Old Forge is several hours - a full day's drive - from our home near New York City. We drove in on Friday evening, winding our way through the old pine trees on Route 28. We passed the many small tourist motels in Old Forge, noticing that a large group of motorcyclists seemed to be staying at one of them. We ourselves stayed at a wonderful bed and breakfast in nearby Thendara, right on the Moose River, where we watched deer, ducks, and hummingbirds playing just paces away from our chairs on the back porch.
That night, we had a delicious Italian dinner with some dear friends and discussed the shooting that had occurred early that morning in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. My husband had read that one of the victims of the Aurora shooting had actually been a survivor of an earlier shooting in Toronto and had blogged about that experience. We were all horrified at the weird coincidence and distraught and puzzled by the tragedy, and we discussed, generally, the issue of the role gun violence plays in American life and what, if anything, can be done about it.
On Saturday morning, we learned that Old Forge had suffered its own gun-related tragedy overnight. Apparently the motorcyclists we had spotted on Route 28 were a group of motorcycle enthusiasts from the Rochester area, some of them police officers, spending a long weekend together. Included in the group were a father and son, Michael and Matthew Leach. According to reports, Michael, 59, was a police officer and Matthew, 37, was a security guard. Shortly after midnight, Matthew, having forgotten his key, attempted to break into the motel room where his father had been sleeping. Michael, mistaking his son for an intruder, drew his .45-caliber service weapon and shot Matthew dead.
The Aurora shooting and the Old Forge shooting are, of course, two very, very different situations. They have in common the fact that they are both gun-related tragedies in which innocent people were killed. Both killings were committed with weapons that are not designed for hunting or sport, but rather for the express purpose of killing human beings. Both of the shooters were in legal possession of their guns. One of them was apparently a sociopath. The other, though - Michael Leach, a retired captain in the Rochester police department - was presumably highly trained in the safe handling and emergency use of his weapon.
The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution (I have my pocket copy right here, don't you?) provides that:
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
Americans have been arguing for a couple of centuries about what, exactly, that text means. You've heard all the arguments before. Those on the extreme right argue that every American has the right to possess whatever arms he or she wants, without interference from the government. Those on the extreme left argue that the Founders were talking about feeding their families and defending themselves in an era where there was no standing army or police force and that, in this day and age, no civilian needs or has a right to carry a gun. Most people are somewhere in the middle, taking the position that guns should be heavily regulated; that civilians should not be in possession of assault rifles or other military-type arms; and that background checks and waiting periods serve a useful purpose in averting tragedy.
And yet the tragedies of this weekend were not averted by any sort of regulation. The Aurora shooter purchased his guns legally. (The laws vary from state to state.) The Old Forge shooter was in legal possession of his service weapon. (Police officers are allowed to carry their weapons even when they are off duty.) Purchase restrictions, waiting periods, training, licensing, experience - all irrelevant to the people whose lives were ended prematurely.
What's the answer? No one knows, least of all myself. I'm no expert on these things. But I do know that no one would have died in either of this weekend's incidents if guns had not been involved. I'm not a hunter; I don't handle or fire guns for sport or necessity. Maybe I'd feel differently if I were, or if I did. But I am a watcher of movies and a stayer in hotel rooms. I go out in public all the time, and I send my kids out too, constantly, to the mall, to the movies, to school and camp and the airport, always confident that they will return alive. I'd venture to guess that the mothers of those who died this weekend share my sentiment: the relationship between guns and Americans has gotten out of hand. It needs to be reset. We need to step back and reexamine what sort of society we want to live in, and then make it happen. Soon, before anyone else dies.