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Don Robinson: The end of innocence

They quoted a passage from Micah prophesying that a ruler to govern Israel would come from Bethlehem. Determined to rub out this threat, the enraged Herod ordered all male children under 2 years old to be put to death. Innocent children were massacred to protect an imperial tyranny. God’s incarnation as a vulnerable baby is immediately engulfed in tragedy, foreshadowing Christ’s trial and crucifixion.

The Hebrew Bible tells another story of an innocent baby paying the ultimate price for another’s sin (II Samuel 11-12). David, King of Israel, commits adultery with Bathsheba, then orders that her husband, Uriah, be exposed to the enemy in battle. The Lord sends the prophet Nathan to confront David with these monstrous acts.

Nathan tells him the story of a rich man who feeds his guest the meat of a poor man’s precious ewe, an animal with whom he shared his own meals and was “like a daughter to him.” David explodes in rage against the rich man: he “showed no pity,” cries the monarch; he deserves to die.

Nathan says, “You are the man.” But David’s punishment is worse than death. First the son of his adultery dies, despite David’s piteous prayers. Then, with the king’s moral authority lost, his royal household falls into chaos. Absalom, his favored son, leads a rebellion against him. David is forced to order his military commander to put Absalom to death.

David’s anguished confession of guilt and plea for forgiveness and mercy (Psalm 51) is the climax of one of the great tragic dramas in human history.

These ancient tales of innocent babies paying for the sins of adults are particularly poignant this year, after what happened in Newtown, Conn., this month. No American citizen is innocent of this appalling crime. We are all complicit in the fact that the laws of this democratic republic regulating the sale and use of guns are so egregiously inadequate.

We like to blame the NRA, but the truth is that we are all guilty.

The appalling statistics are familiar by now. In the last 25 years, more Americans have died in gun homicides and suicides than from terrorist attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

We lose 2,800 children and teenagers to gun violence annually. In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof points out that the federal government has published five pages of regulations about ladders. Ladders kill about 300 people annually; gun violence about 30,000. Apologists for gun manufacturers argue that sick people will obtain guns no matter how many regulations we pass, but if we could reduce the carnage by just one-third, we’d save 10,000 lives.

Lobbyists for gun manufacturers point out that Norway has tightly restrictive laws regulating guns, yet 77 people died in a massacre there last year at the hand of one mad gunman. The point, however, is that Norway in an average year has fewer than 10 murders by guns; the United States averages more than that in eight hours.

What about the Second Amendment? It protects “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.” Note that it says nothing explicitly about guns. Arguably we have a right to a gun for self-protection, but do we have a right to arm ourselves with bazookas? How about tactical nuclear weapons? If not, then aren’t we talking about where to draw reasonable lines?

Some argue that the problem is complex.

American culture is saturated with violence. Everywhere we look — on television, at the movies, in video arcades — people are killing one another with guns.

We must commit more resources to the fight against mental illness.

These aspects deserve attention. But we must not allow ourselves to be distracted from the central issue: too many guns. We must regulate the types of guns that people may sell or buy.

Just think for a moment about the types of guns that the framers had in mind when the Second Amendment was adopted. They were not saying that the people had a right to automatic weapons capable of firing multiple rounds per minute. They never dreamed of such a thing.

Knowing what we know now, we must require licenses for the purchase and possession of firearms, just as we do for cars and drivers. We must enforce waiting periods before allowing people to purchase guns and ammunition. We must require training in gun safety before someone is licensed to own and use a gun. It is not just incidents like Newtown, Aurora and Columbine that we are trying to prevent. It is the routine murder of teenagers and children in our cities, suburbs and towns.

It is time for Americans, including those of us who feel strongly about hunting and target shooting, to stand up to lobbyists and manufacturers and insist on some meaningful, rational distinctions between sports and warfare.

Don Robinson, a retired professor of government at Smith College, writes a regular column for the Gazette which appears on the fourth Thursday of the month. He can be emailed at drobinso@smith.edu.

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