Story & image David Lisle
A predictable pattern follows mass shootings in the United States. This unofficial protocol reserves the immediate aftermath of a shooting as a time for thoughts and prayers,not political recrimination. It’s certainly not the time to talk about legislative action to curb gun violence: tragedy must not be politicised.
But the response to the most recent massacre – which claimed 17 lives at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14 – veered radically off script.
The script was followed for a brief while. Reading carefully, and with studied solemnity from the teleprompter the day following the shooting, President Trump expressed his sincere condolences to the bereaved. It was not long before he started dissembling though. The focus must be on mental health he announced, before stressing the importance of not doing anything which just makes us ‘feel’ better. He was alluding to gun control of course.
The sarcasm was vintage Trump and the talking points were straight from the National Rifle Association: blame a rogue individual; deny any association to gun proliferation; identify some causal factor, in this case mental illness. But batting away calls for action on gun control even before they started was most unusual. Careful, deliberate silence is how gun rights activists generally respond in the immediate aftermath of mass shootings.
In the days that followed the shooting a movement was born: Never Again rose from the carnage of Parkland, as students and relatives of those slaughtered at the school descended on the Florida legislature to demand action on gun control. The state’s gun laws are famously lax. Florida is traditionally where the NRA has sought enhanced gun rights, and relied on the precedent to be exported to other states.
On the steps of the Tallahassee Capitol building a student screamed: ‘Thoughts and prayers are not enough to stop the next attack… We are children and we are dying’. And in response to the president’s condolence tweet, Sarah Chadwick, a grieving 16-year-old, tweeted: ‘I don’t want your condolences you fucking piece of shit, my friends and teachers were shot. Multiple of my fellow classmates are dead… Prayers won’t fix this. But gun control will prevent it from happening again’.
These heartfelt, unscripted sentiments have given rise to a clamour for change. It’s evolving quickly. Various student actions are pending including a National School Walkout and the March For Our Lives. Gun control – an issue that neatly divides Republicans and Democrats in a national politics defined by hyper-partisanship – briefly rose to the top of the political agenda. The angry students have injected vigour into a stale, intransigent debate. This time seems different.
Sensing the winds of change, businesses such as United Airlines have severed ties with the NRA. Dick’s Sporting Goods, a leading firearm retailer, has announced that it will no longer stock assault weapons and will get further ahead of national legislation by confining sales to customers aged 21 and over. WalMart is following suit. The shooter in Parkland was nineteen years old, and although still ineligible to purchase alcohol, had purchased his AR-15 assault rifle quite legally.
The president, who positioned himself as the second amendment’s defender-in-chief, has lurched into the conversation, spraying ideas around like grapeshot. Some of the measures he’s proposed have drawn the ire of the gun lobby and fellow Republicans – whom he has accused of being afraid of the NRA. That Trump, who proudly declared he would ‘never, ever let the NRA down’, has gone this far is quite remarkable.
But Trump is nothing if not erratic. The week following the shooting he proposed arming teachers as a measure to harden school defences. (Trained teachers already ‘safeguard’ schools in Texas by carrying concealed weapons.) The idea of throwing more guns at the problem was music to the gun lobby’s ears: more guns for the good guys is always their answer.
Last July, I sat beside a glacier in Alaska and wrote an article about the mythology of guns in America. It was titled Firearm Dreaming and drew heavily on my experiences of days previous when I had met a string of gun fanatics, including one who’d threatened to shoot me for trespass.
I was struck by the way the American psyche venerates guns. The NRA is blamed for America’s obscene gun laws, but it would be powerless if firearms were not held out as the cause of freedom and all that is great about the republic.
The firearm cult will not dissolve overnight. But hope springs eternal from the clamour ignited by these brave kids from Florida.