Like most, I’ve been shocked and saddened by the tragic attack at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut and have watched a debate concerning gun control and the state of mental health treatment in the United States develop. I’ve felt confused by and indignant towards the statements of proponents for freer access to guns and ammunition and, frankly, it appears President Barack Obama has, too. Last night our time, President Obama announced the formation of a task force on gun violence, which will be led by Vice President Joe Biden, who wrote the 1994 Crime Bill that for the first time banned the sale of assault weapons. President Obama hopes to find ways to renew the assault weapons ban, ban the sale of large capacity ammunition clips, and subject firearm sales at gun shows and through private dealers to a federal background check. I hope for that as well. I’m interested in a robust debate, but I worry that, like many conversations in DC, this one, too, may simply reduce to polemics.
While watching Fox News Sunday yesterday (yes, a few days late), I listened to Representative Louis Gohmert (R-TX) explicate his opinion that the response to the attack was not to minimize the guns or ammunition available to the American public, but to give guns to everyone. When asked by Chris Wallace, the host, “do we really want folks [throughout the country] armed?,” Rep. Gohmert replied:
“I wish to God she [Sandy Hook principal Dawn Hochsprung] had had an M4 in her office locked up, so when she heard gunfire, she pulls it out and she didn’t have to lunge heroically with nothing in her hands, but she takes him [Adam Lanza, the attacker] out, takes his head off before he can kill those precious kids.”
Rep. Gohmert later misquoted George Washington in an attempt to claim that the Founding Fathers also supported a militarized public, stating that Washington claimed “a free people should be an armed people.” I’m a history teacher. That didn’t sound familiar to me, so I looked it up. Rep. Gohmert appears to be quoting Washington’s first State of the Union Address in 1790. And, unsurprisingly, he got it very wrong. Washington stated “A free people ought not only to be armed, but disciplined; to which end a uniform and well-digested plan is requisite; and their safety and interest require that they should promote such manufactories as tend to render them independent of others for essential, particularly military, supplies.” In other words, Washington argued that the United States, to be a free nation, needed an organized military and that the United States should develop a weapons industry, so as not to rely on other nations for its weaponry. It’s as much an economic statement as it is a calling for an organized militia. Washington had served as the Commander in Chief to the Continental Army, which was only formed two months after war began. Again, as a teacher of history, it’s slightly irksome when others use respected historical figures to support their personal opinions, and then misrepresent the views of those figures. Even if Rep. Gohmert had correctly quoted Washington, I’m not convinced the Founding Fathers meant to allow every man, woman, and child be armed with an assault rifle which can expel five bullets per second, such as one of the weapons used by Adam Lanza.
Rep. Gohmert did not offer statistics or anecdotes to explain why more guns will solve the US’s gun violence rates. Maybe, as this task force moves forward, someone will provide some hard evidence as to why his position may be tenable.
Here in Israel, none of us are shocked by the appearance of weapons in public places. However, Israel’s gun laws are markedly stricter than those in the United States. I’m glad that the US has chosen to finally sit and develop a clear understanding of where the line should be drawn concerning to which weapons citizens should have access, and I hope it’s an honest debate. It’s simply a tragedy it took so much time, and so many lives, for it to happen.