As I write we are in the first hours after the Connecticut school shooting. The names aren't out yet, the grim body count keeps changing, but it's clear many people, mostly children, are dead.
I didn't grow up with guns. I don't understand guns, I don't like guns. On no other issue is America's urban-rural divide as big as it is on guns. Not on race, not on religion, not on the role of government, nothing is as big a difference in culture and mindset as guns. Rural America hears "gun control" and envisions the black helicopters coming to get their hunting rifles. Urban America looks at it as a way to stop tragedies like today.
And on no other issue has single-issue politics been as effective. It's almost a joke to even discuss "gun control" as a live issue. Congress didn't do anything even when one of their own members was shot in the head. The Democrats gave up after the very mild measures like the Brady Bill of the early 1990s, and even thouse small wins extracted a heavy political price. Saturday Night live spoofed it well in their debate parody on October 20, just days after another mass shooting:
Candy Crowley: Okay. Our next question comes from Lisa Goldstein. Lisa?The sad part: I couldn't even find which one of the three mass shootings that month was being referenced. Because the day after that mock debate there was another mass shooting at a Wisconsin mall. We're numbed to it. The tragedy holds our attention for a few days, or even just hours, then fades.
Lisa Goldstein: I was wondering what either one of you would do to keep dangerous assault weapons, like AK-47s, off the streets?
Mitt Romney: Uhhh... nothing.
President Barack Obama: I would also do nothing.
Today we're in that moment of attention again. "Today is not the day" to discuss gun control, says the president's press secretary. Doesn't matter which president, which party. Our hearts go out to the victims. Just a sick individual. Cliche upon cliche.
It's common enough that we have a standard set of responses. We dispatch grief counselors - a whole specialty schooled in this scenario - but we never talk seriously about guns. The tragedy is always looked at outside the context of the policy.
But if today is not the day, when is it ever going to be the day?
Guns don't kill people, the NRA says, people kill people. True. But people without guns kill far fewer people. You can't stab 27 people - that's the body count at this moment - in minutes.
I'm never going to run for office again so I'll say it: If I could change one thing in the Constitution, it would be the Second Amendment.
But we need far more than a change of law, far more than even a change in the Constitution here. We need to sever the outdated frontier mentality that equates guns with the American identity. And it looks like we need to do that before we can break the political stranglehold that pushes "rights" to the extreme and facilitates tragedies like this.