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William Rivers Pitt | Behold the Reckoning of a Gun Culture in Collapse

This country must choose a side: the NRA or the future.

Karissa Saenz, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, holds a sign that reads, "White House You are Killing Our Future!," on February 18, 2018, in Parkland, Florida. (Photo: Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

I’ve been wondering lately who my five-year-old daughter’s role models will be when she gets older. If there is still good fortune to be found in the world, she will come to see and emulate the authentic heroism, courage and determination being shown by the student survivors of the massacre at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

She is still too young to understand when she sees them on TV, but when the time comes for her to find real flesh-and-blood people to admire, I can think of no one better than these remarkable youth.

It has been 19 years since Columbine, six years since Sandy Hook, five months since Las Vegas and four months since Sutherland Springs. There have been 438 people shot in 239 school shootings since 20 kids my daughter’s age were cut down in Newtown by the same weapon that took 17 more lives in Parkland last week.

In all that time and after all that blood, the script has not wavered an inch: There is outrage, the National Rifle Association (NRA) digs in and reminds Congress of the fragility of their re-election prospects, and it all goes away until the bodies drop again.

Not this time. This time, there are these youth, who have lived their entire lives deep in the shadow of unchecked gun violence in schools, who have lived their entire lives in a country fighting permanent wars all over the globe, and with the threat of terrorism thrown in their faces on a daily basis. They do not appear to scare easily, and they have mastered the art of social media in a way their chosen adversaries will never know.

They survived a horror in their own school and are taking action to keep it from happening again. They have stout hearts, and will need them, because they have squared off against some of the vilest people this country is capable of producing.

There have been 438 people shot in 239 school shootings since 20 kids my daughter’s age were cut down in Newtown by the same weapon that took 17 more lives in Parkland last week.

Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg were there when the bullets started flying in their school, and are among the most vocal and visible activists to emerge from that catastrophe. The pair made a number of television appearances on CNN and other networks to describe their experience and demand change. Passionate and articulate, they immediately drew the attention of the sewer rats of the conservative pro-gun dungeon.

Benjamin Kelly, an aide to Florida Republican state Rep. Shawn Harrison, emailed a screen shot of a Gonzales-Hogg TV appearance to Tampa Bay Times reporter Alex Leary. The photo came with a note from Kelly: “Both kids in the picture are not students here but actors that travel to various crisis when they happen.”

If you don’t get the reference to “actors,” buckle up. A “crisis actor” is someone who works with rescue and police personnel during training exercises. In order to heighten the realism of the exercise, either volunteers or paid actors will pretend to be victims of a catastrophic event, using makeup and other methods to simulate wounds.

According to the clearly false allegations of a clutch of pro-gun conspiracy peddlers, crisis actors were used to portray grieving parents after the Sandy Hook massacre, because according to far-right opinion-makers like Alex Jones, the whole thing was fabricated so President Obama and the federal government could have a pretext for taking away everyone’s guns.

Those same ghouls have arrived in the aftermath of the Parkland massacre, fobbing off this nonsense in order to derange the debate and protect the gun industry. They are the NRA’s shock troops, and they are gruesomely effective. David Hogg’s family has confirmed that a number of death threats have been made against him.

Making schools feel like war zones or prisons is not the solution.

NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre, the most visible crisis actor in the US, spent his Thursday morning at the Conservative Political Action Conference, slagging the Parkland survivors on the sly. Without mentioning them by name, LaPierre claimed that those seeking gun reform are exploiting a tragedy because they are European socialists like Obama, who hate all individual freedoms and are the reason why The Communist Manifesto is among the most frequently assigned texts on college campuses today. What we need is a good guy with a gun, declared LaPierre, lather rinse reload repeat.

And then there was the president himself, sitting down with a gathering of Parkland survivors while clutching a notecard. “What would you want me to know about your experience?” read one talking point. “What can we do to make you feel safe?” read another. Last but not least: “I hear you.” On the cuff of his left sleeve was an embroidered “45,” put there to remind him, I suppose, what his day job actually is.

Trump’s big idea after that gut-wrenching meeting: Give guns to teachers. LaPierre doubled down on the idea during his CPAC speech. Predictably, the proposal went over like the proverbial lead balloon with a significant segment of the population.

The NRA owns a vast portion of Congress.

“All students deserve to go to a school in a place without guns,” Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project’s National Office, told Truthout. “Communities of color know all too well that schools with armed police and metal detectors don’t make students feel safe. Making schools feel like war zones or prisons is not the solution.”

As the proposals of Trump and the NRA meet with widespread derision, the Parkland activists have been seeing broad support, despite the aggressive pushback coming their way. They have also been making their case with gusto. Viewers who tuned in to CNN’s town hall broadcast on school shootings saw, among other things, the near-complete obliteration of Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who was bulldozed by a high school kid named Cameron Kasky.

Kasky, one of the founders of the #NeverAgain movement that emerged from the Parkland massacre, stood 10 feet tall under the lights as he nailed Rubio’s feet to the stage over the question of NRA campaign money. Rubio hemmed and hawed before giving a pat DC answer and was roundly vilified by the audience. A lot of people used to think Marco had a real future in politics. After this, maybe not so much.

Of course, any effective challenge to the current gun crisis in the US will require a long-term, ongoing effort. LaPierre and his minions have been on this battlefield many times, and they have emerged victorious every single time.

The psychological and actual effects of the US’s permanent state of militarism have created a siege mentality.

The NRA’s undefeated record can be explained by its patience — it is adept at waiting in the tall grass until the news narrative carries the latest tragedy out of immediate memory — and money. The NRA owns a vast portion of Congress, and it is not shy about reminding its federal and state congressional “employees” of this when necessary.

Marco Rubio was in a building filled with Parkland survivors and the furious parents of the fallen, all of whom were on him like a million tons of woe, and still he refused to denounce or even mildly criticize the NRA. The president of the United States of America peddled the NRA’s boilerplate “Arm the teachers!” argument before LaPierre had a chance to make it himself, and was also surrounded by Parkland survivors when he did so. More guns in schools, he said, would “solve the problem instantly.”

That, right there, is power.

Beyond the array of potent foes who oppose gun reform for financial reasons while buttressed by a foundation of white supremacy, we need to acknowledge the incredible complexity of the issue itself. Finding effective solutions cannot simply be a matter of regurgitating Democratic Party talking points or proposals. Too many of those are only about punishing individuals, instead of addressing the core problems, and often serve only to exacerbate the racist violence of arrest and incarceration perpetrated by authorities against communities of color. Laying blame for the phenomenon of gun violence on mental illness is an equally fruitless and ultimately destructive act of denialism.

A frontal assault on the multibillion-dollar gun industry in the US is a necessary step in solving the nation’s gun crisis. Thanks to effective lobbyists like Wayne LaPierre — that’s all he is, remember: just another damn lobbyist — gun manufacturers have been all but inoculated by Congress against legal responsibility when their product kills someone.

The auto and tobacco industries — also makers of potentially lethal products — sought and enjoyed similar legal protections for years before finally being brought to heel. If the gun industry loses its legal immunity, nature will take its course through the civil court system. After a few massive financial judgments against them, the industry will come to see addressing the gun crisis as being very much in its own self-interest. What was the industry’s fertile field could become its goad to duty.

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Furthermore, we need to look at how militarism has fueled gun violence within the US. We have been at war in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than 27 years. We have been on a permanent wartime footing since Pearl Harbor. And this country has been waging war against Indigenous people since the first Europeans made landfall here seeking their fortunes. The psychological and physical effects of the US’s permanent state of militarism have created a siege mentality that is caustic to all of us. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

We must bear witness to the overwhelming militarization of this society, and understand the consequences of same. Our worship of all things military — conspicuously absent after Vietnam but ever-present after Desert Storm and September 11 — has become an active menace. What started with some fighter jets at the ballgame has become a ubiquitous presence, right down to the local police forces now swaddled in leftover hardware from the Forever Wars.

The media were far less inclined to note that the Parkland shooter was wearing his JROTC shirt when he opened fire, that he was taught to shoot while a member of JROTC, and that his school’s shooting club enjoyed funding from the National Rifle Association.

Three of the Parkland massacre victims were members of their school’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC). All were awarded medals of honor by the US Army. One of them was a 15-year-old freshman named Peter Wang. He died holding a door open so others could escape, and was wearing his JROTC uniform when he did. The US Military Academy at West Point, which Wang wished to attend after graduation, announced that he would be posthumously admitted to its class of 2025.

These are the ties that bind, the stories of fallen heroes and honors bestowed. The media were swift to spotlight the recognition these three JROTC students received … but were far less inclined to note that the Parkland shooter was wearing his JROTC shirt when he opened fire, that he was taught to shoot while a member of JROTC, and that his school’s shooting club enjoyed funding from the National Rifle Association. The military and the NRA: Two members of the Untouchable Class in the hierarchy of American power.

This nation must have a reckoning with itself. Ours is a hyper-violent culture, and not because of movies or video games. There are more guns than people in the United States. Ours is the only country on Earth that loses tens of thousands of citizens per year to guns and still fails to act. The mythology of “freedom” has been usurped to help sell more guns. Enforced systemic poverty generates its own forms of violence.

Ours is a hyper-violent culture, and not because of movies or video games.

Every square inch of this country was stolen in a genocidal campaign that knows few peers in history. The early wealth extracted from this land was obtained on the backs of millions of enslaved Africans, whose confinement was maintained through the systematic application of overwhelming violence that continues today, well after the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Violence has been our first resort and final answer for hundreds of years.

Today, the US holds only 4.4 percent of the world’s population but houses a full 22 percent of the world’s prison population. This is another form of state-sponsored violence, perpetrated under the guise of facile “Law and Order solutions” that only perpetuate what they claim to defeat. A focus on individual punishment as a solution for the gun crisis also enriches the prison industry, which has its own DC lobbyists, just like Wayne LaPierre.

This, too, must change.

The Parkland activists have stormed and seized the national stage, and now must hold it if they wish to succeed. These are the treacherous waters they must navigate if they wish to prevail. I have every faith they will do precisely that, for they have more friends and allies than they can possibly count, and those friends are answering the call. Enough is enough. Someday, when the time is right, I will tell my daughter all about them, and in them, she will find a yardstick for courage that will serve her the rest of her days.

Never again.

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