What does it say about this country that the bereaved parents of massacred children must grovel before members of Congress in the hopes of eliciting even a minimally serious response to their suffering?
What kind of country requires the presence of a movie star to draw people’s waning attention back to the lives of 19 fourth-graders and two teachers, cut down just two weeks earlier by an 18-year-old with an AR-15-style weapon? Or to the 10 people mowed down 10 days before that, killed in a Buffalo supermarket by another teenager with the same easy access to a weapon meant for war, and ideal for mass murder?
In what country — in what universe — should it ever be necessary to hear the testimony of a traumatized 11-year-old who saved her own life by covering herself in a lifeless classmate’s blood and playing dead, or of a pediatrician describing the bodies of other children as “pulverized’’ and “decapitated’’ by bullets? Or to hear calls for families to release graphic images of their dead loved ones in the vain hope that they will shock more people into action?
Only in America, a country whose indifference to mass shootings approaches barbarism. A country where only the highest body counts, or the youngest victims, break through the endless barrage of massacres that have become the discordant background noise of our lives.
And so there was actor Matthew McConaughey on a podium in the White House on Tuesday, a native of Uvalde, Texas, where those children were murdered. He was angry and tearful and desperately trying to draw America’s fleeting gaze back to those kids long enough to make sure they didn’t die in vain — trying, he said, “to make the loss of these lives matter.’’
He introduced some of those dead children to America as actual people, with hobbies and dreams and adorable artwork. He asked his wife to hold up a pair of green Converse sneakers that 10-year-old and aspiring marine biologist Maite Rodriguez wore to school every day, including the day she was murdered, a hand-drawn heart on the right toe. The child was rendered unrecognizable by the gunman’s bullets, so those shoes, he said, smacking the lectern in disgust, “turned out to be the only clear evidence that could identify her.’’
And there were Kimberly and Felix Rubio, struggling to push themselves through their gut-wrenching public testimony when they should have been allowed their private grief, pleading that their dead daughter Lexi, a softball player who wanted to be a lawyer, be more than just a number. Testifying on a livestream, her mother got right to this country’s broken heart:
“We understand that for some reason, to some people, to people with money, the people who fund political campaigns, that guns are more important than children,’’ she said.
Dr. Roy Guerrero, a pediatrician in Uvalde, was even more direct in his call for politicians to enact basic gun safety measures.
“We are lying on the operating table, riddled with bullets like the children of Robb Elementary and so many other schools,’’ he said. “We are bleeding out and you are not there.’’
It should never have come to this.
The deaths of those 19 children, and their two teachers, not to mention the dead of Buffalo and Tulsa and Newtown and so many more, should be enough to force Congress to pass sweeping gun safety measures, let alone the pathetic suite of basic safeguards currently under consideration: beefing up background checks for purchasers, keeping guns out of the hands of those deemed dangerous, better school safety funding. Remarkably, a proposal to keep weapons of war out of the hands of 18-year-olds appears to be off the table. But even those incremental proposals are unlikely to move as long as Republicans keep their 50 Senate seats and the filibuster endures.
Any one of the hundreds of mass murders to which this country has grown accustomed over the last three decades should have been enough to shame the gun industry vassals in Congress into action. But they’re unmoved by the legions gunned down in churches and synagogues, concerts and classrooms, shopping malls and supermarkets. For they fear no one but the gun lobbyists.
They don’t care that they sound like craven fools, tying themselves in humiliating knots trying to avoid offending their gun-rights absolutist overseers and financiers. Their rhetoric in the wake of the Uvalde massacre has been as pathetic as Wednesday’s testimony was heartbreaking, full of evasions and laughable claims and ridiculous false analogies.
Some in Congress have offered school prayer as protection. Texas Senator Ted Cruz offered locked doors as a fix. He and others argued that arming teachers and others in schools would save kids’ lives — as if Robb Elementary hadn’t been swiftly swarmed with trained police officers, armed to the hilt, who let the Uvalde gunman have his way for more than an hour.
There is no sensible answer to the question of why anyone — let alone 18-year-olds — should have unfettered access to weaponry designed to inflict massive carnage in seconds, but some Republicans are trying anyway. Senator John Thune of South Dakota said AR-15s are handy for shooting “prairie dogs and, you know, other types of varmints’’; Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy said such weapons were useful against “feral pigs’’; for Colorado Representative Ken Buck, the AR-15 is necessary for “killing raccoons before they get to our chickens.’’
Heaven forbid that the deaths of 19 children should leave chickens unprotected.
In any normal country, voters would sweep this heartlessness from office. Polls show Americans overwhelmingly want basic gun measures like enhanced background checks and age restrictions for the deadliest weapons. And studies show such measures would prevent deaths.
But Republicans, and a few Democrats, defy the public will on these matters over and over. They get away with it because, thanks to GOP efforts over decades, their minority party holds outsized power. The Senate will not move on meaningful gun safety measures until Democrats have 60 votes in that chamber, or enough votes to suspend the filibuster.
And for that to happen, everybody’s vote has to count. The GOP knows this. So the party has been undermining our democracy at every level, enacting restrictions that make it harder for voters to reject them.
That is why life-saving gun safety measures — like abortion rights, gay rights, and other protections we should be able take for granted — are inseparable from voting rights. And why November’s elections are literally life-or-death propositions.
We can’t keep being a country where families ripped apart by gun violence must beg for meaningful attention, and action. We can’t keep being a country where families are routinely ripped apart by gun violence, period.
Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.