The End of Innocence

The sound comes of a sudden. The first thought is it must be fireworks. Surely, it’s some wiseacre setting off firecrackers, isn’t it? Our mind grasps the sound, rolls it around in our head, calculating, the first certainty recoiling into hesitation. There’s something amiss in the noise, something we knew instinctively from the first pop. Disbelief comes next. Before the rest of it.

The guy walks down the hall, gun in hand. He turns this way and that, his very casualness a startling rebuke of a kind we don’t understand. How is it that such horror could ever be so random? How is it that a human being, any human being, could do such a thing, could inflict a miasma of terror so awful that there are no words?

Minutes later, after it’s over, the world is different. Who among us wakes our child in the morning’s rising light, sends them off to school – with the worst anxiety we or they can conjure being, perhaps, whether the homework they hastily prepared the night before is sufficient – ever considers we’ll never see them again? Who can even imagine such a thing?

Our mind will not even allow it.

The news travels swiftly, of course. Before it’s even over.

When we hear of it we instinctively recoil from it, even though we be distant and remote and safe. A pale, commiserating echo, a shared bereavement with those who were there.

It’s not the first time. If there’s a tragedy that can approach the horrific news we’ve just heard it’s that it has become so commonplace. That it has become woven into the tapestry of our existence. And so you’d think we’d be used to it. That we wouldn’t be so shocked by it.

But we are. We always are.

Please God, not again.

And then the other shoes begin to drop. The tragedies within the tragedy.

Full disclosure… although my political views are all over the map, disappointing, at turns, both my liberal friends and my conservative friends… I am, unreservedly, a “gun guy.” I’ve been a serious student of the shooting arts since I was a kid. I own firearms of all different types. I’ve been an NRA member for fifty-odd years.

I know. Some of you hate me already.

But even in your hate, know that I share in your repugnance at what has been going on. The shootings, malevolence made manifest, rocks my world as much as it does yours.

And I don’t know what the answer is. I’ll say that up front. I shake my head at the easy arm-the-teachers answers suggested my pro-gun friends as frequently as I do the knee-jerk ban-those-assault-rifles prescriptions of my anti-gun friends.

We got to where we are via a long, tortuously twisted path. It’s complicated. And although we’d all love for there to be a single, quick solution, I’m afraid that’s just not in the cards.

What I do know… it’s not the guns. And even as many of you shake your head in anger at that statement I’ll simply point out that the 300 million guns in this country didn’t all suddenly get built in the last couple of decades. We’ve been collecting them up for quite a long time.

Something else changed. I don’t know what it is, but I know we’re uncomfortable even talking about it.

We’re uncomfortable talking about how children are now raised from birth ‘til they are in their thirties constantly bombarded with the message that they are special.

We’re uncomfortable with the notion of disciplining children. You see it every day… young moms strolling the grocery store, cajoling their whining, manipulative young children to behave. Children who have never once felt a hand on their backside.

At dinner – a dinner where a grateful blessing to God is no longer uttered – we’re uncomfortable with any retreat from the idea that these entitled children are the centerpiece. The stars of the show.

We’re uncomfortable considering that the moral imperatives of behavior that once served as our ethical weathervanes are wholly missing. Stern expectations once imposed by parents, teachers, and the church down the street have been replaced by a carefree turpitude.

We’re uncomfortable contemplating that we might be overprotective. That instead of the hard, physical play that once was their treasure kids spend nearly the entirety of their time indoors, where we can keep an eye on them. Kids today have almost no time that is unstructured and unsupervised, time where they can explore things and make their own decisions and challenge the world. Time where they can make mistakes – mistakes appropriate to their station… and then learn from those mistakes. We’ve become terrified at the very thought of letting kids be kids.

Instead, we ply them with all manner of electronic devices. First as virtual babysitters – though we would never admit to such. Later as analogues to our own virtual world addictions.

They learn early that social media is both their foil and their bullhorn. We teach them that an abstract, virtual life is superior to the real kind. Instead of the complex, hours-long mental dynamics required to absorb a deep, detailed novel, we allow them to skate by with 140-character sound bites in their Twitter accounts. Instead of insisting that they learn to navigate the social minefield that is real life, we let them have Facebook.

We deny it, but we subject them to violence on a grand scale. From the television shows they watch, to the movies we send them off to, to the video games they play up in their bedroom… gratuitous, graphic violence is ever by their side. Uncounted hours immersed in the surreal violence of video games insulates and anesthetizes them from reality. Hollywood’s violent ethos – franchise after franchise built upon the compelling attraction of death and destruction – provides the leitmotif.

We teach them that everyone is a victim. And when they draw the inevitable conclusion, and a bunch of them end up with anxiety disorders, we medicate them into a stupor.

Everyone gets a trophy.

And later, when they head off to college – institutions suddenly devoid of intellectual vibrancy or discord – they’ll need their safe spaces and their trigger warnings.

I don’t mean to blame the kids. And I don’t mean to paint with such a broad brush. The headwinds in front of them aren’t of their doing. They’re put there by us, the adults, the parents. And most of them end up just fine, in spite of those things.

But then we wonder why the few there on the edge – for there always were and always will be a few on the edge – do what they do. I suspect at least part of it lies amongst those things. Somewhere in that mix of things that have changed.

And therein lies the problem. To even contemplate that any of these deeply entrenched and long-running social mores might have a hand in triggering the next mass shooting presents us with a dilemma: how do you solve it?

Isn’t it a lot easier to just ban the gun the shooter used? Especially if you come from a worldview that says that civilians ought not have that kind of gun anyway?

And so we come to the elephant in the room. The AR-15. The “assault rifle” that looks cool or evil or vicious, depending upon your viewpoint – but which with its black plastic stock and its Picatinny rail and its pistol grip and its flash hider… can never look anything less than provocative.

There are so many misconceptions surrounding this weapon that it’s hard to know where to start. Beyond noting that it’s been the bestselling long-gun in America for a long time, and that there are somewhere between five and ten million of them out there… I suppose I’ll start with what will come to many as a startling fact: the AR-15 is not a particularly lethal firearm.

I know. Many of you think that is simply preposterous. The U.S. military uses a full-auto version of this very same rifle as their main infantry weapon, after all. Surely there’s no way they would use a “not particularly lethal” firearm!

But, yes, they would. And they have.

The .223 Remington cartridge – which later morphed into the 5.56 NATO in its military designation – evolved from the earlier .222 Remington. And the .222 Remington, like the .22 Hornet, the .22-250, the .220 Swift – indeed, all the .22 centerfire rounds – was designed as a target and a “varmint” round.

Decades on, when the U.S. military adopted the .223/5.56 as its mainline battle round, the cartridge didn’t suddenly acquire some sort of magic. Indeed, it got worse… civilians using their .22 varmint rifles could at least avail themselves of any number of excellent hollow-point bullet designs that improved their chances against groundhogs and prairie dogs. The military was stuck with full-metal-jacket bullets. In essence, they bought into a round that shoots a very small, very light bullet – and which on larger animals, or human beings, has a far greater propensity to wound than to kill.

In many states, including my own state of Virginia, it is illegal to hunt deer with the .223/5.56. It simply does not have sufficient power to ensure humane kills.

Compared to the .30-06 the U.S. military predominantly used during World War II, the .223/5.56 is a stunningly inferior round. Indeed, in terms of its terminal ballistics – its ability to kill enemy combatants – it is arguably the most ineffective rifle round the U.S. military has ever used, going back to the days of black powder and muzzleloaders.

And that, of course, begs the question… why would they use it if its performance is so dismal?

The answer is simple: weight. A soldier can carry far more rounds of .223/5.56 ammunition than he could of a larger-caliber round. And when you combine a military doctrine that stoically acknowledges fewer and fewer recruits showing up at boot camp with previous rifle experience – and so puts less and less emphasis on aimed fire and instead has adopted a more-shots-is-better approach – with the reality that on the battlefield, wounding an enemy can be as good or better than killing him, as now his comrades must attend to him… and you can see the rationale.

There’s also a direct, linear relationship between a rifle round’s inherent power and the recoil that cartridge produces. Because it is such a small, low-powered round, the .223/5.56 produces a very gentle, soft recoil. That unintimidating quality is equally prized both by drill sergeants trying to teach recruits who may never have held a rifle before and by civilians who are simply shooting for fun. It’s a large part of the reason the AR-15 has become so popular.

None of which diminishes the horror when it is used in a mass shooting. The dead are just as dead. The wounded are just as wounded. I’m not at all trying to suggest that the AR-15 and the round that it fires aren’t lethal or aren’t dangerous.

But given that much of the emotion surrounding the AR-15 revolves around its supposedly mythic lethality, it’s important to understand the reality. Notwithstanding its aggressive, provocative looks, the AR-15 is quite simply not a very powerful rifle.

What it underscores is that any firearm, used indiscriminately or with evil intent, can be terribly dangerous. There’s a reason gun safety rules don’t exclude small or low-powered firearms. Even the lowly .22 rimfire can kill.

“Well, okay,” I can hear some of you saying… “maybe the round itself isn’t very powerful, but the AR-15 can shoot so many bullets, so quickly, that that is the problem. That’s why so many people end up being killed by it. And that’s why we need to ban them.”

I’ll simply point out that semi-auto rifles have been around a long time. They first appeared in the late 1800’s. Quite famous designs such as the M1 Garand and the M1 Carbine date back to the thirties. I’ll repeat what I said above… the guns have been here for years, many years before mass shootings became a thing. Something else changed.

Box magazines have likewise been around a long time. And whereas I can understand the seductive allure that limiting magazine capacity would somehow make a semi-auto firearm less lethal in a mass-shooting scenario, the truth is… not so much.

The singular benefit of a box magazine – the reason they are now used in virtually all military and police rifles and pistols – is because of how rapidly an empty one can be swapped out for one that is freshly loaded.

The sad reality is that it wouldn’t make much difference if a school shooter were roaming the halls with a pocketful of 5-round or 10-round magazines instead of the 20-rounders that everyone gets so spun up about.

And that really gets to the point. The reason these shootings become so casualty-laden is because they invariably happen in places where people are most vulnerable – “gun free” zones. And because of that the shooter has time. He’s free to slowly and methodically inflict his carnage upon people who have little ability to resist. When you’re talking about close-range, indiscriminate, execution-style shootings, the kind of weapon the shooter brings becomes almost immaterial. The Virginia Tech shooter killed 32 people and wounded 17 others… with a pistol.

Which brings us back to the question. What do we do?

I don’t know.

I shrink from the idea that we should just “arm the teachers” that my pro-gun friends think is the panacea. Count me in the camp that thinks there ought to be a place that is sacred… and that if there is such a place that’s where our kids ought to be.

Alas, it would seem there are no sacred places.

Equally, I shake my head at the naiveté of my anti-gun friends who so fervently believe that by banning a thing, they can somehow ameliorate the evil inside a person. Who think that by simply passing a law 300 million guns will suddenly disappear.

What I do know is that if it were piles of money inside those classrooms instead of our own flesh and blood, the problem would have long ago been solved.

What I know is that when school districts start to get serious about protecting our kids, there will be armed guards at every school. And, no, we won’t be calling them “school resource officers” or asking them to do presentations on drunk driving or mentoring kids or any of the other tomfoolery that currently enfolds their ranks. They’ll have one mission. You’ll know they’ve taken that to heart when you start seeing them ever with a long gun over their shoulder and plans in their office that lay out in excruciating detail every ingress and egress at the facility, every possible attack vector, how many seconds it takes to get from any one spot to any other spot, comprehensive communications and lockdown procedures, and documented simulations of how they would respond to any conceivable threat.

What I know is that individuals with mental health issues ought not have access to guns. I don’t know a single person who thinks they should. So why is it, in an age where the internet can so instantly dump so much mundane information upon us, that we can’t figure out how to alert the NICS database when the next wackjob-to-be is off his meds and is threatening people? Why is that so hard?

And, no, it’s not the NRA preventing that. The only thing the NRA insists upon is that there be quick and easy access to due process. Not all of us trust the bureaucratic bowels of government.

What I know is that we don’t need additional laws. What we need is for people to follow the laws that are already on the books.

What I know is that the reason we too often don’t see that is because people with the privilege of power are rarely held accountable. Oh, sure, there’s the odd high-profile case tossed up as an example… like Martha Stewart. Or the rare case that is so beyond the pale that its very publicity turns it into a public circus… like Bernie Madoff. But for the most part people in power remain startlingly immune to the consequences of their actions. When an FBI sniper can murder a woman holding not a weapon – but a baby; or his bosses back in Washington can serve up an unbelievable “shoot on sight” rule of engagement; and not a one of them ever sees a day of jail, you know you’re looking at a rigged system.

Who wants to take a bet that any of the many individuals who each received advance information on the shooter in the Parkland, Florida school tragedy will ever be disciplined? Any one of them, had they simply done their job, could have averted the disaster.

What I know is that until you start holding people accountable, nothing changes.

What I know is that symbolic acts may feel good emotionally, but they don’t move the dial a whit. They’re a distraction. Bump stocks, stupid gimmick that they are, are not the problem.

And the children continue to die.

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