Yesterday morning in Roanoke, Va., a man named Vester Lee Flanagan walked up to newscaster Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward as they were filming a segment for local TV station WDBJ, and, using a handgun, shot them to death. (He also critically wounded Vicki Gardner, the woman Parker and Ward were interviewing; after fleeing the scene, he shot and killed himself.) We know this, because we saw this. The murders were captured by Ward’s own camera; Flanagan also recorded the murders from his perspective.
Parker and Ward were killed in spectacular fashion, and so it’s certain that their deaths will inspire more headlines than most of the 8,512 other gun deaths so far this year, and the 12,557 gun deaths that took place in 2014. In their coverage, most reporters and pundits will speak around the murders. Flanagan, evidently a disgruntled former WDBJ reporter, posted his own footage of the carnage to Facebook and Twitter, and so sounds will be made about the danger and allure of social media. Of course, hands will be waved about his ostensible insanity. Flanagan, who is black, claimed on Twitter that Parker said racist things to him and that Ward once reported him to HR, which is evidently why he shot them to death, and so vague statements will be made about racism in America. Then something else compelling and awful and newsworthy will happen, and we’ll move on.
Yesterday morning’s murder of Alison Parker and Adam Ward is considered a spectacular display of gun violence because journalists became news, and so opinions will also be proffered about whether the amendment to the Constitution that explicitly states (go read it) that people who are in militias can own guns also means that people who are not in militias can own guns, and if so, whether and which citizens should own guns. Most of these opinions will be the incorrect opinion.
There are some people who hunt and shoot animals that they then eat; they should own guns. There are some people who raise livestock in areas where large carnivores hunt; they should own guns. There are some people who live in areas with poor or nonexistent infrastructure that are many miles or even hours away from the nearest police station or hospital, and for those people, guns serve as literal home-security systems; they should own guns, too.
There are some other people who should own guns. Active soldiers are highly trained in the safe and proper use of firearms and probably should; police officers receive far less training and probably shouldn’t. Some people genuinely enjoy using guns to shoot inanimate objects for sport, and in a different, better world, that’d be too bad, and they’d have to do something else instead.
Because of the way bullets and human initiative work, there is little basis to the argument that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.” The murders of Alison Parker and Adam Ward are instructive in that regard. Ward was approached from behind; just before Parker was shot to death, she screamed and attempted to run away, but she didn’t make it. If a hypothetical Good Gunman were in the area, this hypothetical Good Gunman would have either been killed by Vester Lee Flanagan, or killed Flanagan too late to keep him from killing Parker and Ward, or accidentally killed Parker or Ward or Gardner in the act of trying to save them. Alternately, if Flanagan attacked the trio with a sword, or a knife, or a baseball bat, or a pipe, or his hands, at least one of them would likely have escaped with their lives. Very possibly all three.
That’s because guns are tools conceived, built, and used for the primary purpose of killing living things very quickly and with very little effort. They are perfect, and whether men and women and children and babies use them correctly or incorrectly, people get maimed or killed. For this reason, it should be illegal, as it is in most of the world, for most citizens to own guns.
This is apparent to many people, even and especially to many people who sell guns. But it is even more apparent that nothing anyone says or writes about how it is an absolute fucking farce that it is legal for most citizens to own guns matters. Episodes like Roanoke, and Sandy Hook, and Aurora, and Blacksburg, and Charleston affirm that the fight is already lost.
American gun culture is unique, taking hundreds of years to grow and harden into the current disaster as it exists. It started with hazy national myths of the frontier and the horrors it housed; it was inscribed in our DNA when Americans were occupied by English forces; it was solidified, much more recently, following a concerted effort by capitalists to misread the Bill of Rights in service of selling people on fear of a future in which they become a hunted minority. Even as the amount of households with guns has steadily declined over time, firearms are still being collected by hardline owners so paranoid of a changing nation that they imagine a day someone storms in their house to take their guns. This will of course never happen (though perhaps it should), but still they react by maintaining their capacity to shoot that someone dead.
In its current form, this is a legacy of Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, who didn’t just pander to a grievance-stricken right wing but in many ways created it, taking advantage of mass suburbanization and white flight to stoke fears of the Other that underwrite our politics today. One of those fears is that sometime soon, someone is going to storm over the border or out of the cities, kick doors in, and steal the American way, and that when that happens, you have to be ready to shoot those someones dead.
These synthetic, reactionary politics are so tied up in people’s notions of their own identity, so ingrained in what it means to be American, that guns can’t be cut out from our culture, and any radical plan to change our culture can only be spoken in certain circles, scarcely above a whisper. We can only play at saving lives through what amount to quarter-measures: expansive background checks, long grace periods between purchasing and receiving guns, outlawing of selling guns through places like pawn shops and gun shows, and so on. It should be career suicide for a politician to speak against these modest initiatives, but in many districts, it is instead the opposite. Those able to write gun restrictions into law have declined or failed to do so, and so almost nothing has been done, and so people like Alison Parker and Adam Ward and an endlessly updating list of others are fated to die, every single day, when they don’t have to.
The greatest tragedy of them all, then, is that the fight for gun control in this country is utterly, completely lost, and in a cruel irony, the safest thing one can do is leave, or else perhaps buy a gun.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.