Gail Collins: America must not be defined by gun violence

12/19/2012 5:30 PM

12/19/2012 5:30 PM

“I’m sorry,” said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., her voice breaking. “I’m having a really tough time.”

She’s the former nurse from Long Island who ran for Congress in 1996 as a crusader against gun violence after her husband and son were victims of a mass shooting on a commuter train. On Friday morning, McCarthy said, she began her day by giving an interview to a journalist who was writing a general story about “how victims feel when a tragedy happens.”

“And then 15 minutes later, a tragedy happens.”

The slaughter of 20 small children and seven adults in Connecticut left her choked up and speechless.

“I just don’t know what this country’s coming to. I don’t know who we are any more,” she said.

Tragedies happen all the time. Terrible storms strike. Cars crash. Random violence occurs.

But when a gunman takes out first-graders in a bucolic Connecticut suburb, three days after a gunman shot up a mall in Oregon, in the same year as fatal mass shootings in Minneapolis, in Tulsa, in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, in a theater in Colorado, a coffee bar in Seattle and a college in California – then we’re doing this to ourselves.

We know the story. The shooter is a man, usually a young man, often with a history of mental illness. Sometimes in a rage over a lost job, sometimes just completely unhinged. In the wake of the Newtown shootings, the air was full of experts discussing the importance of psychological counseling.

Every country has a sizable contingent of mentally ill citizens. We’re the one that gives them the technological power to play god.

This is all about guns – access to guns and the ever-increasing firepower of guns. Over the past few years we’ve seen one shooting after another in which the killer was wielding weapons holding 30, 50, 100 bullets. I’m tired of hearing fellow citizens argue that you need that kind of firepower because it’s a pain to reload when you’re shooting clay pigeons. Or that the Founding Fathers specifically wanted to make sure Americans retained their right to carry rifles capable of mowing down dozens of people in a couple of minutes.

We will undoubtedly have arguments about whether tougher regulation on gun sales or extra bullet capacity would have made a difference in Connecticut. In a way, it doesn’t matter. America needs to tackle gun violence because we need to redefine who we are. We have come to regard ourselves – and the world has come to regard us – as a country that’s so gun happy that the right to traffic freely in the most obscene quantities of weapons is regarded as far more precious than an American’s right to health care or a good education.

We have to make ourselves better. Otherwise, the story from Connecticut is too unspeakable to bear.

Nearly two years ago, after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was shot in the head in a mass shooting in Arizona, the White House sent up signals that Obama was preparing to do something.

“I wouldn’t rule out that at some point the president talks about the issues surrounding gun violence,” said his press secretary at the time, Robert Gibbs.

On Friday, the president said: “We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”

Time passes. And here we are.

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