AAmerica’s great appeal to the world was its promise of possibility. It presented itself as virgin territory, a clean slate where a society could reconstitute itself, freed from the past, and where individuals could do the same, reinvent themselves, renew themselves, start over. It was a myth, of course: it ignored those people who were already there, whose lives and lands had been taken, or those who had been brought to America in chains. But it was a powerful myth all the same, one whose hold on the global imagination endures: witness the success of the Hamilton stage show in enticing another generation into the romance of a new world and its revolutionary creation.
But now we see something else: a country burdened only with the dead weight of its past, and therefore powerless either to deal with danger in its present or to create a better future. The Land of Possibilities is paralyzed, seemingly unable to make any changes that could save the lives of its young.
Evidence came to light this week in the Texas town of Uvalde, where an 18-year-old walked into an elementary school and killed 19 children, ages eight to 10, and two of their teachers. It was the 27th school shooting in the United States this year, and it’s not June yet.
There are so many statistics like that. In the United States, 109 people die every day from gun violence. There were more mass shootings in the United States in 2022 than days in the year. There are more guns in America than there are people. It was Uvalde this week, but last week it was Buffalo, where another 18-year-old walked into a supermarket and killed 10: his animosity was directed at black people rather than children, but his method was the same.
Each time, the satirists of the Onion come out with the same title: “‘No way to prevent it,’ says the only nation where it happens regularly”. The joke touches on something critical and curiously anti-American: a debilitating form of fatalism.
After Uvalde, I spoke to several seasoned hands in Washington, asking if the horror of this latest massacre might finally spur action. No, was the answer. Of course, each side performs the same ritual gestures. Democrats deliver agitation, even heartbreaking speeches. The Republicans then accuse the Democrats of “politicizing” the tragedy, preferring to offer “thoughts and prayers” to the victims, before suggesting all possible remedies except the most obvious: this week, Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas called for an end to the threat of rear doors unlocked in schools. None of them are going to buy into the idea of, you know, making it a little harder for a troubled teenager to get a military-grade assault weapon.
The easy explanation for this refusal to act is money, especially money put into the hands of pro-gun politicians by the National Rifle Association (whose annual convention, addressed by Donald Trump, takes place this weekend. end in Houston, Texas, with the massacre at Uvalde deemed no reason to postpone). But it’s too bad. The NRA has been weakened by a series of recent scandals, but Republican politicians still refuse to adopt even the lightest security measures. The sad truth is that it is not a lobbying organization that has as much of a hold on them as pro-gun voters, who have concluded that if a politician dares to suggest, say, the massively popular decision to demand universal background checks—looking for a record of instability or past violence—before selling someone an AR-15, they took the first step toward government confiscation of citizens’ guns.
This, of course, is considered an impermissible violation of the Constitution’s Second Amendment, which enshrines the right to bear arms. Never mind that no Democrat advocates anything like the action Britain or Australia took after the mass shootings except banning guns, and never mind how hard it is to believing that the framers of the constitution intended to allow unbalanced teenagers access to weapons that could kill en masse and in seconds. This slippery slope argument, combined with the hallowed status bestowed on the Second Amendment and the constitution itself, has immobilized Republican politicians.
Their opposition matters because they have much more to say than the number of votes they win would suggest. In the American system, each state has two senators, regardless of how many or how few people live in that state. That means mostly white, mostly rural states with few voters — but strong gun opinions — exercise an effective right of veto about more populous, more diverse, more urban states, whose tens of millions of voters are desperate for gun safety measures. That’s why even the modest proposals that followed the Sandy Hook school massacre in 2012 died in the Senate. And that’s why so many people feel fatalistic about the prospect of change, resigning themselves to another massacre, then another.
Some are trying to keep fatalism at bay, insisting that with the NRA weak, now is the time to strike. They propose a march on Washington of a million parents and their children. Or consumer pressure to demand that corporate donors to Republicans withhold their money until the party takes action with guns. Or perhaps even international pressure, with foreign leaders raising gun violence with their American counterparts as they would human rights abuses when meeting with representatives from China. The US Senate banned assault weapons in 1994 (before allowing the ban to expire a decade later): if they did it once, they can do it again.
But these provocative voices are in the minority. Most believe that the state of American politics has doomed the United States to a fate that the rest of the democratic world has avoided. Beyond the deadly threat to Americans, this desperation, this sense that political effort is futile and that change is impossible, endangers American democracy and the country’s self-esteem.
That it stems from the constitution – its Second Amendment and its conception of the Senate – is a bitter irony. The entire interest of the American Revolution inscribed in this document was to forge a society capable of remaking the world, capable of adapting to the present without being bound by the constraints of the past. As the great English-born revolutionary Thomas Paine said, who asserted that circumstances always changed from generation to generation: “As government is for the living, and not for the dead, only the living have the right of this.” Today’s America sacrifices the living in the name of the dead two centuries ago. It betrays its founding ideal. It offers its young to appease the ghosts of a bygone era.