On Mass Shootings

This post was originally composed June 15th of 2016 in response to the Pulse shooting in Orlando, FL. Since that time, I wish I could say conditions have improved, but in response to the events that transpired in Las Vegas on October 1st, I feel compelled to share it. I’ve inserted a few updates in italics and parentheses. It saddens me how little of the other content I’ve had to change.

A “mass shooting” is defined as an incident where one or more armed assailants shoot four or more people.
In 2013, America had 339.
In 2014, America had 325.
In 2015, America had 372.
We’re barely halfway through 2016, and America has already had 228, one of which (the Pulse massacre in Orlando) was the deadliest in our country’s history. (2016 ultimately had 477 mass shootings. 2017 has seen 338 as of October 2nd with last night’s Las Vegas shooting surpassing even Orlando in death toll.) Over the past few years, we’ve entered into a pattern with these things:

– mass shooting occurs
– flood of well-intentioned but useless social media posts
– pundits, politicians, and commenters start yelling
– real human tragedy gets warped into talking points
– no real structural change takes place
– another mass shooting occurs; repeat

This pattern used to take years:

I was in the sixth grade when two guys out in Littleton, CO went into their high school and gunned down 12 students and a teacher, injuring 21 others in the process. For a decade, Columbine was synonymous with gun violence. We held town hall meetings across the country to talk about it. Who was to blame? Video games? Gun vendors? Marilyn Manson? We never really reached a solution, but we spent time in reflection and everyone became a little more aware of our own mortality.

By my twenties, we were going through the pattern monthly:

As we adjusted to security checkpoints in the spaces where children learn and play, America’s death toll continued to climb, and everyone could feel it. Schools, movie theaters, and soon our own police force– nothing really felt safe anymore. Virginia Tech, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Charleston, and Ferguson all occupied the airwaves for their brief measure, and we mourned, and we put up “thoughts and prayers” statuses and custom profile pictures, but before we could really finish processing any tragedy, a new one had already occurred.

On my next birthday, I’ll be thirty, and we’re now at weekly (if not daily) repetitions of the pattern:
shooting – “thoughts & prayers” – debate – no change – repeat
shooting – “thoughts & prayers” – debate – no change – repeat
shooting – “thoughts & prayers” – debate – no change – repeat
shooting – “thoughts & prayers” – debate – no change – repeat
shooting – “thoughts & prayers” – debate – no change – repeat
shooting – “thoughts & prayers” – debate – no change – repeat
shooting – “thoughts & prayers” – debate – no change – repeat

Yesterday morning, only somewhat aware of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, I opened up my laptop and learned about Dallas. What struck me even more than the tragedy of these events was just how commonplace they’ve become. I found myself saying, “Ugh, again?!” with the same tone you might use when the AC goes out or the dog throws up on the carpet or the boss asks you to come in on a Saturday.

Once the words escaped my mouth, I did a double-take.
Human lives were lost.
Spouses are widowed.
Children are without a parent.
And this kind of stuff happens so often in our country that what should be a national tragedy is starting to be downplayed to a routine annoyance.

In America, extraordinary and unconscionable violence is now everyday and commonplace. The fusion of poorly monitored gun sales, undisciplined law enforcement, a steady undercurrent of racism, and pandemic levels of untreated mental health disorders have spiraled to create a populace hellbent on destroying each other and ourselves, and it’s not right that many of my friends could be caught in the crosshairs because of how they look or who they love or where they worship, and I get to shrug it off with “Ugh, again?!” and then sit down to work like any other day.

As a straight, white, middle class, protestant male, I get the luxury of being a bystander to this madness if I so choose:

I don’t know what it’s like to be afraid of a police officer shooting me because I “fit a description” or “look threatening.”

I don’t know what it’s like to be afraid of a madman coming into a club and shooting me because of my sexual orientation.

I don’t know what it’s like to be afraid of a sniper shooting me because a fellow officer several states away abused his authority and killed a man yet again.

I’m still a little uneasy in movie theaters and around SUV drivers who show signs of road rage, but other than those situations, the fear of being shot isn’t even on my radar. The fact that I don’t have to worry about this while other people live in fear of it is called privilege. By virtue of things I never chose (my race, gender, and sexual orientation), I am naturally safer than other people in our society, and when tragedy happens, it’s easier for people who look like me to move on because we’re not immediately in danger. This is the textbook definition of injustice, and I’m scared about how numb to it we’ve gotten. I’m scared about how complacent I’ve gotten.

If Sandy Hook wasn’t a wakeup call about our gun obsession,
If Ferguson wasn’t a wakeup call about our racism,
If Baton Rouge wasn’t a wakeup call about our police brutality,
If Orlando wasn’t a wakeup call about our homophobia,
If Aurora wasn’t a wakeup call about our mental health crisis,
If Dallas wasn’t a wakeup call about our increasing fear of police,
(If Las Vegas isn’t a wakeup call about whatever was going on in that gunman’s crooked heart,)
How are we ever going to wake up to this?
How are we going to function as a society?

I’m tired of this pattern.
I’m dismayed that I get to simply move on to a new custom profile picture when the next shooting happens and show my friends and family that, even though I’m not personally affected or in danger because of how I look, love, and worship, I’m “sending thoughts and prayers” or “standing with Orlando” or whatever hashtag is floating around for this week’s crisis.

Before we begin another cycle of this,
Before the next shooting,
Can we please start really talking?
Can we please admit that we don’t understand?
Can we please confront how jaded we’re becoming?
Can we please really make some changes this time?
Can we please start calling out some elected officials?
Can we please really support our neighbors?
Can we please all just agree that it doesn’t have to be like this?

Friends, please, it doesn’t have to be like this.

I first wrote all this over a year ago, but when I read it now, I see that nothing has changed. The number of mass shootings continues its steady rise, and each time, we give gun control, mental health, religious fanaticism, and racism a slight tip of the hat before another crisis diverts our attention. We need to start reaching out to people on the margins and building bridges with those at risk. We need to start voting out politicians who tweet “thoughts and prayers” but then push for policies that make these tragedies possible. We need better understandings of mental health, racism, religious zealotry, homophobia, police violence, and all the other things that embolden disturbed people to pick up guns. And while we’re at it, we should probably work on the rhetoric surrounding guns too because we just keep talking past each other on that issue. Part of my job involves getting people to talk through their feelings, but for once, maybe we all just need to shut up and watch and listen and try to understand. After that, we have no choice but to change because I’ve been watching these numbers over the past couple of years, and they keep going up.

We must change.

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