The Biggest and Oldest Elephant in the Room

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – During the early 1950s I spent several months living and working on a small ranch in west-central Texas. I was the only Anglo working there – and a New England Yankee, at that. My only contact with the outside world was the news from Dallas on the radio at breakfast. Monday morning’s broadcast was invariably sprinkled with news of one or two shootings. I remember thinking at the time, “This ain’t Kansas anymore, Toto.” I was clearly in the environs of a much different culture.

Seventy years later, that culture has found a vulnerable host, and metastasized. Furthermore, it’s developed a lethal new strain, capable of killing large numbers of innocent people not party to the dispute or derangement motivating the shooters. The cheerful faces of children suddenly dead, and often disfigured beyond recognition, by weapons designed solely to maim and kill human beings, are grisly trophies of that culture. The photos of, for example, Kyle Rittenhouse, grinning vacantly as he marches to administer justice with such a weapon, are obscenities. And the inscrutable failure of our representative legislatures to do anything concrete to address what has become our deadly national epidemic is beyond any contemptuous adjective I can summon without a thesaurus.

Everybody, of course, has an opinion or a solution. One meme current on the Internet pictures the toughest-looking champion of justice, old Clint Eastwood, holding a rifle, above the legend, “The problem is not guns. It’s hearts without god, homes without discipline, schools without prayer, and courtrooms without justice.” Hard as it may be to believe, that settles it for a tremendous number of Americans: It’s somebody else’s fault – someone who doesn’t believe as I do – and it’s bringing down our great country. Elephant in the room? No, I don’t see one.

The biggest and oldest elephant in the room is the Supreme Court’s current interpretation of the Second Amendment. Stacked as it is with “originalists,” the Court seems ignorant of the origins of that amendment. Our sainted founding fathers (Oh, that women could have participated in the debates; but they weren’t included in those days) were largely slaveholders. Given the treatment slaves received, their mostly Southern “owners” were understandably fearful of violent revolt. The solution was “slave patrols,” quasi-official “militias” to sniff out, repress, and punish any rebellion. But militias never armed themselves with AR-15s and wiped out dozens of innocents at a crack.

Any of us who’ve had to deal with cockroaches know what artful dodgers they are when the room lights go on. Thus after every massacre we hear the cry for “better mental health” services, as the owners of military-style weapons head for their haven between the floor and the baseboard. I don’t suppose that anyone who thinks he needs an assault-style weapon “for personal protection” realizes that they’re possibly in need of those services themselves. Give me a break. The kid that somehow was able to purchase two such weapons and a pile of ammunition should have set off alarm bells everywhere – he was known to threaten girls on the Internet – but excited not even crickets.

Sherlock Holmes famously solved problems by eliminating all the solutions that didn’t fit the evidence, till what was left, no matter how absurd, was the answer. After winnowing all the cockroaches’ solutions – fortify the schools and churches; arm the teachers and ushers; report on each other à la old East Germany; install trigger locks; keep weapons in safes; hell, arm everyone! – there remain two so-far intractable solutions, neither of which, regrettably, has much of a chance.

The common factor in almost all mass shootings has been a semi-automatic, military-style weapon with expanded capacity, a thing of beauty to many, mostly white, Americans, but a fantasy-inducing weapon, too – unless you’re headed to Ukraine to volunteer. We don’t have to invent a way to eliminate them; others already have. And until we do, we’ll get no respite from the carnage.

The second factor: our unbelievably supine, even complicit, Congress, which continues, in the face of every exigency, to do only what it does best: posture and palaver. It’s no secret that its members are beholden to special interests. They fear those deep-pocketed bullies more than the slaughter of children and teachers. Every member up for election this year must be required to state the exact amount of their debt to the interests that currently hold our kids in thrall to the fear of execution.