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My Letter to the Victims of the Next School Shooting

I’d like to save your lives, whoever you are, but I can’t. A reactionary electoral minority is blocking the way.

A young girl attends a vigil in Uvalde, Texas
A young girl attends a vigil in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24.

Dear Victims of the Next School Shooting,

Let me first say how sorry I am for your untimely future death. Were I able to prevent your slaughter by an emotionally disturbed young male with a history of rejection, I would. But I can’t. Even if I were to know who and where you’ll be on the day you’re marked to die, I couldn’t likely help you. I’d try to do something, of course, but probably it wouldn’t help. When that emotionally disturbed young male arrives at your school with a gun, you’ll just have to take one for the team.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m strongly in favor of gun control. I have been since I was 10 years old. That was the year that Martin Luther King, and then Robert F. Kennedy, were murdered by emotionally disturbed young males. These killings led to passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968, which, among other things, banned the importation of guns that had “no sporting purpose.”

This was back in the days when liberals thought mollifying hunters would reduce opposition to gun control. As recently as 2013, I wrote in this magazine, “If you’re going to argue for gun control, you must slap a halo on hunters.”

But as I also noted at that time, hunters were never the problem. For reasons that have little to do with gun control and everything to do with urbanization and cultural change, the percentage of adults living in households where they or their spouses hunted shrank from 31.6 percent in 1977 to 15.4 percent in 2014.

Today, gun control advocates have good reason to wish hunting were still a mainstream activity in American society. Hunting’s decline made it harder to succeed with reasoned gun control arguments that protected the sport. It also caused the overall number of gun-owning households to shrink. Which, counterintuitively, increased political resistance to gun control.

Gun ownership used to be something normal people did, and normal people tend to behave responsibly. As recently as the 1990s, a majority of households owned guns. Now it’s more like 42 percent, and in some years it dips below 40 percent. Fewer people own guns, but the people who own them own more of them—a lot more—and the reason they most often cite for owning them is no longer hunting (56 percent) or even target shooting (70 percent), both activities one can imagine normal people engaging in, but “protection against crime” (88 percent). For all but a small subset of people, owning guns for protection against crime is not normal. I’m sorry, but it isn’t. It’s paranoid and unhealthy and very, very dangerous.

People used to own guns to kill animals. Now they own guns to kill people. And enough of them are emotionally unbalanced enough to cause serious trouble.

When a once-dominant subculture like that of gun ownership shrinks, it’s apt to feel beleaguered and to become more extremist. That’s what’s happened to gun culture. When everybody owned a gun, the National Rifle Association was a benign organization focused mainly on gun safety. Now that most people don’t own a gun, the NRA is a toxic organization bent on blocking any legislation that smells even vaguely like gun control.

The NRA will hold its annual meeting this Friday in Houston, a mere 278 miles from Uvalde, where at least 19 children and two teachers were killed by an emotionally disturbed young male, now dead, named Salvador Rolando Ramos. Former President Donald Trump, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz will all be at the NRA meeting. They’ll speak of the Uvalde shootings in terms of personal aggrievement. They’ll condemn liberals who want to use this tragedy to try to prevent the next one. They’ll say the answer, if there is one, is to arm more people in schools.

I don’t mean to suggest that the problem is the NRA. I don’t honestly believe it is. The NRA is a basket case of a lobby group tottering toward bankruptcy, which for some reason can’t rid itself of a chief executive who stands accused by New York’s attorney general (among others) of robbing the organization blind. It does not control Congress. At the federal level, more than one thousand organizations gave more to political candidates in the last electoral cycle than the NRA.

No, the problem isn’t the NRA. It’s the same significant, largely rural, white, and heavily male minority within the United States that worships Donald Trump, opposes immigration, and turned “critical race theory” and “gender identity” into terms of opprobrium. Everything unkind that Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama ever said about this group (“basket of deplorables,” “cling to guns or religion”) is true, easily confirmed by even the most cursory review of polling data. Because of the unrepresentative nature of the Electoral College and the U.S. Senate, this minority’s opposition to gun control is sufficient to block any and all legislation intended to address the problem.

Do you think a school shooting is going to change their minds? School shootings are weather events! They’ve become so routine that Education Week, the leading trade journal for K-12 education, keeps a running count. We’ve had 27 in 2022, and we’re not even at the halfway point. We had a school shooting in my neighborhood just last month; no one was killed, thank God, but a child and three adults were injured.

Since 2018 there have been 119 school shootings, and nothing’s been done. Nothing. A majority of Americans favor stricter gun laws, but 80 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners do not, and that’s enough to prevent anything from happening. A recent survey led by a University of Oklahoma sociologist asked self-identified moderate, conservative, and “very conservative” Americans what the most important right was. For the “very conservative” group, the right to keep and bear arms outranked all other rights listed in the survey: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, the right to a speedy trial, freedom from unlawful searches and seizures, and states’ rights. For the “conservative” and “moderate” groups, gun rights outranked all other rights except speech. That’s the world we live in.

It will change someday. It has to. But it won’t change in my lifetime. Since the Columbine High massacre in 1999, at least 185 children have been killed in school shootings, according to The Washington Post. How many more children will die before things change? It’s my duty to inform you, future victims, that 185 isn’t going to be enough. Your blood will have to be spilled as well. You probably won’t have to wait very long. The next school massacre is likely only a month or two away.

Yours in helplessness,

Timothy Noah