It's springtime in America, with birds and flowers, when soft breezes blow and mass killers come out of hibernation. This week it was Binghamton, N.Y., not far from where I lived once, where my parents used to teach. On the strength of 98 pistol rounds and 13 deaths, Binghamton stole the media spotlight from Carthage, N.C., where earlier in the week another deranged gunman murdered seven senior citizens and a nurse. Carthage is just down the road from the hotel where my wife and I celebrated our first anniversary.
By now nearly everyone must have a personal connection to one of these massacre sites: This was America's fifth mass shooting in less than a month, with 38 victims dead and more gravely wounded. If we stick a pin in the map everywhere an armed lunatic has committed multiple murders, the map of America would have a distinctly porcupine appearance.
For gross irony and nausea, I thought it would be hard to upstage the North Carolina gunman who opened fire in a nursing home and killed a group of helpless people whose ages ranged up to 98 years. But in some ways the Binghamton slaughter was even more grotesque. The killer blasted his way into an immigration services center and murdered resident aliens and refugees who were studying to become American citizens. For the survivors, it was a lesson in American citizenship they will never forget. Send me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free—but for god's sake tell them to keep their heads down.
And avoid public places. The current crop of psychotic gunmen seems to seek what the military would call "target-rich" environments, where large groups of potential victims are preoccupied and stationary. Primary sites are classrooms, offices and workplaces. Theaters have a lot of potential, and the nursing home was a logical innovation. Churches are a particularly vulnerable environment, dramatized in Maryville, Ill., last month when a gunman strolled down the center aisle of the First Baptist Church and assassinated the Rev. Fred Winters while he was delivering his Sunday sermon. A chilling detail was that Rev. Winters deflected the first of four rounds with his Bible, which disintegrated into confetti as his killer kept firing.
So much for divine intervention. No force on earth or in heaven can protect us from America's staggering private arsenal—now conservatively estimated at 290 million firearms, virtually one for every man, woman and child—and the mentally unstable Americans who seem to own a disproportionate share of it. Certainly not the police, who are losing a desperate battle to protect themselves.
The day after the Binghamton massacre, three officers were murdered in Pittsburgh, ambushed by a white supremacist with an AK-47 assault rifle. This maniac, who also owned a .357 Magnum and other high-caliber pistols, was said to be enraged because he thought President Obama was scheming to confiscate his guns. (This rumor has triggered an unprecedented boom in the pistol market.) The week before in Oakland four policemen were killed when a routine traffic stop set off a trigger-happy parole violator. Cops know they sign on for a dangerous life, but it's not supposed to be like Afghanistan.
In a Palm Sunday service at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, a lay reader prayed for the families of the victims in Carthage, as indicated in our programs, and ad-libbed an extra prayer for the survivors in Binghamton. If she had read the morning paper, she could have added the policemen's widows in Pittsburgh. Not even our prayers can keep up with the carnage. I feel that I've written these paragraphs, or ones much like them, many times before ... Columbine, Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois ... the cities and the details fade but not the helpless unreality of living in a ballistic republic. Forged in "the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air," the United States is dissolving in a hail of bullets, bullets of our own manufacture and discharge. There is nothing like it anywhere.
It might be hard to prove that Americans are crazier than everyone else, that homicidal violence is programmed into our DNA or absorbed with our mothers' milk. Strictly speaking, some of the most efficient mass murderers have not been American, at least not native-born. The killer in Binghamton was a naturalized Vietnamese immigrant; the Virginia Tech gunman was a Korean exchange student. In my wife's hometown of Grundy, Va., it was an African graduate student who opened fire in the Appalachian School of Law and murdered the dean, among others. Unstable people looking for a better education and a better life come to America, where they're often disappointed. But here in the somewhat faded Land of Opportunity there's one equal opportunity they're never denied—the opportunity to acquire lethal firearms and to use them.
It's not our people who are hopelessly insane. It's our laws. While they were carrying out the corpses in Binghamton, I turned confidently to Fox News for the best writhing and rationalizing. "What can we do?" asked one reporter, with a properly tortured expression. He didn't try to answer—this is called hand-wringing with one hand—because the only obvious, sane answer is "Try to pry some of this terrifying firepower out of the hands of private citizens."
And this answer is not politically permissible, on Fox News or in Binghamton, where a local official said, "There's not much we can do if a crazy person decides to start shooting." There's not much anyone can do as long as the National Rifle Association maintains an impassable road block between America and its brain, its common sense and its self-respect.
The gun lobby's basic mission is to guarantee that every American, not excluding the desperate and the deranged, can purchase all the firepower his feverish heart desires. In principle they'd prefer to disarm psychotics, but how, they ask, could we identify the mad—among the healthy population of patriotic, law-abiding marksmen—when most of them have no criminal records and no previous history of violence? Of course this question decisively undermines every argument against gun control. Mental illness is a constant; lethal weapons are ostensibly a variable. But the NRA doesn't appear to grasp that, or grasps it and doesn't care. Though they've never won an argument (or ever presented one that would sway an 11-year-old), the NRA rarely loses an election or a legislative battle where gun control is the issue.
America's firearms policies, dominated by an uncompromising gun cult, amount first of all to a bloody war on logic. Does the NRA have a solution for the escalating body count from lunatics with guns? Yes, it does: a solution that even Americans from sparsely armed blue states regard with slack-jawed disbelief. Share it with a foreigner and he'll assume you're raving mad, hallucinating. Negative publicity from America's round-robin of domestic massacres never softens the NRA's stand against gun control. Instead, they recommend arming all potential victims—putting handguns in every student's backpack, concealing them under the Rev. Winters' surplice and under the bathrobes, shawls and lap blankets of octogenarians watching television. A pistol under every secretary's keyboard and under every teacher's desk. They advocate arming patrons in bars and restaurants as well, so no one will be caught without a fighting chance when that gunman kicks in the door.
Since the Virginia Tech bloodbath, the astonishing proposal to arm college campuses has been backed by legislative initiatives in 18 states, most recently in Texas, where NRA flunkies are asking students, "Do you want to be a sitting duck?"
In Austin, a relevant response came from John Woods, now a graduate student at the University of Texas. Two years ago tomorrow (April 16, 2007), when he was an undergraduate at Virginia Tech, his girlfriend was one of 32 people shot to death by Seung-Hui Cho, still the most lethal lone gunman in American history. He thought of buying a gun, Woods said, "Then I learned pretty fast that wouldn't solve anything. The idea that somebody could stop a school shooting with a gun is impossible. It's reactive, not preventative," he was quoted by the Associated Press as saying.
Tell it to the NRA. Besides the armed-campus bills, its immediate response to Virginia Tech included the defeat of legislation, initiated by Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, to rein in unlicensed gun dealers and prohibit concealed weapons in bars. In Congress, the gun lobby maneuvered to eliminate handgun restrictions and an assault-rifle ban in the District of Columbia, one of the most dangerous cities in the USA. (Is it wrong to wish that these congressional hypocrites could come face-to-barrel with the results of their cowardice?)
In North Carolina, while those senior citizens were still laid out in the Carthage funeral parlors, gun-loving legislators were pushing a bill to eliminate the licensing of handguns. Insanity is involved, but also cynicism, since the NRA is funded by arms merchants and manufacturers who make their profits from the same paranoia they encourage—and unfortunately justify.
Money and fear are an irresistible All-American combination; once reason has fled the field, there's no limit to the craziness we may encounter. "Let's just make carrying a concealed weapon mandatory for all law-abiding citizens," a man proposes in a letter to the local newspaper, leaving me trying to decide whether he's a satirist or someone who should be locked in a cage. Gun freaks don't shy from open threats of armed violence. "If only 3 percent of gun owners actively resist new anti-Constitutional gun laws," one snarls in this morning's paper, "the result will be violence on a scale never seen."
If the outgunned police are increasingly helpless to halt the carnage, the government has been worse than useless. If your legislator isn't supporting some restriction on firearms that the NRA opposes—and it opposes everything, not only bans on assault rifles but on armor-piercing (known as "cop-killer") bullets—then you don't have a legislator, just another broken-down gun whore, another pistol-whipped, brainwashed eunuch armed America has purchased out of petty cash.
Even though saner gun laws are favored by two-thirds of the electorate, profiles in NRA-busting courage are pitifully rare among elected officials. The cop-killing psycho in Pittsburgh need not, it seems, have feared the Obama administration or the Democratic Congress. Attorney General Eric Holder and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are both backing away from a fight to reinstate the federal assault-rifle ban that Republicans allowed to expire in 2004: "We need to enforce the laws we have right now," says Pelosi, parroting gun-lobby rhetoric. "Basically," said Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois (with obvious regret but no fierce indignation), "we reached a point where there are not many people who will stick their political necks out to vote for sensible gun control ... too big a hassle."
The NRA's smile is not fading. Apparently we've replaced a government committed to giving them everything with a government too frightened not to give them plenty. The NRA is America's inoperable tumor. Inoperable in part, I admit, because guns are flesh of our flesh, a piece of our heritage. The history of America coincides with the history of modern firearms. It's never been hard for the gun lords to convince millions of rural conservatives that a government capable of seizing coke dealers' Uzis would come after their deer rifles next. Or to seduce them with the equally implausible Second Amendment argument that Jefferson and Madison wanted us all to own guns, it says so in the Constitution—though by the same logic Tom and Jim wanted us to own slaves, virtually own women and regard a colored person as three-fifths of a human being. The Constitution remains relevant because it's a living, evolving document (note the word "Amendment"), not a dead, embalmed one impervious to history. But the psychopathology of guns, too exotic to explore here, renders victims gullible and insight-resistant to an extent I cannot explain.
But now the cancer that thrives in that inoperable tumor has spread beyond our borders. For years the American media machine has been shaking its head over the terrifying violence in Northern Mexico, especially in the border cities of Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana, where drug cartels rule almost unchallenged, shoot policemen and journalists like jackrabbits, and maintain the highest per capita murder rate in the hemisphere.
In the past 16 months, more than 7,000 murders have been attributed to drug violence, 1,000 in the first eight weeks of 2009 alone. Torture and decapitation is common; the narcos, as drug traffickers are known in Mexico, produce cadavers at such a dreadful rate that coffin-makers have fallen months behind the demand, and one morgue was forced to store 200 corpses in refrigerators built for 80. This drug-deranged dystopia, this republic of mere anarchy is centered in districts visible from the city limits of El Paso and San Diego, and its violence frequently spills over the border.
America held its nose and tried to seal its borders. Then a few weeks ago it was acknowledged—it must have long been known—that 95 percent of the guns employed in the Mexican murders were purchased in the United States. Ninety percent of all firearms owned by the drug cartels—assault rifles are their efficient weapon of choice—were sold by American dealers, often through "straw buyers" to conceal the transactions. Another statistic is even more stunning: Every day of the week, 2,000 of these weapons are smuggled into Mexico from the United States.
Though it boasts some of the most bloodthirsty capitalists on the planet, millionaires and billionaires who make Bernie Madoff look like Mister Rogers, Mexico turns out to have sane gun laws. South of the Border, a gun is hard to get. Or would be, if it weren't for the crazy Americans. Yes, our dealers arm all the butchers, torturers and beheaders of Ciudad Juárez. When Mexico sends armed forces to the border to try to stop the bloodshed, its soldiers come under fire from American rifles. "The bloody result," wrote columnist Tom Teepen, "is just one more of the prices we pay to appease our domestic gun lobbies and their political intimidation."
Where's the shame? The NRA, never embarrassed, probably blames Mexico's ruin on limp-wristed liberals or tequila. But President Obama was embarrassed enough to send Hillary Clinton to Mexico City to reassure the Mexican government that we accepted "shared responsibility" and were ready to cooperate toward some solution. It was not at all clear, however, that the administration was embarrassed enough to prosecute the dealers in question or to live up to its promise to ban assault rifles. The first legal development in the gun-smuggling scandal was unpromising but predictable. A Superior Court judge in Arizona infuriated the state's attorney general by dismissing all charges against George Iknadosian, a gun dealer charged with using straw buyers to funnel at least 700 sniper rifles and assault weapons to the Beltran Leyva drug cartel in Mexico. Federal agents had spent two years building up the case against Iknadosian.
As well as turning schools and nursing homes into combat zones with lockdown drills, America's failure to stand up to its gun bullies has now destabilized a foreign nation. Maybe we're just too stoned to care. The hulking irony that stalked Hillary Clinton on her mission in Mexico City was that every aspect of Mexico's tragedy is American-made. As Clinton acknowledged, the huge fortunes that the drug cartels defend with their assault rifles and private armies of assassins were all built on the insatiable drug habits of the American people.
Ninety percent of all the cocaine Americans absorb in a year, an estimate of 350 tons, is purchased from Mexican cartels. Their marijuana enterprise is so vast it's hard to calculate: So far, cartel growing operations have been discovered on at least 700 sites in America's national parks and forests. Chemicals these growers employ have polluted huge stretches of once-pristine American forestland. Last year, agents uprooted five million of their plants in California, and a half million in Kentucky. Eighty bales of the finished product were recently seized in Asheboro, N.C. The cartels' tentacles have long since extended to my home state. Charlotte, where seizures of Mexican "black tar" heroin are up 233 percent since 2005, is known to be one of 230 American cities where the narcos maintain distribution centers for heroin, marijuana and cocaine. One year of good business in America is worth approximately $25 billion to the Mexican cartels.
It's a creepy symbiosis between violent neighbors; the guns go south and the drugs come north, and this criminal version of NAFTA keeps the coroners busy on both sides of the border. The link between the drug cartels and our gun cartel is a revelation; even a comparison is worth weighing. They both use fear and deep pockets to expand businesses that prey on human weakness and irrational behavior. They're equally unscrupulous and relentless and seem to scare everyone, even the presidents of the United States and Mexico. Each exerts influence way out of proportion to its numbers or its merit in the great scheme of things, which in each case is nonexistent. Each disrupts and dishonors the social contract and creates thousands of unnecessary deaths, thousands of widows and orphans.
When it comes to recruiting politicians, there's a wide moral gap between the narco who threatens—not idly—to kill you and your children and the NRA hitman who only swears to crush you in the next election. But the Arizona gun dealer who knowingly sells military weapons to the world's most murderous drug gangs is a greater menace to society, and a better candidate for eternal damnation, than the coke dealer who merely exploits a mean addiction.
If the shoe fits, or the huarache.... Of course this moral balance sheet doesn't apply to every rank-and-file gun owner, however gullible—but Satan is waiting with open arms for those bastards who lobby Congress for their constitutional right to sell AK-47s and cop-killer bullets to the furious and the mad. "Inside Washington's bubble," complains The New York Times in its lead editorial, "it's as if the shootings in Binghamton and elsewhere never took place. The NRA's ability to intimidate grown men and women remains undiminished."
Meanwhile the body bags keep filling. Optimists believe there's a point where ordinary people, the abused and the terrified, will rise up and say "Enough is enough." I'm not an optimist, and I keep an eye on Mexico. I've just finished reading 2666, by the late, celebrated Chilean novelist Roberto Bolano. Section Four, "The Part About the Crimes," is a 300-page chronicle—corpse by corpse, autopsy by autopsy—of the rape, mutilation and murder of some 400 women whose bodies have been dumped in the desert near Ciudad Juárez since 1993. (One theory is that the narcos have a sideline in pornographic "snuff" movies featuring real torture and death.) Bolano's graphic version is nearly documentary, and I don't recommend it. It will steal your sleep. Clearly the author's strategy is to hammer his readers with horror until they're desensitized and nearly dehumanized, to make a point about the effects of these crimes on the Mexican policemen and journalists who actually witnessed them. When the unspeakable becomes routine it becomes almost acceptable, and then it's too late.