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Lessenberry: Our government is controlled by those who worship guns more than life itself

When I learned about the shootings in South Carolina this week, I thought of a fascinating book I read earlier this spring* about the assassination of President Garfield, in 1881.

His shooting had nothing to do with race. But his death also had nothing to do with his shooting. Garfield was shot in the back by a deranged assassin, but the bullet lodged harmlessly deep within his body. Had he been left alone, he probably would have recovered quickly.

But his doctors, mainly an especially arrogant physician named D. Willard Bliss, killed him by repeatedly sticking unsterilized instruments into his wound until the president was consumed by a massive infection they caused. I had known that.

But what I didn’t know was that medical science actually knew better at the time. Germs had been discovered, and the British surgeon Joseph Lister had pioneered using antiseptic techniques to sterilize wounds and save lives. The European death rate plummeted.

Lister had followers in the United States, too. But the American medical establishment, including Bliss, contemptuously denied the evidence and the existence of germs.

Despite other doctors’ pleas, they killed the president. Today, we regard them rightly with horror and contempt. But guess what. I’ll bet that if anything resembling civilization still exists in this nation in a century and a half, those folks will look on us the same way for a similar reason: Our crazy worship of guns and refusal to control them.

That’s what killed those nine people. The alleged shooter may well have done so because of the sickness of racism, and indeed, our society is still full of that. But he could just as easily have done so to impress Jodie Foster or because he thought God told him to.

There will be more such massacres. There's already been more people than that killed since yesterday in one-at-a-time gun murders across the nation. More people will die in Michigan this year from guns than in auto accidents. One of Detroit’s papers has a story today about black pastors worrying about copycat slayings this Sunday.

The truth is they can do nothing about it, because our government is controlled by those who worship guns more than life itself. To his credit, President Obama acknowledged that.

“Once again,” he told the nation, “innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun.”

He added, “at some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it.”

Obama admitted that today’s politics, “foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it. And at some point it’s going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it.”

What that point will be, nobody knows. The shooting of a beloved congresswoman in the head wasn’t it. The massacre of twenty first-graders in Connecticut wasn’t enough to break the power of the National Rifle Association, and this probably won’t be either.

But someday, we have to hope something will be.

* “ Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President,” by Candice Millard.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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