Michigan school slaughter exposes 2nd Amendment as poison pill of the American Experiment
PHILADELPHIA — In a nation that worships holiday shopping almost as much as its nearly 400 million guns, James Crumbley of Oxford, Michigan, may have just made the worst Black Friday purchase in American history.
Authorities say just four days after Crumbley bought a 9 mm SP2022 Sig Sauer semi-automatic pistol on the busiest shopping day of the year, his 15-year-old son Ethan, a sophomore, brought the deadly weapon and three 15-round magazines to Oxford High. This deeply troubled youth had already threatened to shoot up the school on cellphone videos and in his journal. After a 10-minute lunchtime spree, four students lay dead or dying, with six others and a teacher wounded.
A video showed a dozen terrified kids fleeing through a window thinking the man knocking on a locked classroom door was the killer (it was actually a cop) and there were reports of kids using calculators as weapons. In an alternative version of the United States of America, the harrowing scenes from the exurban high school some 30 miles north of Detroit would have brought the nation to a stunned, grief-stricken standstill. But in the U.S. of A. that we have, where the world's most heavily armed nation has seen at least 25 million more guns — a near record pace — sold in 2021, the Michigan school massacre was essentially just ... Tuesday.
Here in Philadelphia, just the day before, a 14-year-old boy waiting for a bus outside a Rite Aid in his Feltonville neighborhood was gunned down assassination-style by two male shooters who jumped out of a car. This in a city reeling from a record number of homicides in 2021 — 512 and counting, as I write this — and almost daily gut-wrenching headlines like the death of a 21-year-old Temple University student gunned down, allegedly by a 17-year-old, as he was unloading an SUV outside his apartment.
What's striking about 2021 — the second year of a deadly and demoralizing pandemic, marked by political anger that kicked off with the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol — is that every kind of gun violence you can imagine is happening more often, either with definable statistics or at least anecdotally. Urban homicide rates are up. Road-rage shootings? Up. Domestic violence murders, increasing. Mass shootings ... on the rise. Ditto for school shootings, with the Oxford massacre reportedly the 28th of 2021, despite curtailed classroom activity in the pandemic.
Pandemic effect: In some ways, these kinds of violent incidents don't have a lot in common. But they share some key characteristics. A nation of people who are alienated, atomized, and increasingly angry, multiplied many times over by the stresses of COVID-19. And an easy access to the guns that lead to irreversible outcomes.
Schools — greatly disrupted by the coronavirus lockdowns — have become a kind of Ground Zero for American despair. The New York Times has spent the last year reporting on one suburban Philadelphia school district, Central Bucks, and this week's dispatch points to a mental health crisis. "Behavioral problems have mushroomed," the paper reported, "there have been suicides and attempted suicides, and a huge share of students seem to have become disconnected, at a loss when asked to do things as simple as gather into groups."
But COVID-19 lockdowns and disruptions have triggered citizens all around the world, as evidenced by recent riots and chaos in the Netherlands and other European nations imposing new restrictions. Quite simply, the difference between those countries and the United States is that gun ownership across the Atlantic is regulated and rare, while America is the only land where there are more firearms than people, and it's not even close.
From the very first long lines at gun shops from South Philly to Santa Barbara when the initial lockdowns came in March 2020, it's no secret that America has been on an epic weapons-buying spree that had seemed impossible in a nation that already had more than 300 million guns before the coronavirus. In the 20 months from January 2020 through August 2021, the public made 65 million additional firearms purchases — many to first-time buyers.
Are we really shocked that the nation's shiny new toys are getting put to use? Just this week, researchers at Rutgers University published a major new study essentially confirming what we can see with our own eyes: 2020′s first-time gun buyers "seemed more sensitive to perceived threats and had less control over their emotions and impulses."
Public-health crisis: The heartbreak of a Michigan high school — caused by one of 2021′s new gun purchases — is just the latest outbreak of an American public-health crisis that demands action, much as the coronavirus itself has led, albeit controversially, to a flurry of responses such as lockdowns, social distancing, and mask and vaccine mandates. But that's not going to happen — not in a nation where a gun cult has meant extreme interpretations of the 2nd Amendment's "right to bear arms" and an accompanying zeitgeist that blocks common-sense regulation.
What's particularly frustrating in this moment of national torment is that the 2nd Amendment — which has been treated, and not only by conservatives, as something that was delivered by God on a stone tablet — is really just a political creation of both its unique moment in the late 18th century and of America's original sin: slavery.
Historians agree the Virginia convention that met to ratify the 1787 Constitution had one major qualm — that a national militia could be led by Northern interests and would not assist in the then-greatest fear of Virginia's large landholders who dominated its politics: a revolt of enslaved people. Thus, future president James Madison ran for the first Congress promising to address these concerns with what became the Bill of Rights, including a 2nd Amendment that was clearly intended to allow the arming not so much of individual citizens but of state-controlled militias, meant to protect the South's "peculiar institution" of slavery.
Over the next 232 years, America grew and slavery was replaced by new, diabolical racial hierarchies and militias became a thing for extremist cranks rather than states run by plantation owners. But one thing remained constant: fear of uprisings against an established order rooted in the notion of white supremacy.
Thus, when urban uprisings and a spike in crime linked to our social unraveling took place in the 1960s and '70s, the 2nd Amendment became a tool for an unholy alliance of the reinvented National Rifle Association, right-wing pols, and greedy gun manufacturers to warp the powers meant for ancient militias for newly anxious individuals. That's how the 2nd Amendment and its surrounding culture have become a poison pill for the American Experiment, with so many unintended consequences — like a 15-year boy with severe psychological problems bringing his daddy's Black Friday windfall to class for a deadly show-and-tell.
Common-sense reforms: I'm not here to argue for the repeal of the 2nd Amendment, not because that's not a good idea — it is, clearly. But it's not politically feasible and would only distract from steps that could be taken to minimize that deadly carnage that has become America's peculiar institution of the 21st century. Imagine a world where we treated gun violence — which, including suicide, claimed 45,000 U.S. lives in 2020 — with the same seriousness with which we regulate vehicle safety (42,000 deaths in the same period) or airport security (after 3,000 deaths in 2001).
If the new wrinkle in firearm safety is too many new gun buyers with terrible impulse control, that problem screams out for longer waiting periods — say, a month — to finalize purchases without preventing law-abiding citizens from eventually obtaining a weapon. If James Crumbley was still waiting today for the Sig Sauer he purchased on Black Friday, then Hana St. Juliana, 14; Madisyn Baldwin, 17; Tate Myre, 16, and Justin Shilling, 17, would still be alive and looking ahead toward a bright, long future. Just as eight people in metro Atlanta, including six Asian-American women, would not have been murdered by a 21-year-old male who was crazed over his porn addiction and who impulsively purchased a 9mm firearm under Georgia's no-wait gun law.
The national murder crisis isn't a Sherlock Holmes mystery, but largely an algorithm of too many angry people buying too many guns. We absolutely need to fix the ills of a society that provokes far too many people to kill — a complex puzzle that will take years to resolve, even if we find the national will. But we could stop instant gun purchases by dangerous people as soon as today — and it would help if we address the massive weight of our racist anachronism, pulling a nation drowning in guns back under the water, again and again.
— Will Bunch is national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.