This Monday began once again with government leaders offering “thoughts and prayers” to those who lost loved ones in the appalling shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. That’s where Devin Patrick Kelley, an Air Force veteran with a record of assaulting his wife and a child and a bad-conduct discharge, strode into the middle of worship services and rained death on congregants with a semiautomatic Ruger assault rifle.
Offering prayers is a touching gesture from ordinary citizens expressing sympathies with the grieving. Coming from lawmakers empowered to do more, the gesture is an empty one, reeking of political cowardice.
Kelley slaughtered 26 men, women and children, including an 18-month-old toddler, the 14-year-old daughter of the pastor and an 8-year-old boy hiding in a pew. He killed them in the act of worship, killed the visiting pastor as he walked toward the pulpit. It is depressing to note that such abominations simply do not occur in other countries with the numbing regularity that has become sadly typical of this country. Just this fall, Spencer James Hight shot up his estranged wife’s home in Texas while she hosted a football party in September, killing her and seven others. Three weeks later came Stephen Craig Paddock, who opened fire on an outdoor country music concert in Las Vegas, slaughtering 58 and wounding more than 500. Now, barely a month after that, another lone gunman has added to the deadly toll of this nation’s obsession with firearms.
The response from leading Republicans has become all too typical. When an Uzbek immigrant drove his car into a crowd of bicyclists in New York last week, President Donald Trump immediately called for the death penalty and changes to immigration laws. But on Sunday, confronted with yet another white American male who exorcised his personal demons by killing innocents, Trump said only that this was not a “guns situation,” but a “mental health problem at the highest level.”
Perhaps Trump could explain, then, why he signed a repeal of an Obama-era rule designed to prevent certain persons with mental illness from legally purchasing firearms. A Republican-dominated House and Senate passed that repeal, which Trump signed one month into his term.
Other Republicans have attributed Kelley’s actions to “evil.” That sounds overwhelming, almost fatalistic. What can mere legislators do, after all, against pure evil? But this, too, should be recognized for the dodge it is. Kelley may have been “deranged,” as Trump said, or “evil,” as others have said. Such individuals occupy every corner of the globe — always have and always will. But only in the United States are they enabled to carry out their darkest fantasies with state-of-the-art weaponry and ample rounds of ammunition.
The gun culture in this country was not always like this. The frenzy of gun-buying has been stoked for years by those who somehow consider firearms the ultimate expression of personal liberty. This country reaps the sad result daily, with death tolls that horrify other nations. Japan, where Trump is now visiting, is among those with severe restrictions. Handguns are banned outright and rifles are allowed only after extensive training and background checks. The restrictions are extreme, but it is hard to quarrel with the results: In 2014, the U.S. recorded more than 35,000 gun deaths. Japan, population 127 million, had six.
The mass shootings are coming so frequently now that they fail to provoke the shock and horror they once did. The grief is no less, but shock has been replaced by a now-familiar ache, and a mounting sense of nameless fear, that no place — not an elementary school, not a church, not a concert — is safe.
That is not freedom.