Born in Glenwood Springs and raised outside Eagle, I grew up on the western slope of Colorado, where guns were from the beginning just a part of life. Before I can remember my father shot with a .22 rifle at the packrats who would invade the cabin up Salt Creek. Sometimes he did this to amuse guests. In an early memory of my own, there’s a fatally wounded mule deer buck in the field of sagebrush below the cabin, and my father goes down there with a rifle to put the creature out of its misery. Not that guns were a large part of my family’s life, by local standards. Other boys went elk hunting with their fathers at a time of year when my family and I merely put on bright orange clothing to go hiking in the woods. All I ever did with a gun myself was shoot at some paper targets my dad had tacked to a tree, or, later, pick off ground squirrels venturing from their burrows up Eby Creek, so that the horses wouldn’t step in the holes the squirrels had dug and break a leg.
The other night on cable TV I watched I Shot My Parents, a BBC documentary about a 14-year-old boy who walked into his parents’ bedroom in the middle of the night and shot each of them three times in the head. This happened in Moses Lake, Washington, in 2013. The boy, Nathon Brooks, was a seemingly cheerful, seemingly well-adjusted basketball star at the local high school. Under police interrogation he cooked up a story about hearing screams, seeing a man moving through the house, and hiding until the coast was clear. When he was told that the security cameras in the house had picked him up running around in his underwear with a gun in his hand, he broke down and confessed, and though he couldn't say why he had shot them, he did say that just before he shot his mother the thought had flashed through his mind that he didn't have to do what he was about to do and that afterwards, when he sat alone on the staircase, he understood that he had done something awful.
What do you call the premeditated murder of 59 people by a heavily armed civilian? News media appear to have settled on the phrase ‘mass shooting’, avoiding the more incendiary term ‘terrorism’ because, we are told, there is no obvious motive behind the shooter’s actions. Masha Gessen in the New Yorkerurges us not to describe this as an act of terror because, so far, ‘no evidence has emerged that the Las Vegas shooter was motivated by political beliefs.’ Scott Shane in the New York Timesagreed that the ‘mass killing of innocents, even on the scale of Las Vegas, does not automatically meet the generally accepted definition of terrorism, which requires a political, ideological or religious motive.’
Up to a point, the US is to guns as the Netherlands is to bicycles. Both bits of kit are widely owned, used and even venerated in their respective lands. Their users can mobilise powerful lobbies. On Saturday on the Haarlemmerstraat I saw an irate motorist get out of his vehicle to bawl at a cyclist. He was quickly surrounded by passers-by and forced back into his car. It was a more satisfactory outcome than some disputes between gun users. But then – and here’s where the analogy begins to give out – bikes aren’t generally designed to kill people. ‘Terrorism’ and ‘tragedy’ thrive in different semantic fields. After the murders in San Bernardino last week the media were at first stumped about whether to call it ‘terror’ or just another ‘tragic’ gun massacre.
Since taking office in 2009, Barack Obama has had to respond to mass shootings in Fort Hood, Texas; Tucson, Arizona; Aurora, Colorado; Oak Creek, Wisconsin; Sandy Hook, Connecticut; Washington, DC; and Fort Hood, Texas (again). Several mass shootings, such as the 2012 massacre at Oikos University – a Christian school in Oakland, California – have gone almost unnoticed. Others, such as last week's shooting at a #BlackLivesMatter protest in Minneapolis, have gone unremarked on by the White House. But such is our new American normal. (It bears mentioning that Obama might have done more to curb gun violence, and unfettered access to guns, during his first year in office, when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress.) As it is, here are the president's responses to mass shootings that took place in 2015:
Racism, as readers of Richard Wright and Chester Himes know, sometimes drives its victims homicidally mad, as in the cases of Bigger Thomas in Native Son or the anonymous sniper in Himes’s extraordinary short story ‘Prediction'. But then again, ‘mad’ may be a cowardly liberal euphemism for a radical defiance that would rather kill and die than submit to further lies and humiliation. Both stories are so unsettling because they leave the reader to divide justice by horror and then ponder the terrifying quotient. Christopher Dorner’s 'Manifesto', the product, we’re told, of the unendurable depression that descended on the author after his dismissal from the LAPD, veers between bipolar extremes. In one section, Dorner taunts his former comrades in sneering acronyms that boast his expertise: 'Your APC are defunct... My POA is always POI.' But the rant is followed by sentimental acknowledgments to friends and several pages of fan notes to eclectic heroes who include Hillary Clinton (his first choice for president in 2016), Chris Christie (his second choice), Dave Brubeck, General Petraeus and Ellen DeGeneres. He’s also a passionate advocate (and argument for) gun control.
Fundamentalism about texts, legal or biblical, marks people of the book. The word, taken at its word, affords a rallying-point of last resort for societies whose bonds are otherwise watery. The Supreme Court judge Antonin Scalia, for instance, is an ‘originalist’ about law – he thinks that with texts like the Second Amendment, their meaning now is what a reasonable person would have taken it to be when it was enacted. Originalism can look quite like ancestor worship, though according to Scalia it is the only way judges can avoid interpreting law via their own prejudices. That claim sounds odder after reading the Supreme Court judgment in DC v. Heller, which ruled unconstitutional a DC law regulating the private ownership of firearms. There Scalia devotes twenty tortuous pages to expositing the phrase ‘keep and bear arms’ as it figures in the Second Amendment, with riffle-throughs of Johnson’s Dictionary, which fail, despite his best efforts, to mask the fact that its meaning turns out to be what a ‘reasonable’ 18th-century pre-incarnation of Antonin Scalia would take it to be.
Barbara Newman in the LRB, 22 March: The Latinate framers of the US constitution employed an ablative absolute in the Second Amendment: ‘A well-regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.’ An interpreter who favoured regimen would argue that the ablative clause determines the sense of the main clause; hence, the state has the right to maintain an army. Those who favour the absolute, as American courts have done, bracket the militia clause and take the main clause to mean that citizens may own as many firearms as they choose. The difference between constructions amounts to roughly 12,000 murders a year.