Last weekend, the world saw white supremacist and mass murderer Dylann Roof posing stone-faced with Confederate flags and license plates. Sometime after the pictures were taken, Roof allegedly shot dead nine parishioners at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, using a legally acquired 45-caliber Glock handgun after passing a background check. On Monday, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley announced that the Confederate flag would be removed from State House grounds, calling it “a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally offensive past.” In the space of 24 hours, Amazon, eBay, Etsy, and Walmart all stopped selling products featuring the Confederate banner. Google stated Tuesday that it would scrub the flag from ads and Google Shopping. Several flag makers say they will stop manufacturing the flag. Today, the governor of Alabama has ordered the removal of the flag from state Capitol grounds.
Almost literally overnight, the chimera of consensus around the Confederate flag as a divisive but misunderstood symbol of “heritage” or “Southern pride” fell away, revealing the banner for what it is. The obscenity of the flag and the murderous racism it represents have dominated a national conversation about the American way of hate and violence for all the right reasons.
The flag has also dominated the conversation for a single wrong reason, which is that most Americans have given up on achieving meaningful gun control in their lifetimes or in their grandchildren’s lifetimes.
Up to and including the December 2012 mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, Americans could be certain that every time a crazed man emptied a weapon inside a church or movie theater or first-grade classroom, the aftermath would produce a national conversation—just like the one we’ve been having about Confederate symbolism—about strengthening America’s gun control laws. The conversation happened because we believed it would lead somewhere.
After Newtown, we realized that the conversation would never lead anywhere, and so we found other things to talk about.
In April 2007, when Seung-Hui Cho shot dead 32 people and injured 17 at Virginia Tech, we debated Virginia’s faulty background-check requirements—Cho passed two checks despite a record of mental illness.
In January 2011, when Jared Lee Loughner shot dead six people and wounded 13 at an event featuring Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona, the Cho debate effectively replicated itself, down to Loughner’s mystifying ability to come up clean on a background check for his legally acquired weapon of choice, a Glock Model 19 9mm pistol.
In July 2012, when James Eagan Holmes shot dead 12 people and injured 70 in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, the debate expanded to interrogate the legal status of the AR-15 assault rifle and 100-round drum magazine that Holmes legally purchased and that had been previously prohibited under the assault-weapons ban, which Congress let expire in 2004.
Five months after Aurora, in December 2012, Adam Lanza shot dead 26 people, including 20 6- and 7-year-old children, at an elementary school in Newtown using a legally acquired Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle, a Glock 10mm, and a Sig Sauer 9mm. In the immediate aftermath of Newtown and with the memory of Aurora’s carnage still fresh, the momentum behind securing stronger gun control laws in the United States felt more palpable than ever.
Hours after the Newtown shooting, the website of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence crashed under the weight of new donations. Six states eventually adopted universal background checks. Colorado, site of the movie theater massacre, banned magazines that hold more than 15 rounds. Michael Bloomberg put $50 million of his own money behind the gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety. President Obama signed three executive orders on gun violence. In the U.S. Senate, Sens. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, and Patrick Toomey, a Republican, worked on a bipartisan measure to require background checks for online and gun-show sales. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein proposed reviving the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. A Washington Post–ABC News poll showed over 90 percent support among Americans for expanded background checks; even among National Rifle Association members, support came in at 74 percent.
And then, nothing. Feinstein’s proposal fell away before it could even come up for a vote. The watered-down Manchin-Toomey bill died in the Senate in April 2013. In September 2013, voters in Colorado recalled two of the Democratic state senators who supported Colorado’s new gun control legislation. And in April 2015, as Holmes’ trial got underway, the Associated Press cited the NRA’s tally of “35 bills expanding gun rights that have been signed into law nationwide this year,” adding, “No legislation the NRA has opposed has become law.” The AP headline read, “As Theater Shooting Trial Opens, Gun Debate Dwindles.”
When 20 dead first-graders cannot result in new and meaningful national measures on gun control or even in weak and largely symbolic national measures on gun control, then perhaps—if you are of a certain cast of mind—that is the moment to retreat on gun control.
And we have. People will still talk about it. Michael Bloomberg will always have more money to spend on it. Karl Rove can propose the repeal of the Second Amendment. Manchin and Toomey can discuss reviving their push on background checks. Gabby Giffords can continue to fight, and when, say, North Carolina decides not to repeal permits for handgun purchases, she can treat this maintaining of the status quo as a victory—which, in its grotesque context, it is. Mostly, though, we find other things to talk about.
In May 2014, when Elliot Rodger killed six people, three of them by gun, and wounded 14, seven of them by gun, in Isla Vista, California, we talked about misogyny, and we coined hashtags like #NotAllMen and #YesAllWomen.* Now, we’re talking about the Confederate flag.
And the next time a crazed man commits mass murder, and the next time, and the next time, we will talk about gun control a little, but we will also find a second conversation. Because those conversations are worthy and potentially fruitful, and also because we have given up.
Correction, June 25, 2015: This article originally misstated that Elliot Rodger shot dead six people and wounded 14. Three of the fatalities were due to stabbing and seven of the injuries were by vehicular assault. (Return.)