The tears have only begun to flow in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where a man armed with enough firepower to stop a platoon laid waste to a community of Baptist believers 30 miles outside of San Antonio on Sunday. At least 26 were killed.
The grief has begun but is still so raw we might ask, as we normally do: Is it the right time to talk about guns? About America’s unusual embrace of guns and gun culture, and whether that has anything to do with these heart-stopping and life-rending events?
Why they are so bloody? So numbingly frequent?
Or is now not a good time? Is it, perhaps, too soon?
No, it is not too soon. Call it past time. Say it’s a conversation grossly in arrears. If we do not talk about this violence and the role guns play in it now, then when will we ever find the heart, the guts and the determination to do so?
Well, I’ll tell you when. Never.
Never. Not even when a young gunman lays waste to an elementary school. Not when Omar Mateen, with his history of domestic violence and recent gun purchases, kills more than 50 in Orlando’s gay nightclub Pulse. Not when two ISIS-inspired converts in San Bernardino, Calif., run their ruinous rampage.
None of these attacks is ever the same. Each death is an individual tragedy, unlike any that have ever come before or any that will follow. But in other ways, they are all the same. An ordinary moment, say at a church or club or in school, and then — then death strikes in a rapid-fire burst of spent shells and shrieks and all around lives are left cracked open like a tree split down to its roots by a rogue bolt of blue lightning.
You know what else is the same? Our dance around these questions of guns. That’s the same. The hypocrisy of voices on the one hand saying “Don’t play politics!” and at the same time clapping when Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton wades right in with his fool of a message to Texans, to whom he said Sunday that if just more of us would get licensed to carry guns ourselves, events like this will happen less often and with less carnage.
That’s rich. Paxton spoke up after early reports indicted the shooter was chased off the church’s property by a townsman with his own rife. But at that point, the shooter was already coming out of the church, where he’d claimed the vast majority of his victims. By some accounts, the shooting inside the church had taken only seconds, or perhaps as much as a few minutes. It’s beyond reckless to slough off talk of gun laws by urging everyone to be armed.
Meanwhile, here’s a tidbit that Paxton won’t tell you. America’s gun laws, the ones we are so reluctant to talk about when it matters most, have been worked over wholesale in the past 10 years. In 2008, the Supreme Court said for the first time that the 2nd Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms, and ruled that the toughest gun control law in the nation had gone too far, when D.C. officials had banned outright all handguns.
But even then, the late Justice Antonin Scalia said that of course cities, states and Congress have the right to add new and different restrictions, so long as they are reasonable. In practice, the efforts in Austin and Washington have been entirely in the other direction, toward making it easier to buy, carry and even shoot those guns.
So now when once more the nation is brought up short, with its heart in its throat, over a deadly mass shooting, the instinct is to avoid the “politics” of gun control policy. To let people mourn in peace, and to postpone the debate.
But that debate never comes — or if it does, it’s so tepid that we ought to be ashamed. Last month, after the mass shooting in Las Vegas, some brave Republican lawmakers called for hearings — hearings! — on whether cheap adjustments capable of making semi-automatic rifles fully automatic ought to be regulated.
Hearings! Such bravery stands out like milk curdled in its pail, fouling the smell of the barn.
There is still much to learn about Sunday’s shootings, including about the shooter and whether laws already on the books should have prevented him for having his guns, as early reports suggested.
But whether he acquired his arsenal legally or not, it’s just as true that here was a man who, if early reports are to be believed, felt so comfortable showing off his assault-style rifle last month that he posted it to Facebook, bragging about the cool murder machine.
If that doesn’t speak to some inherent permissiveness when it comes to deadly weapons that make these mass murders possible, then I don’t know what would.
Michael A. Lindenberger is a Dallas Morning News columnist.