San Diego, picking off students and teachers like a sniper. Asked why, she said, "I don't like Mondays." Her reason became infamous as the impetus for The Boomtown Rats' hit.

Tori Amos' plaintive version of that song keened from my computer for days following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, when Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adult staff members after killing his mother.

We can see no reasons, because there are no reasons.

Brenda Ann Spencer was not the first school shooter, either. Adam Lanza wasn't the last; police believe a 16-year-old Taft High School student last week shot two other students in the south San Joaquin Valley town. On Tuesday a student shot an administrator and then himself at a St. Louis business school; police say a man in southeastern Kentucky Tuesday killed his girlfriend and her relatives at a community college, with a gun he bought that day.

That's just school shootings. A burglary suspect on Tuesday shot a Galt police officer a half-hour south of us, then shot himself to death.

Just some of the killings by firearms in the United States, which the FBI tabbed at 8,583 in 2011. An average of 23 killings by firearms each day. A classroom's worth.

In my short life as an editorial cartoonist, the Stockton shootings and their aftermath took up a good share of my attention — just as the Sandy Hook killings focus us today.

So … where are we going?

President Obama yesterday unveiled a list of $500 million in proposals to reduce gun violence, such as restoring bans on assault weapons, invigorating background checks, reducing bullets in clips, and buttressing mental health services.

Consider it the latest large volley in a firefight of statistics and particulars and semantics and invective and lunacy that will mushroom.

After the Sandy Hook killings, the National Rifle Association called for armed personnel in all schools. Teachers in parts of Utah and Texas and Ohio have begun firearms training. Posses in a part of Arizona are ready to take gun positions at public schools.

I'm imagining some of the ways that would play out:
  • the day a teacher forgets to lock the gun away and remove a bullet from the chamber, and a student finds a new toy for recess …
  • the morning a teacher fumbles to unlock the protected firearm, then the protected ammunition, as a shooter moves closer down the hall unimpeded …
  • a school district announces it can't possibly pay for music education and teacher target practice, so tubas get tossed …
  • shooters outgun armed school personnel (which happened at Columbine High School) …
  • school and law enforcement officers announce at a future news conference that thanks to quick action by armed teachers, only three people died instead of nine … though, again, three people died …
Meanwhile, Americans flock to the gun shops and shows, buying the assault weapons and ammo, driving up their prices. Some of the buying derives from fear that the government will take away the weapons, and it's easier to lose what you don't have in the first place. And harder to defend.

Gun owners — their own well-regulated militias — dig in against any and all enemies, their triggers becoming ever more sensitive.

Maybe it's true, as the NRA says, that the saturation of violent video games and movies is what makes people shoot other people. Millions play and watch every day, and far more violent fare than the outdated films NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre cited.

Even if all shooters get their motivation from these media, though, the fact remains: They get the guns easily. It doesn't matter what kind, where from, how many bullets; they get the guns easily.

Guns become the logical, terminal extension of anger or confusion or delusion. Find a way to keep the guns away, maybe people won't get hurt or die.

In the months and years to come, push and shove and shout and condemn will leave us all right back where we are. Guns will still be easy to get.

I keep returning to a line in The West Wing, in which a congressman who's gay explains why he remains in the Republican Party — whose policies disparage him.
"I never understood why you gun control people don't all join the NRA," the congressman says. "They've got two million members. You bring three million to the next meeting, call a vote. All those in favor of tossing guns ... bam! Move on." 
Josh Lyman, the president's deputy chief of staff, derides the congressman's change-from-within strategy as unworkable.

I guess Josh is right.

I think we'll just have to live with the idea that the sanctity of the Second Amendment comes at a cost — 23 people killed every day by guns in the United States. Teachers and their little students occasionally, albeit tragically, shot and killed.

It's the price we pay.

The lesson today is how to die.


  1. Thanks for the great read. I thought I was the only one who felt this way.

  2. :). nope. we're all just wondering what to do about it.