Suppose They’d Had Guns?

Imagine, if you will, that the attacks on the Boston Marathon had been done with guns instead of with bombs. That’s the “what if” scenario presented in The New Yorker. In an article on their website, John Cassidy asks what might have been different and comes to some interesting conclusions.

Well, for one thing, the brothers would probably have killed a lot more than three people at the marathon. AR-15s can fire up to forty-five rounds a minute, and at close range they can tear apart a human body. If the Tsarnaevs had started firing near the finish line, they might easily have killed dozens of spectators and runners before fleeing or being shot by the police.

The second thing that would have been different is the initial public reaction. Most Americans associate bomb attacks with terrorists. When they hear of mass shootings, they tend to think of sociopaths and unbalanced post-adolescents. If the Tsarnaevs had managed to carry out a gun massacre unharmed and escaped, their identities unknown, would the first presumption have been that the shooters were Islamic extremists? Or would people have looked in another direction?

I think this is a fascinating question. Just imagine if it had gone down this way. We’d likely not have had the entire city of Boston shut down (which was really an overreaction), we wouldn’t have Muslims in America having to live in fear, or at least not as much, we likely wouldn’t have the Fox News crowd talking about all the various parts of the Constitution that would should suspend, and quite possibly we might have been able to get gun control.

But for some reason, the same act, carried out with bombs instead of guns and, as the article suggests, likely killing fewer people, is something that causes our country to collectively go nuts. I have been wondering why this is, and I think I’ve reached a conclusion.

We’ve gotten used to mass-shootings.

I remember at a particularly low point late last year hearing about a mass-shooting. My first thought was, “Another one? Is it Tuesday already?” I’d become pretty accustomed to them, and rather blase about them. I still think they’re bad, I still want them to stop, I still want sensible gun control…but beyond that, I just kind of shrugged at went about my day. These things have happened so often that I just kind of accept them as a horrible background noise on our cultural landscape.

Terrorist bombings, while commonplace about 100 years ago, are pretty rare in this country. And so we haven’t gotten used to them like, say, the British got used to IRA bombings in the 1970s and 1980s. Because we aren’t used to them, we still treat them as something other than a crime, and we still lose our collective shit when one of them happens.

I do hope we never get used to bombings. I’d like us to stop being used to mass-shootings. And I’d like our responses to both to be much more rational and grounded in reality. It’s unlikely, but I can dream.


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