Twenty years ago, I began writing a novel about gun violence in America. At that time I believed that -- on the cusp of a new century -- we could stem the slaughter that, every two years, took more American lives than the war in Vietnam. A few days ago I re-read a central scene and recalled the hope and anger that drove each sentence.
The speaker is Kerry Kilcannon, a young Democratic senator and candidate for president. On the eve of the California primary, he appears at a park where, one year before, a young boy was killed. The plot particulars are not important; the words are -- not because I wrote them but because, today, any leader with courage and a conscience would feel compelled to speak them:
"Today," Kerry began softly, "is the anniversary of a death.
"His name was Carlos Miller, and he was nine years old. He was murdered in this park, in a drive-by shooting, committed by a racist with an AK-47.
"He died, as people die every day in this country, cherished by his family, little noticed by the rest of us, quickly forgotten by the media. Because the carnage is so great that only a mass slaughter, or the death of a celebrity, even makes us pause.
"Over 40,000 Americans were killed with firearms last year. 110 people every day. And on this day a year ago, Carlos Miller was one of them.
"'Guns don't kill people,' the gun advocates tell us, 'people do.' So let's ask how many people around the world last year killed other people with, say, handguns.
"36 people in Sweden.
"33 people in Great Britain.
"128 in Canada.
"13 in Australia.
"16 in Japan."
For an instant, Kerry paused. "And, in the United States, 30,495.
"In our country, people armed with handguns committed over 1.1 million violent crimes.
"In our country, guns are the leading cause of death for black males under 35.
"In our country, 53% of victims in spousal murders died from gunshot wounds.
"In our country, the annual firearm-injury epidemic -- due largely to handguns -- is 10 times larger than the polio epidemic in any year in the first half of the 20th century.
"What causes this terrible slaughter? Are Americans less humane than the Japanese, or the Australians, or the Swedes? Do Americans consider mass murder a small price to pay for the unfettered right to buy and sell guns? Or that the life of a Carlos Miller is a small price to pay?
"We do not. These tragedies occur because, despite the wishes of the vast majority, our efforts to control the flow of weapons are among the most feeble in the world. So there is something else which must be said, out of respect to Carlos Miller and the countless others who have died for no good reason."
At last Kerry turned to the demonstrators, voice rising in anger. "The notion that James Madison wrote the Bill of Rights so that racists and sociopaths and madmen could slaughter innocent men, women, and children with assault weapons or handguns is one the most contemptible notions that an irresponsible minority has ever crammed down the throats of its potential victims.
"In the last half of this last century, men with guns stole our future by killing the best of our leaders, again and again -- in one single tragic year, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. And day after day, death upon death, they steal our dreams by killing the people we love.
But it was not enough. Since I wrote these words, the tragedy of gun violence is 20 years worse: among those who care, there is far more anger, and -- on the federal level -- less hope. Two weeks from now, I will try to spell out why in detail, including the unwavering fealty of the Republican Party to the National Rifle Association, and the disinformation and self-serving excuses both deploy to block safety measures and enact pro-gun legislation.
But, for now, the price of this: in the last two decades we have lost over 600,000 more people to guns. Since 9/11, Americans are 500 times more likely to be killed by a fellow citizen with a gun than by a terrorist inspired by radical jihadism. And since the murder of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968, over 1.5 million Americans have died at the wrong end of a gun -- more than the not quite 1.4 million killed in all of our wars since the American Revolution began 240 years ago.
Consider the awe we feel at the loss and tragedy of war. For anyone who has wandered, hushed and pensive, through the seemingly endless cemeteries filled with Americans killed in France or Belgium in the dying gasp of World War II, the toll inflicted by gun violence in America is difficult to grasp. Yet we have seen the anguish of families again and again, the anguish graven on the face of our president as, again and again, he strives to offer consolation knowing that there is none.
Worse, perhaps, is knowing the reason. The all too real truth -- yesterday, today, and for too many years to come -- is simply stated near the end of my fictional candidate's speech:
"We have an epidemic of death because our government has been bullied and bribed by a powerful lobby which values guns more than human life."
Someday, perhaps, it will finally be enough.