When the twin towers fell on 911, at first it was thought that as many as 10,000 people might have been inside. A national call for blood donors went out in case there were many injured. By the time I got to my local blood bank in San Francisco, a line of people stretched around the block. My pent-up horror over what had just happened in New York came out in tears over the goodness of humans, reaching out in the best way they could to help people they did not know. To top it off, Robin Williams showed up, stood in line and quietly offered to buy meals for everyone there.
The first photo I saw from Orlando on Sunday morning was of a similar line at that city’s blood bank; it recalled that same mix of emotion — pain over senseless slaughter and suffering, mixed with a strong sense of the essential good within almost all people. Our first impulse is one of empathy, and a hope to help. It’s the best thing about our species. It’s both heroic and normal.
But these mass shootings can bring out the worst in some of us as well. Beyond the countless gun-loving trolls online, Donald Trump jumped on Twitter to crow, “I told you so.” Nothing he has proposed would have prevented this or any other such incident. What is known so far is that the shooter was an American-born citizen who had long threatened to kill people out of unfocused anger. In other words, he was, at least to some degree, deranged. And he was able to legally buy whatever guns he wanted.
Gun injuries and deaths are vastly more prominent in the United States than in any other remotely comparable nation, even though general violent crime rates have declined substantially in recent decades. About 90 people die each day from guns in our nation. Many are children.
So what to do? We already know much. The kind of “combat mode” weaponry used in too many of these murders, including Orlando, should be banned; no citizen needs them. Background checks and registration for both guns and ammunition purchases should be universal; likewise safety courses. Taxes on guns and ammo would pay for these and other gun-related social costs. None of this is “gun grabbing” — unless you are demonstrably unstable. As President Obama has said: “We respect the rights of responsible gun owners.”
And most are responsible. The vast majority of gun owners support rational gun policies. And the law permits those; the Second Amendment does have limits, as even the late Justice Scalia wrote in his Heller ruling upholding it: “Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on long-standing prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”
But here is a crucial point: With more than 300 million guns in private hands, the problem is not going away anytime soon. The real effect of more rational policies will take decades to be felt. It will be the work of generations, and thus, policies such as the assault weapons ban will need to be in place longer than has been tried so far. A new normal, where our madness will gradually come into view, much as the denormalization of tobacco use has cut smoking rates by more than half in a couple of generations.
Until then, we will line up at blood banks. Again, that is a beautiful impulse, but it would be so much better if we did not have to.
(Steve Heilig works with the San Francisco Medical Society and is co-editor of the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics.)