In the month since the Newtown massacre, people the world over have overwhelmed the small Connecticut community with messages of love, condolence and grief, and enough gifts -- 4,600 boxes full -- to fill a warehouse. There are two teddy bears for every man, woman, and surviving child.
And how have some other Americans responded? By thronging to gun stores, stripping bare the shelves for fear of what the government, shamed at last, might do to curb their appetite.
One word best fits this phenomenon:
It is sickening that the arms makers -- the financial muscle behind the gun lobby -- are making windfall profits from an unbearable tragedy.
But the worse sickness is the irrationality that underlines the buying spree: a perpetual, pervasive fear that the government means to "grab our guns."
There are people of that persuasion who will tell you with absolute sincerity that they need their arsenals to defend against a dictatorship that they are certain is coming.
You cannot reason with them. They are paranoid. There have always been strains of paranoia in American politics.
The gun strain erupts whenever someone proposes even a modest attempt to regulate certain types of weapons.
And it accounts, even more harmfully, for the weakness of the few laws that remain on the books, such as background checks and the ban on sales to convicted felons and the mentally ill.
It's claimed that guns don't kill; only people do.
But guns can make the killing so easy.
Cars don't kill either; only drivers do.
But you can't sell a car anywhere in this nation without a paper trail.
You can't take it on any public road without a license, for which you are tested and which you can lose by driving recklessly.
On the other hand, as many as 40 percent of the guns traded in this country avoid the background check required of licensed dealers. They're trafficked person to person on the Internet, at flea markets, and at gun shows -- just like the guns used in the Columbine massacre nearly 14 bloody years ago.
This data is based, by the way, on information that's at least 15 years old. That's no oversight.
The law -- dictated by the NRA -- forbids the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives from making more than one unannounced inspection a year on gun dealers, and from keeping a registry of gun sales or even conducting basic research. So when a gun is used in a crime, the tracing must begin with the manufacturer, and if an intervening seller can't be found, the trail goes cold. On account of the NRA, ATF has been without a permanent director for six years.
At least 20 states are failing to put mental health information into the database for background checks.
The ultimate tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary School is that the slaughter of 20 children and six teachers is merely a small statistic in our national charnel house.
"The killing of children by gun violence is not new," writes Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund. "It has been a relentlessly unreported and under-reported plague that has snuffed out the lives of 119,079 children and teenagers since 1979."
That's more than all our battle fatalities in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some say that there are now too many guns to do anything about them other than put armed guards everywhere. That's self-serving claptrap. For starters, Congress could enact a universal background check requirement, forbid gun sales in states that don't cooperate by submitting sufficient data, unshackle the ATF, and require the same sort of documentation for ammunition sales as for over-the-counter cold medicines.
The Second Amendment is no obstacle. Here's how Justice Antonin Scalia's majority opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller -- the Supreme Court case that recognized an individual right to bear arms -- addressed this point.
"Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited ... nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms." Nor would the Second Amendment necessarily protect "dangerous and unusual weapons."
No, it is not the Second Amendment that is to blame for the slaughter of innocents in the United States. The fault belongs, rather, to the smirking gun lobbyists who assert the amendment is absolute, and to the cowardly politicians who kowtow to them.
Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the newspaper formerly known as the St. Petersburg Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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