Thoughts and prayers. It began as a cliché. It became a joke. It has putrefied into a national shame.
If tonight, Americans do turn heavenward in pain and grief for the lost children of Uvalde, Texas, they may hear the answer delivered in the Bible through the words of Isaiah:
“And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood.”
We will learn more about the 18-year-old killer of elementary-school children: his personality, his ideology, whatever confection of hate and cruelty drove him to his horrible crime. But we already know the answer to one question: Who put the weapon of mass murder into his hand? The answer to that question is that the public policy of this country armed him.
Every other democracy makes some considerable effort to keep guns away from dangerous people, and dangerous people away from guns. For many years—and especially since the massacre at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School almost a decade ago—the United States has put more and more guns into more and more hands: 120 guns per 100 people in this country. The years of the pandemic have been the years of the greatest gun sales in U.S. history: almost 20 million guns sold in 2020; another 18.5 million sold in 2021. No surprise, those two years also witnessed a surge in gun violence: the spectacular human butchery of our recurring mass slaughters; the surge of one-on-one lethal criminality; the unceasing tragic toll of carelessness as American gun owners hurt and kill their loved ones and themselves.
Most of us are appalled. But not enough of us are sufficiently appalled to cast our votes to halt it. And those to whom Americans entrust political power, at the state and federal levels, seem determined to make things worse and bloodier. In the next few weeks, the U.S. Supreme Court will deliver its opinion in the case of New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen, a decision that could strike down concealed-carry bans even in the few states that still have them. More guns, more places, fewer checks, fewer protections: Since Sandy Hook, this country has plunged backward and downward toward barbarism.
In his memoir of his career in the gun trade, the former gun-industry executive Ryan Busse writes of the effect of mass shootings on gun sales. They are, to put it bluntly, good for business. People think that perhaps the authorities might do something, and race to the gun stores to buy weapons before the “something” happens. The gun in the gunman’s hand multiplies to more guns in more hands. Most of those hands do not mean to inflict harm. But the harm follows, even so.
In this magazine five years ago, I wrote a parable:
A village has been built in the deepest gully of a floodplain.
At regular intervals, flash floods wipe away houses, killing all inside. Less dramatic—but more lethal—is the steady toll as individual villagers slip and drown in the marshes around them.
After especially deadly events, the villagers solemnly discuss what they might do to protect themselves. Perhaps they might raise their homes on stilts? But a powerful faction among the villagers is always at hand to explain why these ideas won’t work. “No law can keep our village safe! The answer is that our people must learn to be better swimmers—and oh by the way, you said ‘stilts’ when the proper term is ‘piles,’ so why should anybody listen to you?”
So the argument rages, without result, year after year, decade after decade, fatalities mounting all the while. Nearby villages, built in the hills, marvel that the gully-dwellers persist in their seemingly reckless way of life. But the gully-dwellers counter that they are following the wishes of their Founders, whose decisions two centuries ago must always be upheld by their descendants.
Since then, of course, things have only gotten worse. Can it be different this time? Whether any particular killer proves to be a racist, a jihadist, a sexually frustrated incel, or a randomly malignant carrier of sorrow and grief, can Americans ever break the pattern of empty thoughts, meaningless prayers, and more and worse bloodshed to follow?
The lobbying groups and politicians who enable these killers will dominate the federal courts and state governments, as they do today, until the mighty forces of decency and kindness in American life say to the enablers:
“That’s enough! This must stop—and we will stop you.”