A “Thinkable” Tragedy and The Real American Carnage

I didn’t write my thoughts about the shooting in Las Vegas, my home for more than seven years earlier in my life. I fretted about that fact for a while. Why was I avoiding it? Was I dodging an issue that has driven people I once respected to distance themselves from me? Was it even worth the time anymore? I shouldn’t have been concerned; it was a bet as sure as the sun would rise that there would be another record-breaking mass shooting in the United States in short order. It took little more than a month. I greeted the news of the shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas without shock or even much alarm. That is where we are in America now. Parishioners and law enforcement used words like “unthinkable” and “unimaginable” to describe this latest event. We all know it is neither. It takes no imagination at all to realize that this will happen again. It is not at all unthinkable. In fact, it is more likely than not. In the coming week in this country there will be another crime that qualifies as a mass shooting for those still brave enough—and still not numb—to research this kind of thing. In fact, while editing this piece, there was just another one, this time in northern California. This is the real American carnage, and it is a goddamn shame.

Mass shootings are killing more in a single event than we’re used to—yes, we are “used to” it—because the killers have access to weaponry that in previous decades was available only to law enforcement and the military. I won’t succumb to the ridiculous debate about what we ought to call them. They are weapons suited for war, and they were initially designed for one purpose, that is the ultra-efficient killing of human beings. Certainly, they can be used for other things just as the handle of a screwdriver can drive nails and a pair of plyers makes a decent wrench. My grandfather taught me better than that, and in doing so taught me not to claim a purpose for something it was never meant to do. No one can claim ignorance of the fact of these weapons’ design and be considered a credible voice in this discourse.

Forty-nine innocents died in Orlando. Fifty-nine in Las Vegas. Twenty-six in Sutherland Springs. But you know the rhetoric. Gun violence is a fringe problem. If you take out the events committed during drug or gang activity, it barely touches “real” America. If you stay out of inner-city Chicago—a gun free zone, the proponents of flooding our streets with ever more deadly weaponry will undoubtedly point out—or Baltimore, or Washington, D.C. then there is almost no effect at all. A friend of mine said during one of these discussions that “people like us” are hardly ever affected. People like us.

Las Vegas is still home to people I care about. No one I know was injured in that senseless attack, but people who some of them know were. No one I know was injured in Sutherland Springs either, but someone I know well has a brother who lost several relatives. That is also how it is in America now.

There are more than 300 million people in the United States. Our chances of being part of a mass shooting are almost infinitesimally small. That is one statistic the NRA gets right. That they still insist you arm yourself to guard against such unlikely events defies logic. Your chances of using a weapon in self-defense are nearly equally infinitesimally small. You are very unlikely to be killed in say, a church or a theater or a school or your office holiday party or a concert or your place of business or a football watching party or in the parking lot after a sporting event, but your chances of knowing someone who is affected by this kind of violence will continue to grow every day.

Consider this. If every person killed in a mass shooting knows just twenty other people and each of those knows just twenty more, then more than 10,000 people know someone who died in the shooting in Texas this week or know someone who does. That number is 23,000 for those killed in Las Vegas. If you include the injured from Las Vegas, the number is almost 220,000. The CDC says, on average, 93 people die every day to gun violence, nearly 34,000 every year. By the same conservative logic above—every victim knows 20 who know 20 more—13.6 million Americans this year will personally know a victim of gun violence or know someone who does. Odds are there are a least a few million in that group who are “people like us.”

In Las Vegas, a rich white man who owned 40 guns and modifications that made them behave like fully automatic rifles shot at a crowd of concert-goers. They were patrons of artists who wrap themselves in the culture of Mom, apple pie, and plastic-stock Austrian-made handguns. Statistics would say quite a few of those are not very much different than we are. Twenty-six people died in a Southern Baptist Church in rural Texas. That’s part of the largest Protestant denomination in the country. No matter who you are, these were all “people like us.” Gun violence is not something that only happens to someone else. This is an American problem; one for us all.

So, we find ourselves once again in the aftermath of a completely foreseeable, wholly predictable, in no way shocking mass shooting in the United States of America. These are utterly “thinkable” tragedies. Already you have heard the imbecilic refrain that new laws will not protect us from criminals. Already you have heard that now is not the time to “politicize” a tragedy by starting to talk about gun legislation. You have heard the president call the Texas shooter deranged, though you might not have known that he struck down an Obama-era order designed to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally unstable. Governor Abbott said he was asking for God’s “guidance” during this time of grief. One wonders if the governor will be perceptive enough to understand whatever guidance The Almighty provides. It seems He’s been working pretty damn hard to try to tell us something with all these acts of Old Testament-like violent fervor. Unfortunately, I do not have much hope that things will improve, or even that we will begin to acknowledge that we have a real problem to which there are real solutions. I am not however without any hope.

This year alone almost three times as many people than are on the rolls of the NRA will know someone who knows someone who experiences gun violence first hand. Next year will be the same, as will the year after that. It is an unfortunate—or ultimately fortunate—fact that more and more of us will be affected by gun violence each year than will buy into the radical agenda of the gun lobby. Every time the country music artists who were in Las Vegas take the stage they will wonder whether one person—just one—out of 30,000 has them or their fans in his sights somewhere out beyond those glaring lights. Maybe some will begin to think differently about ways to reshape our society and their responsibility in such an endeavor. Someone, just like us, will have to face the consequences of political expedience and decisions not made, of leadership deferred. Someone will slip through the cracks or exploit a loophole and acquire a weapon a Ukrainian defending his homeland or a Syrian fighting tyranny would envy. Someone’s brother or son or father will be killed in gang or drug violence. Someone’s daughter or sister or mother will decide to take her own life, and because of our near unfettered access to firearms, the chances she will complete that act is significantly higher. Someone in a conservative, mostly white town, will be forced to confront first hand this stain on our national character over the coffin of a loved one. It happened last week in a small town in Texas. And in each of these inevitable events will be an expanding web of those whose lives will be forever altered. When the abstract becomes real in a way we never thought it would, when “people like us” decide we’ve had enough of the killing, maybe we’ll find the courage to do the right thing. Maybe we’ll find the fortitude to confront this scourge on our republic as we have done with other public safety issues like drunk driving, sexual harassment, defective airbags, and the flu. Maybe.

Until then I hope you don’t learn of someone you know being affected by gun violence. I’m not betting on it though. I know you’ll take comfort in the thoughts and prayers of our politicians and in the knowledge they are working so hard to understand what God might want us to do in such ambiguous and trying times. If only He would give us a sign…maybe tomorrow. Actually, probably tomorrow.