The Last Shot

If Newtown doesn’t change how Americans treat guns, can anything?

A resident pays tribute to the victims of the school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images.

Read more from Slate’s coverage of the Sandy Hook school shooting and gun control.

I was on the train home from New York to Connecticut Friday afternoon when a woman sitting one row away and facing me got a text that made her gasp. She’d learned that a friend had a granddaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and it wasn’t clear if she was safe. The mutual friend who’d sent the text didn’t know one way or the other. That didn’t sound good: It was late in the day, several hours after the shooting that killed 20 children and six adults at the school.

The woman on the train pulled her little boy close and her eyes started tearing. Mine too. Outside the window, the nondescript brown landscape of Fairfield County rolled by. The woman got off the train before she found out the fate of her friend’s granddaughter. And of course I hoped, and for a moment prayed, that the girl was rattled but fine, one of the hundreds of kids whose parents rushed to the Newtown fire station to swoop them up with the most exquisite and intense relief. But just as naturally, I kept dwelling on the 20 families for whom fear had frozen into horror and then despair.

They could be us, and we could be them, right? It was so easy for me at least to feel that way, looking up Newtown’s suburban demographics: Family median income $100,000 a year, almost half the town families with children, nearly three-quarters married couples. I don’t live in the suburbs, but I live in a small-city neighborhood filled with two-parent families about 45 minutes from Newtown, and I have a son in elementary school. That was more than enough to share in the chill that spread through the country Friday. I wish I identified as much with the families of drive-by shootings of children in my city, but I don’t. I use class and, I’m sure, race to distance myself. That doesn’t work this time though.

So I wonder: Could this shooting be the one that shakes us out of our deadly paralysis about the twin problems of limitless access to guns and untreated mental illness? Or could this, in combination with the shootings at the Aurora, Colo. movie theater last summer, and Arizona spree that seriously injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, finally change how Americans think and legislators act about guns? I single those tragedies out because we know that James Holmes, the alleged Aurora shooter, and Jared Loughner, convicted and sentenced to life for the mass deaths in Arizona, were schizophrenic men in their early 20s who weren’t in treatment and who had easy access to semi-automatic weapons and rapid-fire ammunition. Also on this list, Seung-Hui Cho, who massacred 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007 while he was a student there. Now we’re hearing about the reclusive 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who kept to himself so much in high school, his former classmates say, that they kind of overlooked what some of them thought was Asperger’s syndrome, and which may turn out to be another disorder. “I think he went so unnoticed that people didn’t even stop to realize that maybe there’s actually something else going on here—that maybe he needs to be talking or getting some kind of mental help,” one former classmate told the New York Times.

I keep reading that we have 300 million guns in this country. “This is a gun country,” Jeffrey Goldberg writes at the Atlantic. “We are saturated with guns.” Actually, I think that’s only half right. We are saturated with 300 million guns but we are not truly a country of guns, because that would means we collectively understood and respected them. I’ve lived in Israel, where nearly everyone serves in the military and knows how to use a gun. That’s a place where it’s possible to imagine an armed defender stopping an assailant like Adam Lanza or James Holmes. In the United States, we’re divided, and we have no universal basic knowledge of weapons. We make it incredibly easy to buy the kind of weapons that shoot and shoot again instantly, but we don’t search people at the doors of schools or malls or movie theaters, and we don’t post armed guards in these places. We have the guns without the safety checks. We call that freedom. We invoke the current Supreme Court’s understanding of the Second Amendment right to bear arms. Lower courts strike down bans on carrying concealed weapons, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit did last Tuesday, eliminating an Illinois law.

The cost of this definition of freedom is too high: That’s the point advocates for gun control make, over and over again. If this lesson sunk in, maybe we’d take seriously the results in Australia, where a massacre of 35 people led to a 1996 ban on semi-automatic and automatic rifles and shotguns. (Adam Lanza had the first, according to reports.) Australia also started a mandatory buy-back program for the weapons it banned. A drop in the firearm homicide rate and the firearm suicide rate followed, according to some research. There are other, smaller fixes, a by now familiar list: Bring back the ban on assault weapons, which Congress allowed to expire in 2004. Ban the sale of rapid-fire ammunition. Quit letting people buy weapons at gun shows without background checks. That alone could help keep guns out of the hands of some people who are mentally ill and not getting treated.

Those steps would help, and they would also signal the beginning of a cultural shift. With a big push from the gun lobby, in the last generation we’ve become a country in which no social disapproval comes with owning a semi-automatic handgun you’d never hunt with. As Slate’s David Plotz wrote in an email this morning, “If you stigmatize the ownership and use of guns for most recreational uses—and in particular the ownership of handguns and non hunting weapons—there will be less presence of them in the culture, less use of them, gradually fewer and fewer of them in society, less tolerance for people talking about them and playing with them, and as that happens, guns will become less present, less accessible, less embedded in American society and that gun crime will fall accordingly … It is not a single legislative change or even an overnight cultural change. It is a gradual process.” Right. We need to reckon with the kind of country we actually are—one in which semi-automatic weapons are used far more often for harm than for self-defense—and act accordingly.