Not much is gained by observing through a political prism last week’s attack on congressmen practicing for their annual Republicans versus Democrats charity baseball game.
Certainly the attacker, James Hodgkinson, supported progressive causes and was a volunteer for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential campaign. And as he approached the practice field he reportedly inquired about the political affiliations of the ballplayers. Told they were Republicans, he opened fire with a high-powered assault rifle, wounding five, including House majority whip, Steve Scalise.
But Hodgkinson’s assault reflects mental derangement, not political commitment. Rational citizens do not attempt mass murder, much less believe that political goals have much chance of being advanced by assassination. To attribute Hodgkinson’s actions to politics is like calling Hannibal Lecter a foodie.
No, Hodgkinson’s brutal assault calls for a larger context. Firearms aren’t to blame for Hodgkinson’s attack, but it fits logically into the backdrop of a nation that is saturated with and preoccupied by guns.
First, the saturation: According to the Congressional Research Service, Americans own more than 300 million guns, approximately one for every man, woman and child. The rate of gun ownership is twice the rate in 1968, as well as currently twice the rate, according to gunpolicy.org, of the next international competitors, which are Serbia and Yemen.
A recent Associated Press article reports that nearly 40 percent of U.S. households own one or more guns and that the firearms industry experienced an extraordinary boom during the Obama years, when gun enthusiasts perceived threats to the Second Amendment. Between 2004 and 2013, sales of handguns increased by a factor of five and sales of rifles tripled.
Gun sales are down since the election of President Trump, however. This probably doesn’t indicate waning interest in firearms; more likely it implies the steady-state saturation envisioned by the National Rifle Association and other gun lobbyists: lots and lots of guns in America and guaranteed access to more at any time. Mission accomplished.
Saturation and preoccupation with firearms go hand in hand, and it’s hard to say which came first. Americans have always been fond of guns, but as an index on our current interest, try to count the number of gunshots you hear during the trailers for coming attractions the next time you go to the movies.
Or notice the number of gunshots when you watch TV or play a videogame. The most popular ones depend on simulated shooting of other people, often with realistically gruesome effects.
In fact, killing with firearms is so deeply woven into the fabric of America that the last governor of Texas, Rick Perry, gained political leverage by shooting a coyote while out jogging. And the current governor, Greg Abbott, did the same recently by holding up a bullet-ridden target at a shooting range and saying, “I’m gonna carry this around in case I see any reporters.” Ha ha.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that beginning in August all public colleges in Texas will permit their students, teachers and staff to carry concealed weapons onto campus and into classrooms, a long-sought goal of gun lobbyists.
I’ve objected in print to this change in policy, but my biggest concern isn’t that we’ll experience an outbreak of bloodbaths on college campuses. It’s that policies such as this one push us toward a normalized critical mass, with so many guns in every aspect of our lives that no ordinary person can feel safe without one.
Of course, you and I are responsible, rational citizens, incapable of atrocities such as the one committed last week by James Hodgkinson.
But the difference between us and Hodgkinson is a spectrum rather than a bright line. All sorts of psychological makeups exist between us and him. Some are dangerously delusional and some are merely neurotic. Some are subject to fits of anger and all degrees of paranoia and depression.
And all of them are being told daily by the media, by politicians and by public policy that firearms are a normal and essential part of American life. That’s what should really scare us.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.