Beto O’Rourke’s debate invective and the new ‘Back to School’ video are the jeremiads of our time

Bill Leonard

Bill Leonard

For the last few days, every time I see a clip of Beto O’Rourke’s outburst about firearms at the third Democrat Presidential Debate I can’t hold back the tears. Perhaps it’s my advanced age, but tears seem to come all too easily as the ripple effects of the 302 mass shootings in the U.S. so far this year work their way through families and communities. At the Presidential Debate, O’Rourke referenced the case of one specific parent and her badly wounded, dying daughter in Odessa, Texas, a shooting in which six others died and 22 were wounded.

That image alone is more than enough to bring on the tears. Yet, sadly, many public reactions to O’Rourke’s comments conveyed more concern for the guns than for the dead.

When asked if he was proposing confiscation of all AR-15 and AK-47 semi-automatic weapons, O’Rourke, filled with pathos verging on rage (or rage verging on pathos), replied, “I am.” Suddenly, what began as a political statement became an American jeremiad.

O’Rourke continued: “If it’s a weapon designed to kill people on a battlefield; if the high-impact, high-velocity round when it hits your body shreds everything inside of your body because it was designed to do that, so that you would bleed to death on a battlefield so that you wouldn’t be able to get up and kill one of our soldiers. When we see that being used against children. And in Odessa I met the mother of a 15-year-old girl who was shot by an AR-15, and that mother watched her bleed to death, over the course of an hour, because so many other people were shot by that AR-15 in Odessa, in Midland, there weren’t enough ambulances to get to them in time.

Then he shouted, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47. We’re not going to allow it to be used on fellow Americans anymore.”

The crowd roared, and the airwaves went all agog with furious gun owners, concerned Democrats and elated Republicans. Gun owner and Texas state legislator Briscoe Cain tweeted, “My AR is ready for you, Robert Francis,” referencing Beto’s legal name. O’Rourke reported those comments to the FBI as a death threat.

“The real tragedy of the frenzy over O’Rourke’s remarks is that the national conversation they sparked seems more intent on saving guns than on saving human beings.”

Some Democratic Party leaders went apoplectic over O’Rourke’s debate comments. Senator Chris Coons said it was not a wise “policy or political move,” predicting “that clip will be played for years at Second Amendment rallies that try to scare people by saying Democrats are coming for your guns.” When asked on CNN if O’Rourke was “playing into the hands of Republicans,” presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg replied, “Yes,” asserting that “this is a golden moment to finally do something.”

True to form, at a rally the next day President Donald Trump warned his red-capped New Mexico audience that “Democrats want to take away your guns” and labeled gun ownership a “God-given” and “sacred right.” A few days after that, he declared, “Dummy Beto made it much harder to make a deal. . . . Convinced many that Dems just want to take your guns away. Will continue forward!”

Are the American people and their legislators so fragile, so committed to firearm protection and proliferation, that one measly politician, sick to death of all the dying, can demand radical action against the weapons of choice for multiple mass shooters, and in doing so cancel out any new firearm regulations all together?

After the Odessa and Dayton shootings, Trump warned of increased gun laws: “They call it the slippery slope, and all of a sudden everything gets taken away. We’re not going to let that happen.” The slippery slope myth is a favorite NRA referent, based on the theory that too many firearm regulations could ultimately result in the loss of Second Amendment rights entirely. Take one type of weapon designed specifically for maximum killing impact off the shelves and next thing you know all our guns are gone.

For me, the larger issue is not whether AR-15s or AK-47s will be confiscated; they won’t be in my lifetime, and maybe not ever, largely because that’s logistically and legally impossible. California alone houses at least a million assault weapons. American firearms are not on a slippery slope to confiscation.

No, the real tragedy of the frenzy over O’Rourke’s remarks is that the national conversation they sparked seems more intent on saving guns than on saving human beings. To his credit, Senator Coons acknowledged: “I respect [O’Rourke’s] passion. Anyone who has had to sit with the parents of victims of gun violence, parents who have lost their children, as I have, after the Sandy Hook shooting, after the Tucson shooting. . . . To sit with a parent who has lost a child and have no answer about how we’re going to make the country safer is a very hard experience.”

“The slippery slope myth is a favorite NRA referent, [but] firearms aren’t on the slippery slope; the American people are.”

Other than Coons, and of course O’Rourke, I’ve not heard anyone else on cable television or social media give serious attention to “a 15-year-old girl,” her body shredded by gunshots, whose “mother watched her bleed to death” waiting on an ambulance.

Responses to O’Rourke’s comments are, I think, confirmation of where we are as a nation in the year of our Lord(?) 2019. The American Republic seems so bound by the Second Amendment as a “God given, sacred right,” that mass shootings increasingly seem a regrettable kind of collateral damage, the sad reality of non-negotiable weaponry. The NRA says that the AR-15 is the most popular rifle in the United States.

In America 2019, firearms aren’t on the slippery slope; the American people are. We’re the ones buying bulletproof backpacks for school children; rehearsing active shooter drills and lockdowns in schools, offices and worship centers; and checking out the nearest exit immediately after entering a public event space. We’re the ones whose kids are scared to go to school.

That reality is poignantly captured in a new “Back to School” video released this week by SandyHookPromise that shows children using backpacks, jackets, sneakers, pens and skateboards to protect themselves from active shooters in their schools. It concludes with a girl locked down in a toilet, weeping and texting, “I love you Mom.”

Beto O’Rourke’s debate invective and the SandyHookPromise video are jeremiads of our time.

A jeremiad is a “prolonged lamentation or complaint,” recalling the declarations of the prophet Jeremiah calling Israel to restore justice and righteousness in their national and personal conduct. In colonial America, jeremiad was a frequent sermonic response of Puritan preachers to the corruption of church and society. The American jeremiad, Harvard Professor Sacvan Bercovitch observed in a book of the same name, “made anxiety its end as well as its means. Crisis was the social norm it sought to inculcate.”

Jeremiads get our attention, demanding our response to moral dilemmas of our own creation. But, we have to ask yet again: What will it take to get the attention of America and its political and religious leaders? As of the day this article was written, Sept. 19, 2019, America has suffered 302 mass shootings in 263 days. Given all that dying, you’d think the congress could at least fund more ambulances.

It’s enough to make you weep.

Related Commentary:

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