The terrible and tragic shootings in Newtown raised a flood of emtions in all of us — sadness for the loss of innocent lives, sympathy for the grieving parents and community, fear for our own children, and anger that such a thing could occur in a country we call our own. Those emotions are accompanied by some serious reflection about how we can prevent such things from happening again. Our first thought ran pretty quickly to how we can prevent people like this young man from gaining access to the weapons he used to gun down these little children. That thought moves to how we can prevent access to weapons to those people who gun down people in the United States at the rate of ten to twelve thousand people a year, a per capita gun murder rate that approaches war zone numbers.
As has now become routine, the cry goes up for gun control legislation. Ban assault weapons. Ban the sale of ammunition clips holding large numbers of bullets. Require background checks before allowing a person to purchase guns. Limit. Prohibit. Criminalize. Fine. Tax.
And, as has also become routine, Wayne La Pierre, a/k/a the gun lobby, rises to announce that gun control is not the answer, that gun control would not have prevented Newtown or Virginia Tech or Columbine or any of the scores of senseless, tragic shootings that so fill our city streets that they never even get more than passing mention in local papers, from happening. Ignoring the opinions of the vast majority of the members of his organization that gun control is needed, La Pierre abandons all reason to announce that the solution to our gun problem is to introduce more guns. “The only thing that stops a bad man with a gun,” he says, ” is a good man with a gun.”
La Pierre’s message was so offensive and so irrational and so incredibly mindless of the unspeakable suffering undergone by parents and loved ones every minute of every day throughout the country that it makes you want to disavow even an undeerstanding of the very words he spoke. As one commentator said, “I recognize that he was speaking English, but beyond that I have no idea what he was saying.” Yet, whether Mr. La Pierre is aware of it or not, there is truth to be found deep beneath the surface of what he says.
“Guns don’t kill. People do.” This bumper sticker, a staple of pro-gun philosophy, encapsulates the basic reasoning, or what might better be called sales pitch, of the gun lobby. Like all propaganda, it dresses up the crass intent behind it. It would not do for the gun lobby to say, “Whatever you do, don’t do anything that would hurt gun sales.” That is the nature of all propaganda, covering an unpalatable message with a pretty one. So BP hides the oily muck at the bottom of the Gulf by showing smily faces on sunny beaches, and the coal industry manages to get us not to blink at the sound of the oxymoron, “Clean coal”, and the drug companies bury their relentless pursuit of unconsciounalbe profits in the caring phrase, “Have the ______________ conversation with your doctor.” It is the nature of all rhetoric, of all propaganda, of all advertising.
But just as fraud can only succeed if there is larceny in the heart of the victim, so propoganda can only succeed if there is some hint of truth in its sales pitch. It is, after all, true, that guns don’t jump from holsters and aim and shoot and kill all by themselves. It does take people. And here Mr. La Pierre has hit upon something, albeit unwittingly and surely involuntarily, that may lead us to a far deeper truth about ourselves. Guns don’t kill. People do. Oil doesn’t ruin our oceans. People do. Coal doesn’t foul our air. People do. Fracking doesn’t poison our wells. People do. Money doesn’t corrupt our politics. People do.
The deeper truth emerging here, the hint of which provides the specious cover for all these propogandist messages, is, ironically, that, in burying ourselves in the goods that these folks are selling, we have laid aside the very core of our own values, of what gives us meaning. In service to self-interest, we have renounced responsibility. Guns don’t kill people, so I can have all the guns I want. Oil and coal don’t pollute, so I can use all the oil and coal I want. Money doesn’t corrupt, so I can pursue money with abandon.
We can, and pretty much all of us do, live with that specious reasoning until something like Newtown brings us up short, stabs us in the eye so that we cannot ignore it, or until some moment of reflection, like this season of holidays, of Christmas and Hannuka and Kwanzaa, pushes our consciousness beyond our own petty interests. We hear Marley’s ghostly voice crying, “Mankind was my business!” We feel the selflessness of the Maccabees. We stare at the love and devotion of a poor young couple giving their all to the little child who will grow up to give his all. And for that moment, of horror or of wonder or of shame, we know, deep down, where our real values lie and what the real debate needs to be.
It is not a gun problem, but a people problem, and, as usual, we have met the enemy and it is us. We need to look at why a woman in a comfortable suburban community was motivated to own, among other weapons, not one but two high-caliber semi-automatic handguns with oversized magazines. We need to look at how we eliminate the poverty and misery of an inner city that spawns epidemics of drug use and gang banging. We need to examine the illogic of taking money from education and health care rather than adding one dime to the taxes of people who have more money than they could possible use or need. We need, in a nutshell, to recenter ourselves, to put the inalienable rights of every human being in their rightful place as the enspiriting core of our values as Americans.
Wayne La Pierre, despite himself, was right. It’s not about guns. It’s about us. Guns didn’t kill those beautiful little children. We did. We let a world happen that allowed such a thing to occur. The debate that needs to occur is not about guns. It is about how we get back to our center.

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