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Shawn Vestal: The wrenching shooting at Freeman vanishes in our cycle of massacres

UPDATED: Sun., Oct. 8, 2017, 9:45 p.m.

Wayne LaPierre, CEO and executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, talks with reporters during a news conference at the NRA convention in Orlando, Fla., in this April 25, 2003, file photo. (JOE BURBANK / Associated Press)
Wayne LaPierre, CEO and executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, talks with reporters during a news conference at the NRA convention in Orlando, Fla., in this April 25, 2003, file photo. (JOE BURBANK / Associated Press)

We’ve gotten so good at “after.”

And failed so abysmally at “before.”

When it comes to mass shootings these days, afters blend right into befores. Gun massacres come with such regularity that every aftermath is a prelude, and the largest portion of our failure is that we have accepted our failure.

The do-nothings win, every time. The weakest, most simplistic, most bought-and-paid-for positions on gun safety triumph in the halls of Congress. Even worse, as mass shootings became a more-than-daily occurrence, not only did the political class do nothing, many states loosened gun rules, eliminated permitting requirements, lifted restrictions on packing heat in churches and day cares and bars.

It’s all part of our national cycle of massacre cliches. We start by demanding simple answers, and we end by swallowing the notion that there are no answers, besides thoughts and prayers and rising sales for gun makers.

We’ve gotten so used to this, so practiced at it. Our response to the latest one looks like our response to the last one, which looked like our response to the one before it.

Practiced. Prepared. Rote.

We get a hashtag going ASAP. We raise money. We hold vigils, find heroes in the carnage, leave flowers at a makeshift memorial, talk about healing, tell each other to be sure and hug our kids tonight.

We’ve really got it down.

Earlier this week, I was preparing to write about the muted national response to the Freeman shooting – about the way our national attention can hardly be bothered to turn toward a school shooting with just one death – when the Las Vegas shooting happened.

Because what happened at Freeman High School is still very much felt here, it had seemed especially wrong that it didn’t appear to register much elsewhere. How can it be that something like that – a 15-year-old kid shooting up his school, killing another 15-year-old kid – has become such a ho-hum story on the national scene? How can it be that the unthinkable, torturous experience of that morning at Freeman High makes no dent, really, on the national conscience?

Dog bites man.

That’s not true for us, of course. But to a nation versed in massacre cliches? Next, please. And the end of all our massacre cliches – the dead end, you might say – is the eventual triumph of doing nothing. The assertion that there is nothing that can be done, nothing whatsoever … no law of any kind works … they want to take your guns … now is not the time for politics … knives and hands and feet are just as dangerous as guns … it’s just the price of freedom …

Will any of that change with Vegas? Seems not – though this, too, is a massacre cliche: fatalism about the fact that a sociopathic gun lobby runs the government. Even if Congress takes the supremely easy step of banning bump stocks – the now-legal apparatus that helped the Vegas shooter turn semi-automatic weapons into automatic ones – that will certainly be the symbolic end of it.

A politically opportunistic dumb show, before the cycle continues.

Remember how shocking it was to hear what happened at Freeman just 25 days ago? How stunningly inexplicable it felt? How unprecedented?

But it was the farthest thing from unprecedented. Sandy Hook was almost five years ago – 20 children and six adults, shot dead at an elementary school. A week later, a crazed, defiant Wayne LaPierre of the NRA doubled down on the ludicrous notion that what America really needs is more and more armed men and women.

Against the desires of large majorities of Americans, crazy Wayne won, Congress did nothing, the cycle rolled on. Last June, 49 people died in a shooting at an Orlando nightclub. That was the deadliest shooting in our history.

Until last week.

In between, there were 521 mass shootings in America, according to the New York Times. That’s 521 shootings in which four or more people were killed or injured.

Meanwhile, the do-nothings win every time. They do worse than nothing – they undo existing gun regulations. While D.C. has not taken a single significant legislative step, plenty of states have. We here in Washington passed universal background checks without the sky falling. But the more prominent trend has been red states relaxing gun rules.

Red states have made it legal to carry guns into more places like churches, colleges and bars. Waiting periods were eliminated in Wisconsin. Georgia legalized open carry at airports. Nevada was in the process of considering a bill making it legal to kill someone who is stealing your car. Idaho last year made it legal for virtually any adult to carry a concealed weapon virtually anywhere.

The Atlantic magazine called the past several years “one of the most intense bursts of gun legislation in U.S. history – almost all of it intended to ensure that more guns can be carried into more places.”

It’s perverse. Grotesque. Must it be this way? Of course not. Any number of positive – though modest and imperfect – ideas are out there that deserve serious discussion, ranging from a more vigorous national background check system to limits on some guns or magazine sizes or features, to tracking people who buy scores of guns all at once, to protection orders that allow a court to temporarily remove guns in domestic violence situations, to stricter requirements for gun safety or insurance …

But nothing can be done in the face of a faith – or just a position purchased by millions in campaign donations – that nothing can be done. And nothing can be done until we begin having a more honest, adult, courageous conversation about guns and their consequences.

There is a bill in the House of Representatives that would deregulate silencers – silencers! – and make it easier to obtain armor-piercing ammunition. The NRA, representing those who make and sell the stuff, supports the bill, though it’s been sidelined as Congress offers thoughts and prayers.

Maybe it will stay sidelined, or maybe our representatives will find themselves too ashamed to actually pass it, but let’s not hold our breath. This thing has new law written all over it, once the cycle of massacre cliches quiets down.

In the meantime, it’s interesting to note the bill’s name: the Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act.


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