Hours after 19 children and two adults were shot and killed at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Tex., President Biden captured the range of emotions coursing through a shaken country: grief, sadness, sympathy, despair, frustration, contempt, anger, even fury.
Robb Elementary now joins Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Sandy Hook Elementary School, Virginia Tech and Columbine High School, among others, in a roster of death at educational institutions. Nowhere, it seems, are children and young people engaged in learning truly safe in America. Not in a nation where guns outnumber people, where a culture of gun violence continues to be tolerated and where episodes of carnage have become the norm.
Biden called for action by Congress to tighten gun laws, just as President Barack Obama did after the Sandy Hook shooting 10 years earlier in Newtown, Conn. Obama had deputized Biden, then his vice president, to lead that effort, but a bipartisan bill was defeated in the Senate thanks to the influence of the gun lobby, led then by the National Rifle Association. In the decade since, the country has been paralyzed politically as one mass shooting after another takes place, sometimes only days apart, as was the case this month with the Buffalo and Uvalde killings.
In the years after Sandy Hook, the NRA has been hollowed out and weakened by scandal. But no matter. The gun lobby as it exists today is a citizen-grounded movement that retains a stranglehold on the Republican Party. Instead of moves to tighten gun laws, legislatures in Republican-led states, among them Texas, have acted to loosen them.
These actions further enshrine the gun culture as part of America’s heritage, all in the name of the Second Amendment, though it’s questionable that the Founders envisioned the constitutional right to bear arms serving as such a shield in the face of mass shootings of children.
Speaking on Wednesday, Biden said the Second Amendment “is not absolute” and renewed his call for what he called “common sense” gun legislation, saying such a measure would not negatively affect the amendment’s rights.
Tuesday’s rampage in the small community of Uvalde ended as the second most deadly elementary school shooting in the past decade, just behind Sandy Hook, where 20 elementary students were killed, along with six adults. It came just 10 days after a racist attack at a grocery store in Buffalo that killed 10 people.
The Uvalde episode was the 27th school shooting this year and the 119th since 2018, according to Education Week, which began compiling an inventory of such horrors that year. Think about what it means that the killings of children in their schools have become common enough to need such a list.
Biden noted that in the decade since Sandy Hook, there have been 900 incidents of gunfire at schools. More than 300,000 students have been exposed to gun violence since the 1999 shooting at Columbine, in Colorado, according to a Washington Post database. No other country can claim such a shameful record.
Many factors can cause someone to go into a school filled with innocent children — or a nightclub filled with happy partyers (Orlando, 2016), or a Walmart filled with shoppers on their regular rounds (El Paso, 2019), or a church where people are praying on a weeknight (Charleston, S.C., 2015), or an outdoor concert venue packed with country music lovers (Las Vegas, 2017) — and open fire. Mental illness, alienation and inner rage are among the reasons often cited or discovered after the fact. These are sometimes hard to spot, but as often as not they are spotted and ignored.
America is not unique in having these maladies among its population, the president noted this Tuesday night. People in other countries suffer from mental illnesses, or are lost souls alienated from their societies, or are filled with politically inspired rage. These are human traits, after all. Only in America, however, do these afflictions manifest themselves with such regularity in mass shootings that leave families grieving, communities broken, presidents outraged and too many elected officials incapable of coming together.
After Tuesday’s killings, some Texas officials said that schools need additional protection, with armed police or other armed security personnel guarding the premises. This is often seen as a solution — “a good guy with a gun,” as the saying goes. Perhaps. But in Buffalo, a security guard engaged the shooter at the grocery store. The shooter was wearing body armor, and the security guard was killed. In Uvalde, two police officers encountered the shooter at the school; he nonetheless entered the school building and carried out his killings.
Red-flag laws, more resources for identifying and treating mental health, and more protection for students are some of the answers offered up at times such as these. They can contribute to identifying possible killers or protecting the innocent. They are not the only answers, however. Nor has there been a rush to enact them. After a 2018 shooting that killed 10 people at a school in Santa Fe, Tex., Gov. Greg Abbott (R) raised the idea of enacting a red-flag law. Resistance from gun activists and other Texas politicians scuttled the idea, and Abbott backed away.
Nor are tougher gun laws necessarily the only answer. In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed federal legislation to tighten gun laws, moving in a year in which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated to capitalize on public sentiment. He decried the power of the gun lobby as having prevented even tougher measures from being enacted. It has been a constant refrain.
There have been other steps taken to tighten gun laws. One was the ban on assault weapons enacted in 1994, a law championed by Biden when he was a senator, but the 10-year prohibition expired at its sunset in 2004. Studies showed that it might have had a modest impact on mass shootings. There has been a proliferation in the years after the ban ended. Since then, further efforts to restrict the use of high-capacity magazines have failed, as have efforts to expand background checks on most gun sales, a part of the legislation that was defeated after Sandy Hook.
In the face of inaction at the federal level to make it harder for potential killers to possess and use guns, there is now movement in the states in the opposite direction. The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence was established after then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was badly wounded in a 2011 shooting that killed six and wounded 12 others in Tucson. The center’s website reports that in 2021, legislators in a dozen states enacted laws “to prevent America’s modest gun laws from being enforced.”
Various states have repealed laws that required gun owners to have permits to carry concealed weapons. Today, according to the Giffords Center, 21 states allow someone to buy and carry a weapon “into public places without any background check or safety training.”
No law can stop all crimes, nor can any society eradicate evil. But America has a unique problem with guns. Public opinion has long been on the side of taking additional action to do more about that, but politicians — Republican politicians — bow to the loudest voices in their base, whether ordinary citizens or the NRA or gun manufacturers who are adamant that any step toward restrictions is a step toward confiscation.
So long as that exists, so long as the right to bear arms is seen as wholly sacrosanct and not subject to scrutiny, Biden will not be the last president to exclaim, as he did Tuesday night: “Why are we willing to live with this carnage? Why do we keep letting this happen?”