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Seeing America, Again, in the Uvalde Elementary-School Shooting

Nineteen children and two adults were murdered in Texas. This is the country that gun-rights advocates have chosen.

A girl cries, comforted by two adults, outside the Willie de Leon Civic Center where grief counseling will be offered., Allison Dinner/AFP via Getty Images

On Tuesday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released a report titled “Active Shooter Incidents in the United States in 2021,” which logged sixty-one mass shootings last year. The deadliest of these was at a supermarket in Boulder, Colorado, where ten people were killed, a death toll that was matched ten days ago, at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, and then exceeded, at Robb Elementary School, in Uvalde, Texas, where an eighteen-year-old shot and killed nineteen children and two adults. Early reports indicate that he used a handgun and a rifle. Families who gathered at the local civic center, which was used as a reunification site, were asked for DNA swabs to assist investigators in identifying their loved ones. The shooting began around eleven-thirty in the morning; as darkness fell, many families were still waiting outside the civic center, without word of their children.

This is the second-deadliest K-12 school shooting in U.S. history, after the December, 2012, massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut, where twenty children and six educators were killed. Eventually, Sandy Hook also came to be seen as the graveyard of the gun-control movement: in 2013, a new assault-weapons ban, and also a bill to require universal background checks for firearm sales, failed in the Senate. If an entire classroom of dead first-graders could not spur even remedial action in Congress on gun control, nothing would. And nothing has.

A few months after Sandy Hook, the agitprop-documentary-maker Michael Moore, writing in HuffPost, imagined a scenario in which the parents of the victims leaked photographs of the classroom crime scenes to the press. If that were to happen, Moore argued, the horrifying images would have the same galvanizing effect on activist movements and public opinion as those of Emmett Till, in 1955, or Phan Thi Kim Phúc, in 1972. “There will be nothing left to argue over,” Moore wrote. “It will just be over. And every sane American will demand action.” (Just like that!) Sandy Hook parents swiftly shut Moore down, but there was a kernel of sense in his proposal—he was grasping for some method of defibrillation for a movement in arrest. Published images that represent school shootings are always heartrending and always the same: the surviving children filing out, some in tears, others in shock and excitement; the desperate parents; the sorrowful reunions. One of the many unforgivable obscenities of America’s gun obsession is how it can render the image of an anguished child and her caregiver, captured in real time as they absorb a life-altering trauma, as commonplace, interchangeable, even banal. Wait, which one is this again?

On Tuesday night, the poet Jana Prikryl shared the “Alas, poor country” passage from “Macbeth,” in which Ross laments that Scotland has become not a place to live but merely a place to die: “Almost afraid to know itself. It cannot / Be call’d our mother, but our grave . . . where violent sorrow seems / A modern ecstasy.” A modern ecstasy—and a habit, or a ritual, with its attendant ceremonies and scripts and rites. These always include cut-and-paste expressions of sympathy and concern from various bridesmaids of the National Rifle Association. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader—who once said, following a school shooting in his home state of Kentucky, “I don’t think at the federal level there’s much that we can do other than appropriate funds” for school safety officers and counselling—tweeted that he was “horrified and heartbroken” by the tragedy at Robb Elementary School. Ted Cruz, the junior senator for Texas—who once ran a campaign ad that boasted, “After Sandy Hook, Ted Cruz stopped Obama’s push for new gun-control laws”—tweeted that he and his wife were “fervently lifting up in prayer the children and families in the horrific shooting.” Governor Greg Abbott—who last year signed seven pieces of gun-rights legislation into law, including one that permitted Texans to carry handguns without a license and another exempting the state from future federal gun restrictions—said that he and his wife “mourn this horrific loss and we urge all Texans to come together to show our unwavering support to all who are suffering.”

Politicians like these are routinely criticized for their hypocrisy and empty gestures—their “thoughts and prayers.” But, if only for the sake of rhetorical hygiene, we should go a step further. Republicans, as we know, get what they want. It is their best feature. They have vacuumed up the state legislatures, gerrymandered much of the country, stacked the Supreme Court and the federal judgeships, turned back the clock on L.G.B.T.Q. rights, paralyzed entire school districts with engineered panics over critical race theory and “grooming,” ended (or so it seems) reproductive rights as a constitutionally guaranteed freedom, and blocked all attempts at gun-control legislation. If the leaders of this political movement, which in Texas managed to ban most abortions and criminalize health care for trans kids in the space of a school year, took real offense to murdered children, they would never simply accept their deaths as the unfortunate cost of honoring the Founding Fathers’ right to take up muskets against hypothetical government tyranny. They would act. If America were not afraid to know itself, we could more readily accept that gun-rights advocates are enthralled with violent sorrow. This is the America they envisaged. It is what they worked so hard for. Their thoughts and prayers have been answered.

Jessica Winter is an editor at The New Yorker, where she also writes on family and K-12 education. She is the author of the novels “Break in Case of Emergency” and “The Fourth Child.”

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