The shock of Newtown, Conn., is its Norman Rockwell quality. It is a sampler of a place with high-steepled churches and the usual gathering spots - coffee shops and such, and repeated testimonies to the serenity of the town. But what happened there - the sheer horror, the incomprehensible number of victims - tends to obscure how ordinary the death of children by gunshot has become. This is a collective massacre long ignored. Really, guns don't kill people. Apathy does.
I cite now a report from the well-regarded Children's Defense Fund. In 2008 and 2009, 5,740 children - "one child or teen every three hours, eight every day, 55 every week for two years" - were killed by guns. In 2008, 408 of them were under the age of 15; 148 were under 10. A year later, 354 under 15 and 151 under 10 were killed by gunfire. All in all, 34,387 children were wounded by guns in those two years.
A disproportionate number of those kids were black or Hispanic. African-American children accounted for 45 percent of those victims, but were only 15 percent of the total child population. Sometimes, the victims were merely sitting on a stoop or leaving a church. The newspapers almost daily report such tragedies.
What the ghetto, the inner city, the blighted neighborhood, the storied 'hood itself have in common with the bucolic Newtown is the mayhem of guns. This is a national calamity; a national absurdity. Great legal minds in this country are marshaled in the cause of keeping us armed to the teeth. The National Rifle Association insists on the purported right to be armed in the workplace. Employers blanch - it can be awkward to fire an armed recalcitrant, I imagine - but there is a supposed constitutional right to bear arms, the Supreme Court affirms, as if this is the nation it was in 1789.
I got my first and last weapon in the army. It was the vaunted M-14, and I was told to love it. I had to call it a weapon or a piece or a rifle, but never a gun - 20 pushups for that - and I had to clean it and disassemble it and, under pain of court martial, make sure it was free from rust.
This was the very heart of gun culture. The rifle was our most essential tool - what the hammer is to the carpenter - but even so, when we ended the day, we were forbidden to keep a single bullet. To do so was a grave offense because even people who love guns know that every barracks contained a nut - some young hothead fantasizing about settling a score with a bunkmate or with the customarily sadistic drill sergeant.
But out in the world, virtually anyone can get a gun and the bullets to go with it. You have to have yellow eyes, pointy teeth and a Transylvanian accent to be denied the right to pack a weapon. Adam Lanza's mother, Nancy, had at least three of them at home, including a version of the Army's AR-15, a combat weapon. We consider this normal in this country. Why? When was the last Indian attack in that part of Connecticut? What militia did she belong to? Go into a drug store and you get carded to buy Sudafed. It's easier in some cases to buy a gun.
I despair. Experience tells me that nothing will change. The struggle between gun owners and all others is virtually an even match in the public opinion polls, but as every politician knows, it's the zealots who kill you at the polls. It is also a struggle between city people and country folk - a collision between those of us who fear guns and those of us who adore them. We cannot even agree on what scares us the most.
The memory of the Newtown horror will fade. These places - Newtown, Tucson, Aurora, Columbine - become "Jeopardy" questions and someone will point out how rare they are. But far from rare, and hardly noticed, is the routine mayhem caused by guns - handguns, not combat stuff - and the daily shooting of children. Every weekend we aggregate a Newtown. It is our national shame.
Richard Cohen's email address is email@example.com