I was initiated into America’s gun culture the hard way: face-down in a darkened movie theater in Aurora, Colo., covered in a friend’s blood.
When all was said and done — the shooter arrested, my two wounded friends discharged from the hospital, 12 fellow moviegoers pronounced dead by the coroner — I returned home and tried to understand what had happened to me, and its greater context.
It immediately became clear to me that Americans are killing each other, and we’re doing it quickly. In 2011, 13,000 Americans were murdered. The U.S. murder rate is two times that of Canada, three times that of the U.K., four times that of Australia, five times that of Spain, and 10 times that of Iceland and Japan.
It also seemed obvious that guns play a starring role in the national carnage: over two-thirds of all homicides in America are committed with firearms, which is unsurprising given the speed and ease with which a gun can be used to end a life.
What did surprise me was how disturbingly commonplace incidents like last summer’s Aurora shooting actually are. There were 37 mass shootings (defined as four or more dead) and over 200 school and campus shootings in the 15 years leading up to my trip to Aurora; the 2005–’12 period alone saw over 400 shootings of three or more victims each.
More broadly, guns in America take almost 9,000 lives per year. But homicide statistics alone fail to get at the true cost of gun violence. They do not include 25-year-old Ashley Moser, who lost her 6-year-old daughter, suffered a miscarriage and was paralyzed from the waist down during the Aurora shooting; she will merely be counted in crime reports as a victim of “aggravated assault with a firearm” and in public health statistics as one of the 100,000 hospital patients treated for gunshot wounds annually. Nor will homicide numbers include Brooke and Sierra Cowden, two teenage girls who escaped the carnage of Aurora only to find that their father did not — they will join the faceless ranks of the grieving. Counting wounded victims and their loved ones, an easy but conservative estimate is that over a million Americans are personally affected by gun violence each and every year.
We may derive some partial comfort from the idea that, relatively speaking, it’s less likely to be us — that our money or our connections or our Yale education will allow us to live and eventually raise families somewhere affluent, somewhere safe. Yet tragedies like the recent Newtown shooting, which occurred less than six miles from my home, remind us that no one can afford to remain deaf and blind to the ongoing and real American carnage.
But the dirty secret in all of this talk about guns is the fact that, for years and years, you and I and most of the people we know have just stood by and watched. We have shrugged our shoulders at a legal loophole that allows 50 percent of all gun purchases to occur without a background check. We have allowed Congress to pass laws prohibiting the NIH and CDC from studying the public health effects of guns. We have not protested as Congress has obstructed law enforcement efforts to penalize unscrupulous firearms dealers. We have uniquely exempted guns from oversight by the Consumer Product and Safety Commission. And we have failed to push for unambiguously positive regulations like universal background checks, bulk purchase limits, safe storage requirements, magazine capacity maximums, microstamping technology to facilitate murder-weapon tracking, one-week waiting periods for handgun purchases, prosecution of attempted illegal firearms purchases, or even felony charges for gun traffickers.
But Newtown seems to have shaken the public awake, and this year, I hope to be part of a sea change in the balance of gun activism.
In a press conference yesterday, President Obama said:
“Along with our freedom to live our lives as we will comes an obligation to allow others to do the same. We don’t live in isolation. … We are responsible for each other.
You know, the right to worship freely and faithfully, that right was denied to Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wis. The right to assemble [peaceably], that right was denied shoppers in Clackamas, Ore., and moviegoers in Aurora, Colo. That most fundamental set of rights — to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness — fundamental rights that were denied to college students at Virginia Tech and high school students at Columbine and elementary school students in Newtown … We have to examine ourselves in our hearts and ask ourselves what is important. This will not happen unless the American people demand it.”
On Feb. 14, the two-month anniversary of the Newtown shooting, I will be excusing myself from my classes to participate in Connecticut’s March for Change, a massive rally to support gun control in Hartford, Conn. I hope you will join me there.
We owe it to each other to demand this change.
Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent is a senior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .