We all awoke Monday to a grim ritual. As we looked at our phones, we saw that dozens of people had been slaughtered in Las Vegas by a madman with a gun. For the victims, survivors and families, this is a nightmare come true. My heart aches for them, even as it swells at the thought of the first responders who rushed to help the many Americans who felt the awful reality of meaningless death and avoidable loss.
But now what? The question cannot be escaped, even by those who wish the whole subject would go away. We are the most powerful nation in the world, a city upon a hill, exceptional. But we can’t seem to stop — or even slow — the regular murder of our citizens in headline-grabbing mass shootings or in the daily count of suicide, assault and domestic violence that ends the lives of nearly 35,000 of us a year.
Few other nations on the planet, and none anywhere near as wealthy as we are, have anything approximating this problem. And that problem is not an accident, God’s will, providential, “pure evil” or unsolvable. It is deliberate. Those determined to prevent the most obvious adjustments to the regulation of lethal weaponry have a well-stocked toolbox to stop the introspection that any sense of basic humanity would seem to require.
They will tell you it’s “too soon” to discuss policy in the aftermath of this shooting. That it dishonors the dead to “politicize” the tragedy. They will insist, instead, on meaningless moments of silence designed to look compassionate and hide our inaction. Malarkey. Gun violence in this country is epidemic, and not a day passes without a gun-related tragedy. We can’t wait for the bloodshed to pause to start talking about the change that might save lives. The time to have these conversations and make the necessary reforms is now. Or many years ago, when real action might have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
They will tell you that stricter regulations would have done nothing to prevent this or that shooting, making the case that if we can’t stop every firearm fatality, we shouldn’t try to stop any of them. But our goal now is to make incremental reform year by year in the areas that have vast public support.
We are, in most realms, a democracy. Overwhelming public sentiment should, in theory, result in policy that might stanch the flow of blood: policy like universal background checks, banning large magazines and implementing “No-Fly, No-Buy.” If public sentiment mattered, these things would become law. But none of them will be brought up for a vote. Republican leaders will not cross the minority of Americans who fear, at every turn and in every moment, the nonexistent conspiracy to do away with their constitutional rights. And they certainly will not alienate groups like the NRA that are happy to trade lives for profit, some of which will find its way into campaign war chests.
Instead, an impotent Congress will hold a moment of silence, and an uninterested president will order flags flown at half-mast and make a show of a somber visit to the scene of the latest crime. In the background, arguments buzz among the leadership of the House of Representatives about the decent interval of time necessary before voting on legislation to ease restrictions on firearm silencers.
Last year, after the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, I decided in desperation that I would not participate in any more empty moments of silence, prayer or sympathy in the only body that could slow the carnage. Some called me disrespectful. Some called me worse. But I believe that we best honor the victims of brutal violence by preventing similar tragedy from happening again. So I declined to participate in Monday night’s empty ceremony, as well.
Today, in despair, we must remember that our great struggles — suffrage, civil rights, health care — took decades for us to achieve imperfect success. We can break the cycle of violence and silence through sustained effort and commitment to the simple cause of saving as many lives as possible. We have no other choice.
Jim Himes, a Democrat, represents Connecticut’s 4th Congressional District in the U.S. House.