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STEINBERG: Before we can hope for gun control, we need empathy

Matthew Helms visits a makeshift memorial for the victims of the mass shooting in Las Vegas.

Matthew Helms visits a makeshift memorial for the victims of the mass shooting in Las Vegas. | Getty Images

Hiking is fun. It’s exercise amid nature, among trees and birds.

There is also the sense of being far from civilization. Though that was blunted Saturday at Starved Rock State Park, where there is a problem with visitors blundering off cliffs. So many boardwalks and railings have gone up that I felt, at times, not so much like a pioneer striding through virgin forest as a cow being herded through a chute into a slaughterhouse.

As we walked, talk turned to the constant staccato pops drifting from across the Illinois River. “What is that?” a trail mate wondered. Small explosions in a quarry, maybe? he ventured.

“Gunfire,” I replied. “Some big gun range with people blazing away at old refrigerators.” Bingo, I later discovered, online. The Buffalo Range Shooting Park in Ottawa, with rifle and pistol ranges, skeet and trap, and a shooting pit.

Also fun. Though it was eerie Monday to hear that exact sound — the stutter of automatic weapons — on the videotapes from Las Vegas, where a deranged man fired on a country music festival, killing 59 and wounding 525, the worst mass shooting in modern American history.

Facebook immediately lit up with people wondering whether this latest horror is enough to nudge us, finally, toward meaningful gun control. It was all I could do not to start time-wasting Facebook spats by jumping in with, “No, of course not.”

OPINION

Why? Well, it never is — not in recent years — though sensible gun laws would still be useful, and sponsors of a bill loosening restrictions on silencers pulled it, for now. I’d like to imagine restricting high-capacity magazines might come next, but I doubt it. It’s imaginable. While firing streams of bullets at old washing machines is certainly fun, balancing that fun against increasingly common slaughters, a unified and rational country might come to that decision, the way we decided to require seat belts even though, at the time, men complained they rumpled their suits. I don’t like the chutes at Starved Rock, but I understand their purpose.

This is not, however, a united and rational country. “Our unity cannot be shattered by evil,” Donald Trump said Monday. One more lie; add it to the list. Unity? What unity? Before we can talk about what, if any, regulations might help, we need to think about unity, about our empathy problem. Only then can the nation decide whether these atrocities are the price we pay for being armed to the degree some people feel the need to be armed, or whether there are steps that should be taken.

The left is mystified by the right. They see them as dumb people who elected an idiot. And the right absolutely loathes the left — sneering contempt is their default setting — and elected President Division, driving wedges into every group in the country. No hallucination is too vile for the right to believe; Alex Jones suggested the Vegas shooting might be a Democratic conspiracy to jumpstart gun control.

On our way out of town, we stopped at a bakery for coffee. Next door, Mix’s Trading Post, a sprawling biker bar and boutique, a celebration of the rural American Id — lots of skull tchotchkes and fairy statuettes and T-shirts lauding the Second Amendment and declaring: “F— YOUR GUN FREE ZONES.”

The NRA has trained them to view any commonsense gun regulation — few of which would have mattered Sunday — as a step toward black United Nations helicopters swooping down and sucking up their precious bodily fluids.

If you press gun fans about semi-automatic weapons, they’ll patiently explain that the purpose of the Second Amendment is so an armed citizenry can overthrow its government, if need be. So you’ve got a group on Sunday hectoring black men for taking a knee in protest over the racism in this country, excoriating them for failing to be sufficiently patriotic toward our flag. These same people, on Monday, shrug off carnage and, in their next breath, insist they need military-grade weapons should they decide to commit treason and fight that government whose flag, when slighted, sparks such fury.

Win those people over to the idea of a unified, rational American nation, caring for each other, addressing problems for the common good, and then we can talk about gun control.