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The Age of Contradiction

Can you be tough on terrorism and terrorists here in America if at the same time you support rules that could help terrorists obtain and bear arms?

December 8, 2015

We live in a country where the very politicians who seem most fearful of allowing hassled and harried Syrian women and children to take refuge on our shores are the ones who refuse to back legislation that would make it harder for actual suspected terrorists on our “watch lists” to get their hands on assault weapons here. We live under a government that violates our privacy rights every day in the fight against terrorism but which refuses to strengthen its gun regulations even after hearing and seeing terror leaders abroad urge their followers to use those lax laws as yet another tactical weapon to kill more of us.

We live in a country whose founders worshiped science and reason but which today forbids federal funding for scientific research on gun violence that could help our policy makers better understand the scope of a problem that takes tens of thousands of American lives each year. We live under an ambiguous Constitution where an individual right to bear arms is at least as much a judicial creation as is the individual right to an abortion but where the loudest voices in support of the former are often the shrillest opponents of the latter (and vice versa, for that matter).

What would America be like if it were as difficult to buy a gun as it is to get an abortion in Texas? We surely will never know. But, speaking of Texas, we know we live in a nation where you can vote in one of the biggest states if you show your gun permit as identification but not if you only can show your student identification card. On and on go the contradictions and hypocrisy, right down to the “thoughts and prayers” meme we now reflexively see from our elected officials in the wake of mass shootings. “Pray for the dead,” Mary Harris “Mother” Jones used to say, “and fight like hell for the living.”

The truth is we aren’t fighting nearly hard enough for the living, for the next ten or twenty or thirty thousand or so Americans who surely will die from gun violence in 2016, victims either of their own hand, or someone they know, or some well-armed, angry, delusional stranger in tactical military gear. And we aren’t fighting enough for the thousands of gun violence victims who don’t die on some cold floor each year but whose wounds, physical and otherwise, linger on long after the rest of us have forgotten the names of the battlefields (Columbine, Sandy Hook, Roseburg, Charleston, on and on these names go, a litany of death and destruction that soon will surpass the carnage of the Civil War).

Does the blending of gun violence and terrorism — the San Bernardino story, really — presage some sort of new political calculus that will prompt gun reform? Can you be tough on terrorism and terrorists here in America if at the same time you support rules that could help terrorists obtain and bear arms? Has the time come for an ideological movement the leaders of which say: “In the same way we must accept restrictions on our privacy rights under the 4th Amendment and the 1st Amendment in the name of stopping terrorism so too do we accept restrictions on our 2nd Amendment rights.”

Or are we about to be reminded that the right to bear arms is some sort of Orwellian right, not quite like all the others. There are no easy answers here. I certainly don’t have any. I am mindful of the limited effectiveness of the gun regulations sought by the White House and other supporters of more gun control. I am aware of the practical and legal consequences of implementing the sorts of regulations that might effectively keep more weapons out of the hands of more men and women who shouldn’t have them. But each time a mass shooting occurs, and someone says that more gun control would not have prevented the attack, I think of what that must sound like to a family member of a victim or a survivor of a deadly attack.

What I do know is this: we aren’t going to find the right answer to this wrenching problem by precluding our brightest researchers from gathering data about it. And we sure aren’t going to find the right answers if our elected officials continue to put the interests of the NRA and the gun industry ahead of the public. How unlikely is change any time soon? The New York Times printed its first front-page editorial in 95 years on the topic over the weekend and the most visible response from the right was an online piece that proudly showed bullet holes in a copy of that edition of the paper. No wonder those foreign terrorists are telling their adherents they’ve found a soft spot in our lines as the endless war on terror rolls on.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.