The time is now.
Those words have been reverberating in the wake of Friday's shootings in Newtown, Conn. There's at last a sense that the moment has come for some serious action on gun control.
Even some of the most reliable 2nd Amendment hawks are easing up. "The ideologies of my past career are no longer relevant," Joe Scarborough — father of young children, host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" and former conservative congressman — told his audience in a 10-minute speech, because Newtown "changed everything."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a pro-gun-rights Democrat, said Monday that "every idea should be on the table" when it came to a "meaningful conversation and thoughtful debate about how to change laws and culture that allow this violence to continue to grow." This from the same man who, in July, showed little interest in talking about gun policy following the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting in which 12 people died and dozens more were wounded.
But things are different now, more urgent, and for all sorts of reasons. There's been an uptick in the accumulation of mass shootings over the last several years. We have a second-term president who may have the political capital to stand up to the gun lobby. And viscerally, as terrifying as it has been to contemplate shootings in malls and movie theaters and on high school and college campuses, the slaying of 20 first-graders, in their bright and cheery elementary school, represents a brand of horror unimaginable to most Americans.
These reasons grab attention in the media and roll nicely off the tongues of politicians and pundits. But there may be a deeper, more unsettling reason for the shift on gun control, something that doesn't make for quite as fluent a talking point. It's a reason illustrated by remarks like those of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, a longtime NRA supporter who explained his sudden openness to change by saying, "We've never been in these waters before.... Never have we seen so many of our babies put in harm's way."
Our babies. Could that mean mostly white, middle- and upper-middle-class babies with bright futures? Babies with educated, professional parents? Babies in whose faces men like Scarborough and Manchin can see their own children and grandchildren? Scarborough even put it in so many words: "For the sake of my four children . . . I choose change," he said.
Talk about coming late to the party. The truth is we have been in these waters before; we've been drowning in them for a long time. In the poorest and most disenfranchised parts of America, many, many babies have been put in harm's way by lax gun control every hour of every day.
Figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that child deaths from gun violence are hardly unheard of — even children as young as the Newtown students. In 2009, the latest year for which complete CDC data are available, 85 preschoolers died from gun violence. They were killed in their homes and on the streets and as bullets passed through their parents' cars. They died without moving the needle on gun control a fraction of an inch.
And those are just the kids killed from gun violence. Include accidents and you get numbers like this: In 2008, 2,947 youngsters (ages 0-19) in the U.S. died from guns. In 2009, 2,793. That means over a two-year period, 55 children or teens died every week, eight every day, one every three hours. Since 1979, the first year that gun data by age were collected, firearms have killed 116,385 children and teens. And yet, the time has come only now.
Only now that the problem has hit our leaders in the kind of leafy, upper-middle-class white enclave where most of them live (psychologically and culturally if not geographically) has the violence been granted "watershed event" status. Mass shootings in other places didn't quite qualify. Small children being killed one by one in neighborhoods where daily violence is endemic didn't quite qualify. What it took was the slaughter of 20 kids who, by so many measures, could have belonged to those who hold the reins of power. What it took were children who were supposedly the beneficiaries of the best America had to offer.
So, yes, the time is now, but only by default. A better time would have been decades ago.