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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: The good ideas are out there, but it will take true zeal to make progress on gun safety

Dora Mendoza, grandmother to victim Amerie Jo Garza, wipes tears as she pays respects to her granddaughter at a memorial site for the Robb Elementary School shooting Thursday in Uvalde, Texas.  (Kin Man Hui)
Dora Mendoza, grandmother to victim Amerie Jo Garza, wipes tears as she pays respects to her granddaughter at a memorial site for the Robb Elementary School shooting Thursday in Uvalde, Texas. (Kin Man Hui)

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst

are full of passionate intensity.”

– “The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats

The death toll was 14 children when I left to pick up my son at school.

It was 18 kids – and two teachers – by the time we got home.

It would eventually be 19 children, whose parents had to be DNA-tested for the purposes of identifying the bodies. The wondrously effective murder weapons that are dearer than children to so many American politicians had rendered these children unrecognizable.

Meanwhile, the “good-guy gap” had already closed.

The good-guy gap is my way of thinking about how long it takes after a massacre for gun zealots and paid-off politicians to begin spouting off in defense of wondrously effective murder weapons.

It’s based on the insane Wayne LaPierre, head of the NRA, who did something a decade ago that seemed inconceivable. A week after 20 children and six educators were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut – back when it seemed possible that the shock and horror of that event might prompt in a unified response – LaPierre delivered a lunatic rant calling for more guns everywhere, deploying what has become a cliche of American gun zealotry: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

LaPierre let a week pass after the massacre before doing that. It was widely expected beforehand that Newtown might force him to throw a bone to the people who thought it might, maybe, be worth trying to prevent further Newtowns.

How naive that seems now.

That weeklong silence seems quaint in retrospect. These days, no self-respecting zealot, or do-nothing legislative quisling, waits even a day before rushing to the ramparts to defend our wondrously effective murder weapons. The good-guy gap is now minutes. It closes before the death count is final and the bodies are cold – calls for more guns, calls for arming teachers and lunch ladies, calls for “hardening” the target of schools.

It was minutes, not days, before people started saying we can’t blame the “tool.” Minutes, not days, before the cynical rush to change the subject to mental illness. Minutes, not days, before the right began a lockstep parroting of the importance of locked doors. Minutes, not days, before Second Amendment zealots began posing as victims of politicization. Minutes, not days, before the do-nothing engine was roaring at full speed.

This cynical chorus is as big a sign of our national disease as the children who died at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, or the shoppers who died at Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, or picnicgoers who were shot at the neighborhood picnic in Dumas, Arkansas, or …

It doesn’t matter a bit that in our two most recent massacres, good guys were present and did not stop the bad guys.

The good-guy gap is a realm of pure passion and magical thinking.

Another post-massacre dynamic has become routine alongside the good-guy gap. In this channel of discourse, a certain set of thinkers adopt a cool, detached analysis of our gun crisis – arguing with studied, eye-rolling aloofness that fury and grief are tiresomely beside the point.

In this view, the simple, human act of responding with sorrow and anger to a school massacre – along with emotional calls to do something about it – is dismissed as naive. We must be practical and realistic, this line of thinking goes, and not emotional.

I think this is exactly wrong. One hundred and eighty degrees.

And the reason I think so is the good-guy gap.

The good-guy gap – as a measure of how far impassioned people will go to defend the thing they love most – tells us something about passion and politics (and money, obviously). And it tells you how far you have to go with that passion to make things happen, which is very far indeed.

After all, you would not have argued that the smart thing to do, post-Newtown, was to stick up defiantly for wondrously effective murder weapons over the lives of kids.

But it worked like magic. The fury inside that speech kicked off a whole new chapter in our gun-violence denialism, and it’s become the template for the American right on the issue.

Meanwhile, in the more than two decades of the post-Columbine era, gun sales have tripled (based in large part on a small proportion of individuals buying a lot of guns), gun zealotry has hardened into a fundamentalist religion (witness the “Jesus Guns Babies” campaign in Georgia for one of a zillion examples), and national gun politics have been held hostage by zealous minority views.

Oh, and guns became the leading cause of death for American children.

There are many sound ideas for ways we can try to create change. But the path forward, on this issue, is not about ideas. It’s about grief and rage and passion, and turning those into action.

It’s about zealotry.

There are many organizations and policy-makers and leaders who are calling for change, including important work being done by victims and families of victims from past school massacres.

But until we produce a national zealotry for protecting 10-year-olds that is politically stronger than the national zealotry for protecting our wondrously effective murder weapons, nothing’s going to change.

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