Point Austin: Will This One Make a Difference?
Orlando could be a turning point ... or else it won't be
So it happens again.
I can't add much of substance to my colleague Sarah Marloff's immediate lamentation online on the larger meaning of the Orlando massacre ("In the Wake of Orlando," June 13), nor to the international multimedia wave of reporting, speculation, testimony, and commentary that has followed. But when 100 people have been gunned down, half or more fatally, by a hotheaded madman armed with a military-style assault weapon – and those people are specifically targeted because of their sexual and racial status – on behalf of all of us, everyone's attention must be paid.
That begins with mourning, of course, and moments of silence, vigils, blood and resource donations – all the small human things people do when tragedies happen, always knowing it's never enough. Beyond these gestures, there is reaching for some larger wisdom about what should happen next, and on that score I also confess I'm fresh out of new ideas. As Americans, we've been talking about gay-bashing, racism, gun control, and so on, for decades, and most of the time it seems we're just treading water, or more blood. I generally don't care for defeatist arguments, but moments like this conjure more pessimism than hope.
President Barack Obama has been particularly eloquent in the last few days on this subject, noting, for example, that Pulse was not simply a nightclub, but functioned also as "a place of solidarity" and civil rights activism for the LGBT community. "So this is a sobering reminder that attacks on any American," he continued, "regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation, is an attack on all of us and on the fundamental values of equality and dignity that define us as a country." If that grace note sounds more wistful than actual, it marks how far we still have to go to make equality and dignity a reality for every American.
After solidarity and mourning, there's also the hard knowledge that racism, homophobia, and toxic masculinity are nourished and amplified in this country by the ready availability of guns, and more particularly of military-style weaponry. On that subject, Obama also remarked: "This massacre is therefore a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school, or in a house of worship, or a movie theatre, or in a nightclub. And we have to decide if that's the kind of country we want to be. And to actively do nothing is a decision as well."
"Actively doing nothing" is an apt description of the GOP-led Congress (abetted by too many Democrats), which has blocked even minor limitations on acquiring homicidal weaponry. In Texas as elsewhere, the official reaction has been to make guns more ubiquitous rather than less. Perhaps there will be substantial grassroots backlash in the wake of this latest outrage; perhaps reasonable gun control will actually become an issue in the presidential campaign, featuring a national candidate so extreme that he might actually generate an effective public movement against the ongoing madness.
But it's difficult to be optimistic, at least in the short term. There are more guns than people in the U.S., and as a group, we Americans, among so-called advanced nations, indulge to a unique extent in shooting and killing one another. A remarkable story in this week's New York Times compares gun homicide rates in the U.S. to those in other "developed democracies." The U.S. rate is 31 gun homicides per million people – "the equivalent of 27 people shot dead every day of the year." The next closest countries, ranked proportionally (Greece, Canada, Ireland) – presuming a U.S. population scale – would be at fewer than five per day.
Thus far in June (through June 14), the Gun Violence Archive (www.gunviolencearchive.org) reports that there have been 20 U.S. "mass shootings" (four or more people shot), including the Orlando massacre. Including more ordinary shootings (fewer than four injuries or deaths), during the last 72 hours (through June 15), the Archive reports 242 U.S. shootings. Even among some 320 million people, that's a staggering record of everyday carnage. "Even if France had a mass shooting as deadly as the Paris attacks [130 deaths] every month," reports the Times, "its annual rate of gun homicide death would be lower than that in the United States."
One wonders – is there something in the water? – all the while knowing there is in fact something in the culture that has gone frighteningly haywire. We have grown accustomed to a tolerance, even an enthusiasm, for massive violence on an international, national, and domestic scale, and only when the bloody numbers are imposing – Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, Orlando – does the carnage evoke much public attention, and then only briefly. Will this most recent massacre finally make a difference, and trigger sufficient public pressure for real change? Work, hope, and wonder.