On April 9, 1968, I was part of the human crush inside Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church not far from six of that year’s presidential candidates: Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Nelson Rockefeller, George Romney, Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. Mahalia Jackson gave an unforgettable rendition of Martin Luther King Jr.‘s favorite, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” and at the widow’s request a tape of Dr. King speaking just two months earlier about his own funeral was played:
“Tell him (the eulogist) not to talk too long. ... Tell him not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize. That’s not important. ... I want you to be able to say that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to be able to say that I did try in my life to clothe the naked. I want you to say that I did try to visit those who were in prison.”
After the funeral, many in the church and thousands outside marched in the Georgia heat behind a simple farm wagon drawn by two mules and bearing the mahogany coffin some 3½ miles to Morehouse College for the public service.
Not quite two months later, I was working in the presidential campaign of Kennedy. A week earlier, the New York senator had finished second to McCarthy in the Oregon primary and, in so doing, became the first Kennedy to lose an election. I had been in Oregon and was then working out of San Francisco on the get-out-the-vote effort for the June 4 California primary, the outcome of which would determine whether RFK had a real chance to become the Democratic presidential nominee.
Kennedy won California and, minutes after thanking his supporters in the ballroom of Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel, walked through the hotel kitchen, where an assassin waited to shoot and kill him.
King was 39 years old. Kennedy was 42. But those are not the numbers I want you to think about.
In this nation’s wars — including, but not limited to, the Revolutionary, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the bloodiest of all, our Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — the price in human lives lost in battle is well beyond steep. In 236 years, 659,073 Americans have died fighting for their country.
In just the 42 years immediately following the assassinations of King and Kennedy — between June 1968 and the end of 2010 (the last year for which, as they say, official figures are available) — the number of civilians killed in the United States by firearms, according to official records, was 1,260,781.
That’s right, nearly twice as many civilian fatalities by firearms as suffered by American service members in wartime — and in less than one-fifth the number of years.
There is no safety in these numbers. Nor in the World Health Organization’s 2011 report on firearm deaths in 23 high-income countries around the globe. This is a group that would include France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, Canada, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom and the United States. For the most recent year for which results were available from all these countries, there were 7,653 firearm deaths in all the other 22 countries and 29,771 deaths in the United States from firearms.
To put it bluntly, nearly 80 percent of all the deaths from firearms in the First World were here in the U.S.A. This is one aspect of American Exceptionalism in which no resident can take any comfort.
These numbers are real. These numbers are in unacceptable. We’re Americans. We’re better than that.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.