This is the Life: The death toll rises

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In the aftermath of yet another round of deaths and injuries caused by a gunman in the U.S., one is left to wonder if there really is any hope for a new era of civility and rational behaviour in a rapidly declining society.

Think about some of the comments that came from the mouths of elected representatives. One congressman quickly jumped into the fray, accusing the Federal Bureau of Investigation of hiding information on the shooter’s political beliefs because it would embarrass the White House. An Illinois representative called for the reversal of member’s office budget cuts and an addition of 10 per cent to pay for improved security. An Indiana politician called for the House gallery to be enclosed in Plexiglas to protect elected officials.

My favourite came from a New York representative who quickly introduced a bill that would make it illegal for anyone to carry a gun in the vicinity of a federal official. And then, of course, there was a Sarah Palin spokesperson that quickly denied that the country’s would-be queen had earlier released a map targeting Democratic representatives who should be defeated at the polls. Those weren’t the crosshairs of a riflescope on the map, the spokesperson claimed. They were “surveyors’ symbols”.

The question is not whether a rational debate can take place about gun use — it’s about how the country has devolved to a point that makes such debate an impossibility. How would any politician feel free to question who can own what sort of firearms? Remember that the National Rifle Association is the most powerful lobby in the nation, plenty strong enough to make political life short and miserable for anyone who dares to raise the issue.

Perhaps even more important is the cult of celebrity, to which millions and millions of Americans have ceded their own thought processes. What to think about a particular issue? Tune in to Bill O’Reilly or Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh or, heck, even Keith Olbermann (scratch that idea — he’s been dumped) and they’ll tell you. You are a Republican (or Democrat) and your daddy was a Republican (or Democrat) and your grandpappy was a Republican (or Democrat), so what’s to think about? Just listen to your political commentator of choice and he’ll tell you what you want to hear. Then, when it comes time to vote, like about 80 per cent of your fellow countrymen, you’ll vote the way you did last time, and the time before that, and the time before that, even if it isn’t working out so well for you.

So, you can forget about any kind of political discussion about whether anyone actually needs a semi-automatic pistol that can shoot 30 rounds of ammo in a matter of seconds. Those in favour will haul out the hoary and misguided arguments about the right to bear arms and the wisdom of the men who crafted the constitution. Those against, at least the sane ones, will stay quiet lest they, too, incur the wrath of a lunatic who has no barriers to purchase the weapons of his (ever notice how it’s almost never a “her”?) choice.

How crazy has it got? I recently heard the story of a local resident who was wandering around a flea market not so far south of the border. Out of curiosity, he stopped to ask what was required to purchase a sawed-off shotgun or any of the other firearms the vendor had for sale. A firearms permit, he was told. When the Canadian informed the vendor he didn’t have a permit, but that he had a valid driver’s licence, the response was quick. “That’ll do.”

Of course, there is always the possibility that restricting gun sales wouldn’t reduce violent acts like the most recent ones. Maybe society has deteriorated beyond the point where it might make any difference. But we are never going to know. Nor are a nine-year-old girl or a federal judge, who weren’t as lucky as the intended victim. They join 150,000 others who have been murdered in the U.S. in the past 10 years.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.