Government & Politics
 

Scalise tragedy: Let’s break the taboo and talk about guns anyway

Take your pick:

  • The security detail assigned to protect Steve Scalise — two Washington cops who were wounded in the course of killing a crackpot gunman — is proof positive that we need more guns and handier access to them. Had the cops not been present, the carnage might have been much worse.
  • Even with a two-cop security detail, a U.S. congressman isn’t safe in the streets — or on the ball fields — of a nation ridden with guns and people crazy enough to use them.

Scalise website

U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise

Scalise, R-Metairie, the House majority whip, was upgraded from critical to serious over the weekend and was said to be speaking with family members. He is one of five people wounded in the incident triggered when a disgruntled anti-Trump fanatic from suburban Illinois opened fire Wednesday morning on a baseball diamond across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital.

In an unrelated incident hours after Scalise fell, a man gone “postal” shot to death three co-workers at a San Francisco UPS facility then blew himself away. (With cable news networks training their cameras on any and every congressman eager to bloviate about the ballpark shootings, it was easy to forget that four dead was a heavier toll than five injured.)

But who’s keeping score?

What happened to Scalise — a shot to the hip that requires multiple surgeries — was atrocious. We extend condolences to him and his family, also to the families of the injured police.

Also to the families and loved ones of the San Francisco victims.

Scalise has now had an up-close and personal encounter with one of the weapons he has fought tirelessly to keep available to us, his constituents, and to all Americans, the mentally ill included. Once he’s able to address the issue, it will be interesting to see whether there’s any inflection in his views of the NRA agenda he has so heartily embraced.

I doubt it. Even the slightest sign of resistance to “gun rights” is political suicide in a state as red as Louisiana. More likely Scalise will react along the lines of his GOP teammate U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Alabama, and try to turn the incident into a moment of further service to the gun lobby.

“My adrenaline is raging,” Brooks told CNN as Scalise was rushed into surgery. “It’s not easy to take when you see people around you being shot and you don’t have a weapon yourself.”

Perhaps that yearning for a weapon was Brooks’ way of atoning for not having joined Scalise and the Republican majority in the Feb. 2 vote against an Obama regulation that would have restricted access to guns by people who are mentally ill.

In fairness to the Alabama lawmaker, though he defines himself as a staunch defender of the 2nd Amendment, he gets cold feet about allowing people to carry guns into his workplace, the U.S. Capitol.  TV pundit Chris Hayes mocked him for embracing the double standard: Gun protections for thee, but not for me?

The slain shooter in the ballpark incident was identified as James Hodgkinson, a bearded 66-year-old from Belleville, Ill., a suburb of St. Louis. Friends, family and Facebook postings suggest he was a left-wing crackpot pushed over the edge by his hatred of Donald Trump. (Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Hodgkinson’s preferred candidate in last year’s presidential primaries, publicly deplored the shootings.)

Whatever Hodgkinson’s mental state, the certainty in the early hours after he opened fire with a semi-automatic assault rifle was this: Once again we have been witness to the continuing degradation of a society that has failed wildly and tragically to come up with anything like a sensible strategy for keeping guns off the street and out of the hands of sickos and troublemakers.

Oh, but wait! I’m breaking a rule. You’re never supposed to talk about gun politics in the aftermath of the latest mass shooting. Bobby Jindal, then governor, invoked that rule after the Charleston church shootings in 2015. As noted by Chris Ingraham in the Washington Post, a month later when the mass shooting was in a Lafayette movie theater right here in Louisiana, Jindal invoked the rule and clammed up yet again.

So when are you supposed to talk gun policy in a society that, as Ingraham notes, has a mass shooting almost every other day — so many that most don’t even make national news?

Now a Louisiana Congressman has been added to the toll. Hush. Let’s all observe a respectful silence. Maybe the problem will go away.

Spineless governors and legislators seem destined forever to cower before the almighty power of the National Rifle Association. The gun industry’s chief lobbying arm, the NRA has cleverly twined various strands in American culture into the noose now choking off rational debate in our politics and society.

One strand is the frontier fantasy of a gun-totin’ America that TV westerns and other media carried into the late 20th century and beyond. Another has been the artful twisting of the 2nd Amendment from an assertion of a state’s right to establish a militia into sanction for the bullet-ridden free-for-all that now makes it legal to carry concealed weapons into college classrooms and churches and even some SEC football games.

We regulate automobiles, nuclear plants, air pollution, the use of trans fats, access to heroin. Why such a rabid refusal to exercise control over much more dangerous consumer products, hardware whose primary if not sole purpose is to wound or kill?

It’s remarkable how much energy the Steve Scalises of the world have devoted to easing access to guns, rather than thinking intelligently about ways to end the “carnage,” a Trumpian term, that is playing out in the streets of so many American cities, New Orleans among them.

Scalise’s website declares him “pro-gun,” exults in his “A+ rating from the National Rifle Association,” and lists legislation he has “sponsored and cosponsored” that, among other things, makes it easier to buy a gun and conceal that you’re carrying one.

All right, congressman: Congratulations. Now let’s talk about the problem you aren’t tackling aggressively: your many constituents who are using guns to kill each other and themselves, not to mention the risk they pose to the unarmed majority of men and women trying to earn a living or simply enjoy an evening on the town? Surely that problem is worth a glance. Maybe even cosponsorship of the occasional bill.

Are gun-control laws bullet-proof? Of course not. Are there fires in buildings with fire escapes and sprinkler systems? Pushing back against out-of-control gun proliferation is a matter of mitigating risk.

Clearly it is useless for Virginia to have enacted some restrictions on access to high-powered weapons if adjacent jurisdictions are armed to the teeth. Certainly there will be mass shootings even if legislation and enforcement begin to choke off the river of weaponry flowing to the streets. We’d settle for fewer of them.

But where does this arming of America end? Let’s assume that Congressman Brooks actually knows how to handle the weaponry he yearned to have with him at the ballpark Wednesday morning. Let’s assume he’d be a better shot than Scalise’s security detail, the two Capitol police officers who were wounded. Is it the symptom of a healthier society when an infielder has to strap on a holster and tote a firearm out to second base? (Easier if you take off that glove before trying to fire your weapon, Congressman Brooks.)

It was interesting to note the uniquely different reactions on opposite sides of the Atlantic to the recent terrorist attack on London Bridge and in the adjacent Borough Market district. Three people were mowed down by the terrorists’ rented truck; five others died (and dozens more were wounded) by 12-inch ceramic kitchen knives wielded by the attackers.

In England, you could legitimately read the mode of attack as evidence that strict British gun laws actually do make it harder for even hell-bent Islamist crackpots to get firearms. The contrary reaction among the pro-gun crowd in the U.S. was to note that violence occurs even with strict gun-control laws — as indeed it does, just not as effortlessly. No one had to rent a van and drive it out onto the baseball field to run down Steve Scalise; Hodgkinson didn’t lunge at him with a ceramic kitchen knife, though his doctors surely wish now that a knife wound was all they were dealing with.

Scalise looks to have been luckier than Gabby Gifford, the Arizona congresswoman whose life was permanently impaired when a madman shot her in the head during a public appearance six years ago. Doctors say Scalise is expected to make a full recovery.

The American epoch began with our ascendency onto the world stage and may even survive the Trump administration’s bizarre decision to hand off global leadership to China, Russia and Western Europe. But when it comes time to write its obituary, the political establishment’s acquiescence to the gun lobby — our failure to disarm those who would destroy democracy — will be seen as one of the weirder factors in America’s decline.

Julius Caesar, the subject of a controversial New York production of Shakespeare’s classic, was assassinated by senators who saw his dictatorship as evil. America has armed a vast mob of fools and vigilantes like Hodgkinson and left the job to their judgment.

Restoring civility to American society will require a cultural sea change as careful and systematic as the one engineered over the past few decades by the NRA.

Can it happen here? Maybe it’s too late. But until it does, there will be hell to pay, and not just by Steve Scalise.

Views expressed in the Opinion section are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.

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