July 2012

The Aurora Shootings: An Appreciation

John Kilgore

Is this a great country, or what? Just when you are starting to be seriously worried about America, when there have been four straight months of bad jobs reports, when the Presidential campaign on both sides seems to be coming straight from the Mean Girls table at some middle school, when hateful Ivy League types on NPR are pointing out that our health care system is three times less efficient than Taiwan's, when not just the Japanese and the Koreans and the British and the French, but the Swedes and Chinese and Indians and for God's sake the effing Serbians are kicking our obese butts in international math-and-science competitions, when the War on Drugs is the same losing proposition it has been for fifty years, when efforts to restrain the slaughter in Syria just a bit, if only long enough to let the blood clot on the asphalt, are stymied by the Chinese and Russians as effectively as Obama's efforts to do anything about the economy have been stymied by Tea Party types with cheap flags and bad haircuts, when our bottomless appetite for incarceration sends a million citizens of the Land of the Free, most of them brown or black, to crammed disintegrating prisons where they may be subject to freeform torture, rape, and murder, when everyone loves crime shows because they soothe our guilt over this, when nothing matters or speaks but money, money, and again money, when even the effing weather testifies to a hopelessly broken climate, promising endless hardships ahead and confirming our disgrace in rejecting the Kyoto Protocols, when the coral reefs are dying and the HIV new-infection rate is back up, when the do-nothing Congress and the dare-nothing President have been waltzing around these and all other problems with no appreciable progress for three of the past four years, when a smart-ass new HBO series by Aaron Sorkin takes off from a rant denouncing and denying what we have never before even dreamed of questioning, that we are the greatest country on earth and the swellest people in the universe—just when you are on the point of getting seriously bummed by all of this, there comes along something that reminds you all at once, unmistakably, of who we are and what we do best, so that suddenly you feel proud as ever to be an American.

I am speaking, of course, of the July 20th massacre in Aurora, Colorado. What a piece of vintage Americana! What an amazing performance! Even going by the early returns, the numbers are genuinely impressive: 12 dead and 58 (count 'em!) wounded, all in one glorious, orgasmic spree that lasted perhaps three minutes. In the grand trophy case of American mass shootings, several of them so recent the polish still gleams, this one cannot quite touch Virginia Tech (32, 17) or the Killeen, Texas, Luby's (23, 20) or the San Ysidro McDonald's (21, 0) or the University of Texas Tower (16, 31), and has to yield even to Edmond, Oklahoma, (14, 0) and Fort Hood, Texas (13, 32). But with eleven victims still on the critical list, there is still a possibility that mortality in Aurora will edge past that of the nearer competitors.

More to the point, this latest shooting stands out for its crisp, military efficiency, its artful economy of means. All the necessary weaponry was purchased legally, by a shooter with no previous knowledge of firearms, in a span of under two months (together with many thousands of bullets, arguably the one planning excess). The single-shooter approach effected a per-capita kill rate that was double that of the Columbine massacre (12, 26), leaving Dylan and Klebold, for the moment, entirely in the shade. The inspired choice of a movie theater as the venue yielded an extraordinary compression of time and space, so that the entire production has a kind of elegance not seen before in this genre: the killing finished almost as soon as begun, the survivors caught on TV cameras still bug-eyed in the initial stages of sheer disbelief.

Extra points for creativity should be awarded for the booby-trapping of the killer's apartment, a bit of thanatotic lagniappe that produced whole days of extra drama, though no additional casualties. Interesting sidelights include the age of the youngest fatality, six years, a girl whose mother, comatose among the wounded, did not learn her daughter's fate till days later. The very low killed/wounded ratio, which could clearly have been higher if the shooter had truly focused, suggests a sort of whimsical understatement on his part, as if, once having concentrated such lethality in so tight a space, he had made his essential point, and could neglect to dot a few is and cross a few ts.

A triumph, in short. But of course, the killer cannot claim exclusive credit. The deed is, in a real sense, a national achievement, which is what makes the heart swell so with patriotic pride. Let the weak and defeatist countries, the Frances and Germanies and Japans and Canadas, argue that our problem and its solution seem basically obvious; that though it may be hard to reduce sociopathy and megalomania themselves, this being America after all, there is no overpoweringly good reason to arm all our nutjobs with semiautomatic rifles, extended magazines, hollow point bullets, and the rest; that since we do not allow them to have (for instance) tanks or flamethrowers or tactical nukes (not yet, at least, though with another decade or two of Second Amendment fundamentalism, anything seems possible), the nose of the camel of gun control is already in the tent, so we might consider admitting at least the head and the neck; that all civilization begins with a state monopoly on legal violence, not the opposite, which we seem bent on achieving, of turning every citizen into a one-person army, ready to attack his neighbor or City Hall at the bat of an eye; that the concept of a government guaranteeing access to weapons so that citizens can, at need, attack itself is too screwy for words; that what we are protecting as a sacred right sounds more like a sickly fetish, a dank preoccupation of sexually frustrated males; that the social and human costs are astoundingly high; that, in short, our gun policies and the cockamamie arguments used to justify them are madness.

The truth about such countries is simple: they lack the stomach for true freedom, American style. When they suffer a mass casualty, whether the cause is guns or something else, they pass laws and clamp down and that's that: so much for freedom. But we Americans are a tougher breed, ready to ignore disaster and other kinds of contrary evidence once we have made up our mind about something. We thought this issue through a long time ago, and realized that guns were just special. In those grand old days of the single-shot musket, memories of vigilante resistance to the British were still fresh, and many families hunted more from necessity than for sport. Besides, you never knew when you might need to shoot an Indian. So we Americans astonished the world by declaring, once and for all, that gun ownership was a right and government had to butt out. The Founders knew it was best to let people decide for themselves how many blunderbusses and squirrel rifles they needed, influenced perhaps by the kind of healthy competition that continues even today, in many urban neighborhoods. The whole issue was settled.

Actually, it was a little more complicated than that. There had to be several Supreme Court decisions, mainly in the twentieth century, before it was completely clear that “the right to bear arms” meant not just the stuff in lockers at your local sheriff's office or state militia headquarters, but all the pieces your neighbor with the Pit Bulls and the flannel shirts keeps in the secret room in his basement. You could Google it. But everyone knows it was individual gun ownership the Founders meant to protect, even if they didn't get the Amendment worded too clearly at first.

Of course the defeatist countries, the Brazils and Switzerlands and Australias, argue that times have changed: that increases in accuracy and rate of fire require that we take a second look at the whole question. So of course their fifth column here picks up the party line and argues that the Second Amendment has had a pretty good run, but after two centuries, maybe it is time we started thinking for ourselves and dared to tinker a bit. There are several answers to this. First, good luck getting anything through the Senate. Those guys couldn't agree to take a drink if they were dying of thirst. Designed as a sort of filter, the Senate has lately become a complete barricade, which may be a problem eventually, though it works fine with Obama in office.

Second, the lethality advantage of modern weapons is not as great as commonly thought. A little-known fact is that those single-shot muskets, which seem so pitiful at first, actually fired a slug that was two or three times bigger than in equivalent modern ordnance. So if you hit anything, which was always possible, you did heavy damage. Add in the fact that antibiotics did not exist, and that doctors didn't even know to wash their hands, and there were good odds that even winging someone could lead to amputation or even death by sepsis. Of course an aspiring mass killer would have a harder time finding a crowd to work with; but balancing this was the absence of telephones and automobiles and first responders, which meant that he could take his time, perhaps working his way methodically from one farmstead to the next. And then, the overall population was much smaller, so if we are going to be fair, whatever casualties the musket-equipped mass killer manages to inflict should be adjusted accordingly, just as early nineteenth century prices are when we want to make historical comparisons. Taking all this into account, it seems clear that the danger from random mass slayings is about what it has always been, not greater or less.

But the biggest reason not to tinker with the Second Amendment is simply that changing your mind is unmanly and un-American, like flinching, apologizing, reading a lot of books, or making pointless conversation on elevators. Think of all the great American actors you have admired in the movies — John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Henry Fonda, Vin Diesel, Clint Eastwood till he switched to directing, Arnold Schwarzenegger. What you notice about all of them is the absolutely unflinching, unswerving way they persist in whatever course they have chosen, right or wrong, step after step, from the very beginning of the film. Arguments and opposition and good advice and blows of fate all just sort of bounce off of them, till at last they reach their goal and do what they promised — or die trying.

That is the exact mindset that is dear to the heart of every gun lover. In fact the guns in themselves may not even be all that important. But by now we are committed to them; they are the particular test we have chosen, to show how much we love freedom and what we will sacrifice to defend it. Our gun casualty rate is a great pity of course, but it proves to all the defeatist countries, the Costa Ricas and Belgiums and Borneos, just how far we will go to defend something we consider our right. We need to consider it part of the national advertising budget, and quit complaining about it, and just shut up about the whole topic, the way the early Clint Eastwood or John Wayne would do.


© John Kilgore
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