First came Harvey, which flooded Houston. Next came Irma, which barreled through the Caribbean and laid waste to Florida. Then came Maria, which hit Puerto Rico like a huge bunker-buster bomb. Earlier, an earthquake shook Mexico City and, Sunday night in Las Vegas, at least 58 people were murdered at an outdoor concert — another natural disaster in the timid minds of so many politicians. It will be considered an act of God, albeit by the hand of man, for which prayers will be offered but not, you can bet, remedial legislation.
Mass shootings come and go with the unpredictable regularity of tropical storms. In a nation of millions of gun owners and hundreds of millions of guns, it is always a matter of time before there is a mass killing. Before Las Vegas, there was Orlando (49 killed) and before that Charleston (9) and Roseburg (9) and San Bernardino (14) and Aurora (12) and Newtown (27). In Newtown, 20 of the dead were school children. It was yet another incomprehensible tragedy.
More comprehensible, apparently, is the murder of individual children on a daily basis. Every day, the Brady Campaign tells us, an average of four children are murdered by firearms. Another 40 children and teens are shot but survive. On average, including suicides, 114,994 Americans are shot every year — 11,564 of them murdered. That’s greater than the total killed in all but two years of the Vietnam War. America is a combat zone.
Gun violence has become a cost of being an American. It is like bad weather, a hurricane here and there, or a fire creeping down from the hills or the sudden, but rare attack, of an alligator. Gun violence is treated like the clattering arrival of the 17-year cicadas — just one of those things. It could be fixed, of course, but it will not be. Someone will argue that if the housekeepers on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel were armed they could have burst into Stephen Paddock’s room and shot him dead. Gun enthusiasts will point out that Paddock did not use a handgun, but they will not deal with why and how he could be so weaponized — more than 10 rifles in his room.
Let me reintroduce Milton Eisenhower. (I have mentioned him before.) He was the brother of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and, like Ike, a conservative Republican — the personification of an establishment Republican. Milton had been the president of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson asked him to chair a commission to look into the causes of violence in America. Milton Eisenhower looked and came up with a proposed remedy: confiscate handguns!
Can you imagine someone suggesting that today? President Trump would tweet his ridicule. Rush Limbaugh would have material for a week of invective and Alex Jones, the radio crackpot who insisted the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School never took place, would bray vindication — the government was coming to get your guns. This is how much the country has changed since Eisenhower made his modest proposal. The gun lobby has made moderation crazy and made crazy seem moderate. In the Old West, Dodge City banned guns. Nowadays, you can take them to church.
Effective gun control, like single-payer health insurance, has been pushed to the unacceptable and totally un-American margins. Many Americans now believe they have to have a gun to protect themselves from their own government. Some look in the sky and see the black helicopters of the United Nations (or the Gates Foundation). They argue that the Holocaust could not have happened if the Jews of Europe were armed. But in the Warsaw Ghetto, they were, and the Germans just burned the place down.
Just outside of Washington this past June, a congressman was shot while practicing with his baseball team. As he was lying wounded, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) prayed. He lived, Scalise said, through a miracle, but others will surely die because he and his congressional colleagues will do nothing to control guns. Maybe God saved Scalise. But it was not an act of God that almost took his life.
Set your clock. I will write this column again — just fill in the blanks as to the number of dead. The murder weapon will be an assault rifle or a handgun, and instantly everyone will wonder why. But it’s always the same — madness on the part of the shooter, political cowardice on the part of Congress.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.