The Biggest Hurdle to Gun Reform Isn’t Politicians. It’s Apathy.

When we first found out that an 18-year-old had opened fire on Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, very little of what else hit the headlines came as a novelty. From the reticence of local police to protect its nonwhite charges, to the unusual press-conference political posturing that so many Americans took as a righteous outlet for righteous anger, this particular mass shooting felt oddly familiar. It felt shockingly, horribly normal, enough so that we were horrified by our own familiarity to the sights and sounds of a mass shooting postmortem. This all sucked — the apathy, the hopelessness, the desperation that wears indignation as a bathrobe. We seemed to agree on that, at least a little. But what could we do?

What could we do? As a question, it had been gaining steam in every school shooting since that specific genre of national horror made its debut in the spring of 1998. As the most active voices clamor for limits on guns — the selling and owning of which is something of a civil sacrament — a select group of politicians has been trying to keep them at bay, every time. There’s some note of respect to the gathered dead, followed by a sprinkle baptism of unserious, placeholder proposals, and then a drive to prove that none of this was actually preventable — and that, therefore, we should narrow our search for remedies to the slimmest sliver imaginable. Such has it been, since the mass shooting in Colorado 24 years ago, and such shall it be, unless (until) there’s a dramatic twist of the political wind.

So much of what we’ve lost was barely beginning to fizzle and fade the day shots rang out at Columbine. The two young men who’d loaded up and pulled the triggers were opening salvos. They were themselves, yes, violent and demented and totally responsible for what they’d done. Yet, they were also the waves and waves of overripe males who’d follow — drained of meaning, adrift of purpose, seeing violence as a means of expression and influence. Our politicians hadn’t yet started to run dry of shame, though they had to have known what it meant for the White House’s scandals to fall flat in 1998. Even the fade of the future hadn’t completely dawned on us; manufacturing hadn’t given way as the pearly gate of the working class, and the cost of a college education hadn’t yet gotten its FAA permit.

Everything, in some ways, has changed since that day. The Uvalde massacre punctured a nation in the middle of its farthest fascist flirtation yet, shaking the Hill Country of a country that felt down-on-its-luck and on high alert, all at once. Our world isn’t far behind, with war rocking places that hadn’t seen conflict in 66 years.

As the crimson wakes of Buffalo and Uvalde redden the shores of history, millions of Americans will try to solve the problem of mass shootings through politics, in the hopes that this last tragedy, this most recent spectacle of carnage and loss, will finally shake our elected leaders out of their apathy. Maybe, for some, this will be true. No matter what the congressional solution is, gun-rights proponents will find it too intrusive and gun-control advocates will find it too limited.

If we’re lucky, neither side will care about what they didn’t get. If God smiles on us, maybe the competing factions will think about the eight-year-olds whose lives they might save, instead of the pet dreams that will have to be thrown overboard to pass the bill. Congressional Democrats and moderate Republicans look unified enough to pass something, this time, even it something is a bill that leaves the 2nd Amendment ramrod straight while chipping away at the fringes of the purchasing process itself. If ever they decide to want something more, it will be because any lesser alternative would make them unemployable.

But maybe they’ll also think about something else: The intractability of the world it will have left us anyway. Maybe they’ll consider the fate of a nation that churns out boys adrift the way bootleggers used to churn out DVDs, and maybe they’ll think about the thousands of young men who will be trapped on their parents’ couches, disillusioned with education and the military, roaming the Web for easy answers to the promised future that’s been lost to the past. Maybe they’ll think about those young men the same way they’ve thought about mass shootings for far too long: A problem beyond the reach of politics, whose solutions stretch about as far as our knowledge.

We can’t fix this, they might say, motioning to an army of faded futures in a moment of kaleidoscopic humility. They might say they can’t fix it, even if they can, through the power of economic or educational policy. But they might bookend their lament with another saying altogether: Maybe the least we can do is to stop letting our children die over this.

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