I considered writing a column about gun violence in our country on Dec. 1, the day that Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Javon Belcher killed his girlfriend with a handgun, and then, a few minutes later, committed suicide in front of the Chiefs' general manager and two of his coaches.
The next day, gun-rights advocates argued that the gun had nothing to do with this tragedy, that a powerful guy like Belcher could have killed his girlfriend with his bare hands or a baseball bat. In fact, one argued, a little more facetiously than the grim occasion warranted, that Belcher could have killed her with a "butter knife." Are we going to ban butter knives? Or ban automobiles because people sometimes die in them?
The argument is ridiculous, but I wrote nothing about it. Then on Dec. 10, a single page of my local paper carried these three stories: In Cleveland, a man killed his wife with a handgun and then killed himself. In Porterville, Calif., a man killed three people and wounded three children, including his two daughters. In Mercer, Pa., a 7-year-old was killed by a gun his father thought was unloaded.
The next day, Dec. 11, a gunman opened fire in a shopping mall in Portland, Ore., killing two people and wounding another. One would think that all this carnage is worth writing about. But stories like these are just business as usual in the United States, a nation awash with more than 310 million guns. According to the FBI, almost 48,000 people in the United States were murdered by firearms between 2006 and 2010. Including accidents and suicides, more than 30,000 people die every year from firearms.
In the United States, there's nothing particularly remarkable about a man killing his wife or random strangers with a handgun.
No, it takes a dramatic event like the shooting that occurred in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14 to get our attention. Twenty-six people, including 20 children ages 6 to 7 years, were killed by a single shooter with high-powered, high-capacity, semiautomatic firearms. Some politicians and, certainly, gun-rights advocates argue that now isn't the time to politicize a tragedy by talking about laws and policies that permit a deranged man to obtain such potent weapons. They are wrong: The events in Newtown demand a serious discussion, now, about how we begin to protect ourselves and our children from firearm violence.
I'm no great fan of handguns, but I'm a strong supporter of the Second Amendment. Why? Because it's in the Constitution. Of course the amendment ties the keeping and bearing of arms to a "well regulated militia," but I won't quibble over the stretch that it takes to arrive at a citizen's right to own a firearm for hunting and for self-protection.
But the movie "Lincoln" includes a relevant scene: A besieged lawmaker pulls from his coat an unwieldy muzzle-loading pistol. His first shot is discharged harmlessly into the air, and his assailant has plenty of time to make an easy getaway while the lawmaker reloads, tediously ram-rodding down the barrel the powder, ball and wadding.
Such are the weapons that the Founding Fathers had in mind when the Second Amendment was enacted. Comanches could lay down fusillades of arrows with more accuracy and deadly effect than these primitive muzzle-loaders could. The Second Amendment doesn't imagine the concealable, high-capacity, higher-powered, semiautomatic weapons that make possible tragedies like Newtown, Conn.
In fact, massacres like these can't be committed with butter knives and baseball bats or even with reasonable weapons that can be used for self-defense and hunting. Mr. President, senators and representatives, the time has come. Muster the courage and will required to confront the gun lobby and to protect American children from more Newtown atrocities.
It's too late for 20 of our children; many of their names can be found beneath Connecticut Christmas trees, on presents that will never be opened.
(John Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.)