Sunday, July 22, 2012
A Hard Heart
"Your rifle is only a tool. It is a hard heart that kills."*
The Aurora victims' pictures grasp my heartstrings and rip them asunder. Portraits of living, loving men, women and child with no notion of the horror to befall them. Innocents, chosen at random, swept up in a vortex of madness. It's hard not to look at them, hard to meet their eye and know what their last moments held in store. Photos snapped by family members, friends, colleagues now left to fill an unfillable void, still an unappeasable longing and search, often in vain, for a way to stop the pain. Aurora police officers rushed headlong into danger and unfathomable carnage, and saved lives. A job well done by men and women who will carry the sights and sounds of that movie theater to their own graves.
The booking photo of the murderer, self-satisfied smirk forever underscoring an empty vessel, looks hauntingly familiar. It is the face of sociopathic indifference, of a lack of empathy for others so profound it defies common sense definitions. To label him evil is to distill out the bitter poisons of human loathing inside of him, only to reveal his deeds in the frankness surrounding the five o'clock news. This is a man who will never again be free, if there is any justice in this society. The perpetrator of another gun crime.
Guns. The mere mention of them turns a normal conversation into a raging inferno. In the aftermath of "another massacre" at the hands of a gunman, normally kind people carry on like preachers at a revival, all fire and brimstone about banning weapons, banning ammunition, banning trigger fingers. Removing the means of killing so many, so quickly. Rage, against the dying of the light.
They have a point. What would the average citizen – hell, the average police officer – need with an AR-15 magazine that holds fifty rounds? In fact, to go farther, an AR-15 is an assault rifle. Why should someone outside of the military or law enforcement (with restrictions) have access to such a powerful, frightful tool?
In the days following a tragedy, pointing to the Second Amendment is to bleat meekly into a hurricane. Suggesting likewise that posturing, pontificating and wielding a pen in abject anger can wait, at least until the officers who tended the wounded and dying have taken off their blood-soaked uniforms, is wholly rejected as…. Failing to strike while the iron is hot, I suppose. On both counts human nature dictates anger as a way of processing the tragic results of violence. Lashing out at the means of destroying so many is a civilized, civilizing gesture.
It is a hard heart that prepares for the day it will take a life. A Norwegian angry about immigration issues kills seventy-seven people, sixty-nine with a rifle, having "prepared for months." A Gulf War veteran who combines chemical fertilizer and diesel fuel, killing one hundred sixty eight, including fifteen children in a day care center. Serial rapist Ted Bundy killed at least thirty-five women – none with a firearm. Charles Whitman killed fourteen people with a shotgun and a rifle from a tower at the University of Texas. He had previously murdered his mother and wife, stabbing each with a knife. He was a Marine Corps veteran.
It is a hard heart that kills. Deputy Sheriff Suzanne Hopper was shot to death on New Year's Day 2011, by a man wielding a shotgun. She was forty, and left behind a husband and two children. Deputy Hopper was photographing a shoe impression at a crime scene when the suspect ambushed her, killing her with one blast. Another police officer was seriously wounded in a failed rescue attempt. The man who shot her had been arrested ten years prior to her murder, tried for shooting at police officers after an argument over firewood. He had been found not guilty by reason of insanity in the first shooting. He died in an exchange of gunfire after murdering Suzanne Hopper.
No reasonable person would argue that Deputy Hopper's murderer should have possessed a letter opener, let alone a shotgun. His ownership of the weapon probably was illegal, as was gun ownership by the two young men who stormed Columbine High School on a beautiful April day.
How does one go about outlawing a hard heart? How do we identify the outliers, those few tormented souls among the three hundred million of us? How do we stop those who might someday kill a dozen, or a hundred, not because of the gun in their hands but because they lack the empathy to restrain themselves from killing?
Charles Whitman left behind suicide letters, asking that his brain be examined to determine why he felt compelled to kill.
Will gun laws prove effective against that?
Reasonable gun restrictions are probably constitutional. A national conversation about them was set aside in the 90s. We should pick it up.
More importantly, how do we soften a hard heart?
*Senior Drill Instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey), Full Metal Jacket, 1987.