In a 1975 essay reflecting on his career, the playwright Arthur Miller argued, “An era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted.” Although expressed in a wistful tone, this aphorism now seems, from the vantage of the dystopian 21st century, far too optimistic. Miller’s words were a product of a time when historical change still happened, when illusions could be dispelled by evidence or experience. Even if those illusions gave way to other fantasies, there was still some correlation between the plausibility of ideas and the willingness of people to hold on to them.
By contrast, we now inhabit a historical treadmill where the effort to simulate intellectual movement coexists with forever staying the same place, as can be seen in the non-debate over gun control in the aftermath of the horrific school shooting in Uvalde, Tex. Given the deaths of 19 children and two teachers, as well as the shooter, the event should have shaken up all sides of the gun debate: both Republicans (who oppose gun control) and Democrats (who support it in theory but are reluctant to fight a political battle they see as unwinnable).
Uvalde should be a transformational event, because, as with the earlier shooting in a Buffalo Tops market (where a security guard was shot) and Stoneman Douglas High School (where the local police were criticized for failure to stop the shooting), it gives lie to one of the major arguments against gun control, the “good guy with a gun” mantra. This guy-lobby panacea was invented after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, when NRA head honcho Wayne LaPierre said, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
At Uvalde, there were many supposed “good guys” with guns. The exact details of the shooting will have to be sorted out, and the police have repeatedly shifted their story on crucial facts. But it’s clear that police were on the scene within minutes of the gunman’s entering the school, that shots were fired, but they were unable to stop him from barricading himself inside for more than an hour. During that time, parents arrived at the school and urged police to make an attack. These parents were rebuffed and, in at least one case, handcuffed.
The Wall Street Journal offered the striking story of Angeli Rose Gomez, a farm supervisor. According to the newspaper, “she was one of numerous parents who began encouraging—first politely, and then with more urgency—police and other law enforcement to enter the school. After a few minutes, she said, federal marshals approached her and put her in handcuffs, telling her she was being arrested for intervening in an active investigation.” After she was freed, Gomez “jumped the school fence, and ran inside to grab her two children. She sprinted out of the school with them.”
The abject failure of the “good guys with guns” to do their job hasn’t stopped Republicans from continuing to try to deflect attention from gun control with the false promise of even more armed school security. In the day after news of the atrocity broke, the near-constant refrain on Fox News from both pundits and politicians was a supposed need to “harden” schools via single-door entrances, more security guards, and perhaps even armed teachers.
These strategies have been tried before and have failed. A 2021 peer-reviewed paper that appeared on the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Open Network looked at 133 school shootings and concluded that, after controlling for “factors of location and school characteristics, the rate of deaths was 2.83 times greater in schools with an armed guard present.”
The paper notes:
Prior research suggests that many school shooters are actively suicidal, intending to die in the act, so an armed officer may be an incentive rather than a deterrent. The majority of shooters who target schools are students of the school, calling into question the effectiveness of hardened security and active shooter drills. Instead, schools must invest in resources to prevent shootings before they occur.
One obvious solution would be gun control. But the Republicans are opposed because gun owners are a significant voting block. Democrats, conversely, have been notably reluctant to take up gun control, even though their base supports it—because they believe, rightly or wrongly, that it hurts them in swing districts. Tellingly, on the very day of the Uvalde massacre, Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar, a social conservative who is both anti-choice and pro-gun, seemed to win a hard-fought primary over a progressive challenger, Jessica Cisneros. Throughout the race, Cuellar received the aid of the congressional leadership, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and majority whip Jim Clyburn.
Given that gun control is off the table, we’re left with a political culture that keeps reinvesting in illusions and absurdities. Thus sports pundit Jason Whitlock offered this ludicrous brief on behalf of police incompetence:
I’m not defending the actions of the officers. But we’ve demonized law enforcement to the point that there are far fewer rewards for being a hero, for taking risks. When your culture makes George Floyd the hero, real heroes stand down. Cultural rot has consequences.
The claim here is that unless cops are allowed to murder innocent civilians like Floyd without criticism or punishment, they can’t be expected to defend children from being slaughtered.
Confronted by an English journalist who asked why this type of school shooting happens more often in the United States than elsewhere, Texas Senator Ted Cruz fell back on mindless jingoism: “It’s the freest, safest, most prosperous country on earth.”
As always, patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. But it’s wrong to blame Cruz alone. If the political system refuses to offer any real solutions to gun violence, then the overwhelming majority of the political class must be scoundrels of one stripe or another.