The horrors of American gun culture
May, a month traditionally associated with spring, Mother’s Day and graduation ceremonies, was marked this year by a very different rite: funerals. In a single ten-day period, 44 people were murdered in mass shootings across the country — a carnival of violence that, among other things, validated the political cowardice of much of our elected leadership, the thin semblance of our moral credibility, and the hypocrisy of public displays of sympathy directed at us not translate into any actual change in our laws, our culture, or our murderous tendencies. In the two deadliest of those incidents, the oldest victim was an 86-year-old grandmother who was shot dead at a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York; The youngest were nine-year-old fourth-grade students who died in connected classrooms at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
Meanwhile, there were other mass shootings in Indiana, Washington State, Florida, California, Louisiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and elsewhere. Less than one percent of gun deaths in the United States are the result of mass shootings. But the dates are less salient than another element of the month’s tragedies: the posted pictures of the children who died, many of them smiling, unaware of the flawed world into which they were born. The knowledge that they are no longer alive — that future iterations of that smile have been permanently prevented — is a charge we all have to live with.
Some of the victims of the shootings were apparently killed because they were black; others were killed for reasons not yet known. However, the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings shared striking similarities. Both were performed by eighteen-year-olds who had legally acquired semi-automatic rifles just prior to their killing sprees. Both riflemen began their attacks before entering their respective buildings. (The attacker in Uvalde shot and seriously injured his grandmother before he went to school.) And both gunmen were confronted by armed defenders who were unable to stop them. In Buffalo, Aaron Wallace Salter, Jr., a 55-year-old retired police officer who worked in supermarket security, was killed after firing multiple shots and hitting the gunman’s body armor. Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia noted that Salter’s involvement with the shooter gave people time to go into hiding, saying, “He undoubtedly saved lives.” Reports that an officer had confronted the Uvalde gunman outside of the school , were subsequently refuted, although the shooter appeared to have exchanged gunfire with several officers early on in his killing spree. (There was initial confusion and a delay during which large numbers of law enforcement officers arrived at the school; some of them held off parents who planned to storm the building themselves. On Friday, a Texas state official said a “wrong decision” had made the caused delay.)
These facts are significant. Ten years ago, after the horror in Newtown, Connecticut, where a 20-year-old boy armed with a semi-automatic rifle entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and fatally shot 20 children and six adults, Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association, said, “The one thing what stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” The idea of vigilant protectors subduing armed opponents spoke to a vision of a society where guns are as commonplace as cell phones and where more guns mean security mean. If the idea seemed absurd at the time, the passage of time has only made it so empirically.
Two years ago, a study published in Justice Quarterly magazine examined the impact of gun laws across states. Emma Fridel, an assistant professor of criminology at Florida State University, studied gun ownership rates and the proliferation of concealed carry laws between 1991 and 2016. State legislators, pushing for more lax laws, tended to argue that a more widely armed public would serve as a deterrent against Force. Fridel found the opposite: gun-killing rates were eleven percent higher in states with more permissive carry policies than in states with stricter laws, and the likelihood of mass shootings increased by about fifty-three percent in states with more gun ownership.
The most obvious indication of the absurd thinking on the subject is the fact that the recent massacre took place in Texas, a state with more than eight thousand gun dealers where an estimated thirty-seven percent of the population owns firearms. Last year, Gov. Greg Abbott signed legislation allowing most Texans to carry handguns without a license or mandatory training. That legislation didn’t stop the slaughter in Uvalde any more than previous laws that allowed easier access to guns, the 2019 shooting that killed 23 people at an El Paso Walmart, or the 2017 attack in the town of Sutherland Springs , which claimed the lives of 26 worshipers in a rural church.
All of this was the context as Beto O’Rourke faced Abbott during a press conference in Uvalde last Wednesday. “The time to stop the next shooting is now, and you’re not doing anything,” he said, adding, “It’s up to you.” O’Rourke, the former Democratic congressman and presidential candidate whose angry promise, after the killings to disarm in El Paso, widely seen as hurting his political prospects, is running for governor this year against Abbott. That probably explains in part why Don McLaughlin, the Republican mayor of Uvalde, who appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show, called O’Rourke a “sick son of a bitch” and accused him of making the shooting “a political issue.” Senator Ted Cruz, who also attended the press conference, later said, “I’m sick of all of politics. That happens every time there’s a mass shooting.” Cruz’s use of the phrase “every time there’s a mass shooting” spoke volumes about how commonplace these atrocities have become. Two days later, Cruz was speaking at the annual NRA conference in Houston.
O’Rourke did not politicize the shooting. The circumstances that make possible a mass murder of fourth graders are inherently political. Legal access to the weapons involved is political. The most visible people who refuse to see these things as political are randomly elected to political office. But O’Rourke was only partially right. Some of this affects the Second Amendment fundamentalists and the politicians who legislate their zeal — the rest is up to each of us who has yet to find the courage, creativity, or determination to stop it. ♦