In Canada, murder is front page news, which is as it should be. Somebody gets killed on Monday, on Tuesday we’re all scared. Murder isn’t front page news in America. An axe murderer can’t get front page news. Not unless he’s done something clever with the heads.
-Mike Wilmot, comedian
It took me a long time to get it.
Not surprising, really. I’m not an American, after all — what the hell would I know about the 2nd Amendment and its ramifications? And I’m certainly not some kind of savant with firearms: I have no military, police, or hunting background, I’ve never even seen a pistol that wasn’t in the holster of an RCMP constable, and the last time I ever handled a firearm was over twenty years ago when I went grouse hunting with my father and decided I couldn’t kill a bird so dumb it didn’t realize that trying to hide from a predator armed with a missile weapon in the branches of a tree that had already shed all its leaves was probably not going to work well. It seemed unsporting.
So, perhaps that’s why, watching the United States go completely paste-eating insane over the question of guns, I’ve been utterly confused, and from what I can tell I’m not alone here. Other Canadians (at least the ones I talk to), when questioned on the subject of American firearms proliferation and deregulation (amongst other subjects), tend to shake their heads, glance despairingly in a general southerly direction and mumble some variation of the question “what the hell is wrong with those people?”
It seems unreasonable, from the outside. Completely so.
Every statistic speaks against firearms deregulation, every other industrialized country that chooses to pass strict gun control laws experiences less gun violence and certainly fewer firearms-related injuries and deaths. But the United States? Nope, wrong country, Commie, keep moving. In America, weapons are religious icons — purveyors of salvation delivered by small, high-velocity hunks of metal, the ultimate triumph of faith over reason. When anyone tries to use statistics and logic and comparisons to conditions in other countries to try to reason with gun-rights activists, they’re essentially trying to argue evolution with creationists, women’s rights with fundamentalists, or economics with S.E. Cupp.
And that’s why I found myself watching the highlights of Wayne LaPierre’s speech at CPAC this past week thinking the same thing over and over: it’s going to happen again.
This year’s CPAC wasn’t too different: kick poor people harder and they’ll stop being poor, how dare that terrible mixed-race man sully our nice white house, a racial “outreach” panel that more closely resembled the abandoned aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, and of course BENGHAZIIIII!
But there was at least one speaker who still had the Slippery Screwball in his pitching repertoire this year. One speaker who could really bring the crazy, even in a room of All Crazy All the Time, and of course it was Wayne LaPierre. This year, he seems to have read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as a travel brochure for the United States as opposed to a heartbreaking and depressing story of survival in a dying world; he was damned near drooling with excitement as he described how dangerous the world has become, and how only Good Guys With Guns can make the streets safe for themselves and their families. Certainly his sugar-daddies in the arms manufacturing industry must have been licking their lips — they always get their money’s worth from Mr. LaPierre’s efforts, and then some.
And it’s going to happen again.
It happens most every day, really, but only the truly heinous instances get play on the nightly news anymore: the instances where the victims number in ones and twos and fives barely make the local news, let alone go national. No, now it takes an exceptional display of horror, an Aurora or Sandy Hook, to get eyeballs glued to the screen. Maybe it won’t be a school this time. Maybe it’ll be a maternity ward, or the oncology unit at a children’s hospital. Wherever it occurs, it’ll be enough to shock the numb viewers in front of the television just enough to provoke a response. The route the response will take is a known and well-worn path, the road to Doing Nothing In The End. Calls for reform, for regulation, for change, for something, met with howls of outrage and accusations of treason and tyranny. New laws proposed, only to die quietly on Capitol Hill. And the only real, measurable change in the aftermath of the latest tragedy to get media attention will be a surge in weapons sales and an uptick in the stock prices of small arms manufacturers.
I’m not going to talk about the ritual of call and response where gun violence in the United States is concerned — it has been done, and done, as modern media culture prefers, to death, by people far more qualified than myself. I’m not going to analyze statistics or argue alternatives — that’s also been done. So instead, I’m going to tell you a story.
His name was Marc Lépine, he was twenty-five years old, and he hated women.
There’s more, of course, there always is: a history of abuse, a suicide note claiming political motives, but that’s more thorough analysis best left elsewhere. For the purposes of this discussion, all you need to know is that he hated women. Hated. No half-measures here, no jovial contempt or deceptive concern, no religious righteousness. No, this was hate, something right out of The Screwfly Solution — cold and deadly and willing to exchange its own existence for a chance to end the lives of its targets.
Hate. The real thing, no filler.
On December 6, 1989, Lépine walked into the École Polytechnique in Montreal brandishing a semiautomatic rifle. Half an hour later, fourteen women were dead, along with Lépine himself, and ten more women and four men were wounded. That’s not the story. That’s just the background. There has been much more written and said on the incident, but what I’d like to concentrate on is not what happened in Montreal that day — for such things have happened before and will happen again, in Canada, in America, elsewhere — but rather what happened after.
But first, some geography.
The border between Canada and the United States west of the Lake of the Woods is perhaps one of the most ridiculous imaginary lines ever drawn on a map. It is one of the most imaginary of humanity’s imaginary lines. In the east, the border between the two nations makes slightly more sense, following as it does the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic, but it’s still as tenuous as any line drawn on a map.
And the tribes this border separates are, superficially at least, so similar that travelers accidentally wandering from one country to another probably wouldn’t have any idea that they’d done so, at least not until they looked closer and noticed which flag flew in front of a government building, or the fact that north of a certain point all the grocery packaging is bilingual. Canadians just aren’t that different, on the surface, from their southern neighbours.
The people, in short, are just as ridiculous and awful — and occasionally wonderful — here as anywhere else. There’s nothing significantly better or worse about the population of my hometown than the people living fifteen minutes south across a completely arbitrary line, aside from a tendency to pronounce the last letter of the alphabet “zed” instead of “zee.”
But here, when fourteen women are murdered in one brief orgy of violence… gun sales do not spike.
The École Polytechnique massacre had many effects: police response procedures were revised, gun control laws were enacted (I know, right?), and there was a considerable amount of waffling on how to address violence against women (most of the legislative efforts in this regard at the time sort of spun around crazily before imploding, unfortunately). But guns did not fly out of the stores. There was no surge in stock prices for firearms manufacturers.
Yet travel south across that invisible and in many places absurd border and you enter a country where the standard response for many of its citizens to similar mayhem is to buy as many guns as possible, as if all the hundreds of millions of others currently in circulation in the United States aren’t enough to bring about the “armed and polite society” that I hear so much about. You enter a country where there seems to be nothing, nothing that can be done to curb the occurrence of mass shootings or to reduce number of gun deaths annually. Over thirty thousand firearms-related fatalities occur every year in America, fatalities that are, apparently, just the ordinary cost of doing business, just the price of living in The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. Everyday wastage. Standard stuff. Nothing to see here, move along.
The laws of physics do not change depending on which side of the border one is on. The people are not significantly different. But when it comes to gun violence, accidents, proliferation, and just plain stupidity, there’s nothing that can be done, it seems, in America.
Yeah, I call bullshit.
I call bullshit on the idea that Wayne LaPierre and his corporate enablers have carved out a political position of such unassailable power that there’s nothing Americans can do to reduce the number of firearms fatalities in their country every year. I call bullshit on the idea that the only possible outcome of twenty dead kids in an elementary school in Connecticut is increased yearly revenue for Smith & Wesson. I call bullshit on the notion that the people who advocate cutting teacher wages and then want teachers to serve as auxiliary members of the local SWAT team should have unopposed control of the legislative process where guns in America are concerned. I call bullshit on the notion that Americans are helpless and beaten and have to knuckle under and accept their lot, and just buy more guns and hope they’re more heavily armed and more accurate than the next guy. I call bullshit on the idea that Canadians (and Germans and the Dutch and the Japanese and every other industrialized society on the planet) can do something Americans can’t, that Canadians can somehow, instinctively, work to curb gun violence and succeed to a degree that is beyond the capabilities of the citizens of the World’s Only Remaining Superpower.
But it doesn’t really matter if I call bullshit on all of that, because I’m not an American, and I can’t change anything when it comes to the political system or the politics surrounding firearms in the United States of America.
It’ll take effort. It’ll take endurance. It’ll take damn near pathological dedication and a refusal to be distracted and a willingness to spit on corporate money when it tries to purchase silence. It’ll take a lot of determined Americans to change anything when it comes to the thirty thousand gunshot corpses the United States generates every year, and to make sure that another Action News Event involving dozens of dead children becomes very, very improbable.
It’ll take Americans looking at the impossible and telling the impossible to get stuffed, because the impossible, in this case, is just a collection of profiteering weapons manufacturers pushing product at all costs (even the lives of children), frightened people clinging to the most dangerous security blankets ever made, and the politicians and media who slather as much ignorance as they can generate over top of the whole mix.
It won’t be easy. And no one else on the planet can do it but Americans.
I’m going to go sit on my patio now, and look south, and cross my fingers, and hope.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.