It’s not too late to change our shameful collective impotence on mass shootings

May 14, 2019 12:05 am

Potential buyers try out guns which are displayed on an exhibitor’s table during the Nation’s Gun Show on November 18, 2016 at Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly, Virginia. The show is one of the largest in the area. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Call it a classic case of the grass always being greener.

Growing up in Miami, surrounded by beaches and palm trees — even lucky enough every so often to see an escapee from the nearby Parrot Jungle at our bird feeder or roosting in our ficus tree — I dreamed sometimes of being somewhere else.

I was a Cub Scout then, and the scouting magazines I got in the mail had pictures of dark green northern woods, mountains and clear trout streams. We had mangrove swamps, palmetto thickets, hordes of voracious mosquitoes and 85 percent humidity on our outings.

But one summer when I was about eight I got my wish, having been sent to spend a few weeks with my cousins in a small, picturesque New England town.

Their house backed up to, what seemed to me then, impossibly deep woods and a steep hill. To get there, you cross a briskly flowing creek that winds its way to a cool, dark river. The days were full of roaming the woods and swimming, the nights spent at the small town’s country fair, pizza parlor or movie theater.

The place: Sandy Hook, Connecticut.

I will never forget my astonishment at seeing Newtown on the cable news crawler as I made coffee before heading to work that December morning in 2012, when the scene of my idyllic summer and frequent family visits was forever transformed in the national collective memory to a place of unfathomable, senseless horror and loss beyond measure.

It also became and remains an appalling avatar of our collective impotence on mass shootings, because it revealed that nothing, not even the massacre of little children and their teachers inside their school, could shock or shame us into meaningful national action.

The phenomenon of mass killings at schools and elsewhere has so permeated our psyche and that of our children that, in the recent instances in Charlotte, N.C., and Highlands Ranch, Colo., instinctive reaction by students who lost their own lives charging shooters likely saved many others.

We are at a place where a 12-year-old boy at the Colorado school clung to a metal bat as he hid from the attackers, vowing to “go down fighting, if I was going to go down.”

When once we bemoaned these massacres as tragic aberrances, they are so routine as to be a simply a fact of life in the United States. Every so often, at workplaces, schools, theaters, malls, concerts, churches, synagogues, or any place where there are groups of people, one of our fellow human beings grappling with some derangement or grievance — because this is America and they can get a gun and lots of ammunition with relative ease — is able to murder large numbers of people.

We have decided as a society and a government that an individual’s right to virtually whatever type and number of firearms they want trumps the right of our children to go to school without fear of being shot to death in their classrooms or the rest of us to go to public places without scanning for exits, wondering where to run if shots break out.

In those moments, I have even found myself pondering the morbid realities of ballistics and physics that mean not even my own body will prove much of a shield for my family from the rifle rounds that were sprayed into the crowds in Las Vegas and Orlando.

Every day, when I drop my son off at preschool, a place he loves dearly, in the back of my mind I worry about the security features and whether they would be anywhere near enough if the worst were to happen. They have already talked to him and his classmates, who are 3-4 years old, about hiding and what to do.

They have drilled for it, a necessity that makes me profoundly sad and even more disgusted with our society. Almost every day, I think of the Sandy Hook parents who left their children in what should have been a safe place and never saw them alive again.

A sometimes correct critique of the media and gun-control advocates is their relative ignorance of firearms. They fear them and want to ban them, the gun rights crowd argues, because they don’t understand them.

I first fired my dad’s pistol at a shooting range when was about 11. I learned how to strip and clean an M-16 in Army ROTC in college. Casting about for a career and working odd jobs after graduating, I found myself one day at a gun show outside Richmond buying a 9 mm pistol for a part-time job at an armored car company, where I worked for nearly a year. (Back then, in the age of capacity limits, its magazines could only hold 10 rounds)

I like shooting sporting clays, and have a 12-gauge Remington locked in a safe in my house with a revolver.

But, unfortunately, I have also seen up close what guns can do to people. Once during my two-plus years as a crime reporter in Houma, La., I watched a young man bleed to death on the street in the center of town from a gunshot wound despite the efforts of police and paramedics.

At the scene of another shooting, an officer I knew pointed out a piece of brain matter about the size of a wad of chewed bubble gum that had been blasted out of another young man’s skull by a .45-caliber bullet (amazingly, he survived).

There is no single simple solution for mass shootings, experts say, but that doesn’t mean we should despair of trying to make them less frequent and less deadly.

No gun law will prevent everything. And with more guns than people in this country, a gun-free United States is probably a fantasy.

Though many guns used in such killings are purchased legally, we can start with the low-hanging fruit, like universal background checks. And there are other incremental steps that can help put a dent in the 40,000 gun deaths a year we experience in the U.S., like requiring secure storage of guns and implementing mandatory reporting requirements for lost or stolen firearms.

Even President Donald Trump’s administration has moved to ban bump stocks, a step Republicans in the Virginia General Assembly refused to take last year despite pleas from a woman who survived the Las Vegas massacre that introduced many Americans to the devices.

They also shot down a proposed Virginia “red flag” bill, which would allow police to ask a judge to take firearms away from someone who poses a risk to himself or others. In many cases, people who knew mass shooters say they were not surprised by their acts, citing warning signs that went unheeded.

Look for that and other gun measures to return next year in a statehouse Democrats think they have a great shot of capturing this year.

Despite the many gun nuts — and the politicians who humor them — who insist they need their extended magazines to somehow deter the tyranny of a federal government armed with Predator drones, tanks, helicopters and fighter planes, those of us who remember the days of capacity limits know that we were not consigned to FEMA death camps because we didn’t have 30-round magazines.

Gun owners who support sensible gun control measures — and there are many of us —  need to increasingly speak up to counteract the pernicious influence of the gun lobby in our centers of power.

We must expand access to mental health treatment and overhaul a badly broken system that lets too many people fall through the cracks.

And most importantly, we need to ask hard questions and look uncomfortable truths in the face, as GQ writer Alex Hannaford, who is English, did last year when he asked incarcerated American mass killers what might have stopped them.

While a dozen agreed to talk or correspond with him, sharing stories of abuse, isolation, insanity and access to guns, one politely declined.

“Regarding my own damnable atrocities, I can assure you such would be as distressful for me to relate as for you to hear, if not more so,” he said. “My advice: leave the Americans behind to merrily murder each other, for clearly such is the fate we were born for.”

If you continue to think nothing can, will or should change, that’s the philosophy you’re embracing.

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Robert Zullo
Robert Zullo

Robert spent 13 years as a reporter and editor at weekly and daily newspapers and was previously editor of the Virginia Mercury. He was a staff writer and managing editor at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., before spending five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Contact him at [email protected]