This week marks the anniversary of two bloody events in America: the mass shooting at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, and the Virginia Tech shooting on April 16, 2007.
After both, Congress scrambled to lower flags, stage moments of silence and offer thoughts and prayers — then proceeded to pass measures at the behest of the gun lobby. In 2005, Congress passed legislation to protect gun manufacturers from lawsuits. Last December, the House passed a bill allowing people to carry concealed weapons in states that prohibit the practice. It awaits Senate consideration.
I served in Congress for 16 years. In that time, there were 52 mass shootings in America, including in Tucson, where my colleague Rep. Gabby Giffords was wounded; a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., where 12 were killed; a church in Charleston SC where 9 were murdered; and the Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 27 lives were lost. I came to the point where I couldn’t tolerate another moment of silence. I wanted a moment of outrage, a moment where we were actually voting on sensible reforms.
The members of Congress who operate as subsidiaries to the gun lobby had their moments. I sat through plenty of them.
In the Appropriations Committee, when Democrats offered an amendment stipulating that people on the terrorism watch lists shouldn’t be able to get military-style weapons, I heard Republican colleagues suddenly lurch to the far left and argue that even potential terrorists were innocent until proven guilty.
I also heard members of Congress argue that funding public research on the impact of gun violence was a waste of tax money. Then they supported spending your tax dollars in so-called “bridges to nowhere,” weapons systems that even the Pentagon rejects and crop subsidies for giant agriculture interests.
One of the most maddening moments I witnessed was the refusal of the House Republican leadership to allow consideration of a bill to regulate so-called cop-killing bullets, designed to pierce body armor. Although these bullets are banned in rifles, due to a loophole, they are sold for the AR-15.
Legislation has kicked around Congress to restrict a bullet specifically designed to penetrate the body armor worn by police from being used in a military-style assault rifle. The measure has bipartisan support. In fact, it may be the one gun security bill that Republicans and Democrats could pass and send to the White House. But it remains bottled up because even the notion of protecting cops in body armor sends shivers down the spines of the expensively-suited gun lobbyists.
Understanding the sheer futility of the current Congress passing any meaningful law to reduce gun violence, I decided to direct my efforts in a different direction. I began taking notes during hearings and committee markups. So extreme were the positions, so absurd the dialogue, that I concocted a story about a Congress that passes a law mandating that every American own and carry a gun (with waivers for minors under the age of 7).
As one of my characters says, if Obamacare required that all Americans have health insurance, why not require that all Americans have life insurance — a gun.
Now even that absurdity approaches reality. After the shootings at Parkland, the reflexive response was to arm teachers. Turn schools into fortresses. But why stop there? We can protect our churches with pistol-packing priests and nuns with guns. Movie theaters can distribute 3D glasses and AR-15s. And what better way to protect airplanes from terrorists than to encourage more guns on airplanes?
The good news is that the political environment is starkly different from 1999 and even 2007. The combination of the upcoming midterm election and the energy of high school students across America may force House Republicans to do something other than the lip service of moments of silence.
This year, people who’ve had it with NRA’s ironclad grip on Congress should channel their energy and donations districts where political firepower is needed to beat the unregulated firepower of gun manufacturers.
Of course the gun lobby and its clients in Congress are counting on the current movement to stall. Experience has taught them that not long after the mass shooting, emotions fade, the shouting grows hoarse, the intensity lowers to a sad resignation that nothing will change. Experience teaches them that Columbine and Virginia Tech become simply anniversaries to be marked, forgetting the lives that were lost.
I want someday to commemorate the anniversary of the day Congress passed a bill to stop the sale of cop-killer bullets; or universal background checks; or No-Fly/No Buy. I want to commemorate the anniversary not of another shooting at another school, but real action on Capitol Hill.
Israel is the author of “Big Guns,” a satire on the gun lobby and Congress.