As we vaccinate our way out of the pandemic, old horrors have returned as part of the ‘new normal’

March 29, 2021 12:02 am

Health care workers walk out of a King Sooper’s Grocery store after a gunman opened fire on March 22, 2021 in Boulder, Colorado. Ten people were killed. (Photo by Chet Strange/Getty Images)

I got my second and final dose of COVID-19 vaccine last week, my ticket back to normal.

I’d still be among the unprotected if not for a wonderful and computer-savvy wife who kept hitting “refresh” on the CVS website to connect me with the Moderna vaccine 2½-hours away from Richmond.

The trip to get it was a small price to pay for the assurance that a submicroscopic ball of malicious DNA is unlikely to land me in an intensive care unit or a cemetery.

It’s been a long, bleak haul, these past 12 months since life as we knew it came to a jarring halt. It inflicted despair and loss on an uncomprehending and unprepared nation unlike anything the United States has experienced since the Great Depression.

“It has an apocalyptic feel to it,” a friend and long-ago college professor texted to me at the terrifying outset of the pandemic and its sweeping worldwide lockdown. It has taken a toll far harsher than we yet realize.

Across the nation, most states are rolling back mandatory pandemic precautions: some gradually, as Virginia has; others in one reckless swoop, much to the dismay of scientists who know the suffering the virus in all its mutations can still cause.

Last week, Gov. Ralph Northam announced a round of loosened restrictions, a welcomed step toward our pre-plague liberties in Virginia. The case counts and percent positivity — medical jargon that was mainstreamed by this tribulation — are down. So are deaths. That, paired with the effectiveness of the vaccines, informed the governor’s cautious decision to allow an incremental return to the new normal.

We are only beginning to see what that new normal will be.

Hopefully, normal will be the restoration of life’s innumerable small pleasures that were taken for granted until they were taken away: overdue hugs from grandparents, businesses getting back to business, classrooms full of restless kids, baseball parks full of unmasked fans savoring a hotdog and a beer on an unhurried summer afternoon, Friday date nights at cafés and theaters, pews filled on Sunday mornings.

But in our fragmentary, preliminary glimpse of the embryonic new normal we saw a pre-pandemic horror return from its lockdown hiatus: mass shootings in public spaces, including a deadly night on the Virginia Beach Oceanfront over the weekend that saw two people killed (one by a police officer) and eight shot.

Earlier this month, a man walked into three spas in and near Atlanta and opened fire, killing eight people. Six of them were Asian women. Authorities are still investigating whether racist hatred played a role in the killings.

The alleged shooter told Atlanta police that he was a “sex addict” acting on a religion-driven compulsion to eradicate a temptation that he perceived those establishments to represent. Family members and friends of the accused described a troubled young man whose life and grasp on reality were unraveling.

Days later, a Syrian-born man who was raised in Colorado took a military-style assault rifle into a supermarket in the Denver suburb of Boulder and executed 10 people before police shot, subdued and arrested him. A police officer who was the first to respond to the call is among the fallen.

Relatives of the alleged Boulder shooter described him as paranoid and delusional. In his first court appearance Thursday, the suspect’s lawyers asked for time to “assess the nature and depth” of his mental illness. He also had a record of violent behavior and an assault conviction.

Investigators have not yet stated motives for either rampage. 

These were the bloodiest mass shootings in the gun-loving United States since a pre-pandemic killing spree in 2019 at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, where 22 people perished.

The Atlanta and Colorado shootings have some factors in common. Both were committed by men whose behavior had raised red flags. Both were able to legally purchase their firearms shortly before they acted on their evil urges.

The Georgia shooter had made his love of firearms clear on his social media pages. He was able to buy his 9 mm handgun at a shooting range/gun emporium in Cherokee County, Georgia, just hours before his killings began. Georgia, as with most states, has no waiting period for buying guns.

The Boulder shooter had legally bought his rifle six days before the supermarket attack — four days after a judge had struck down an assault rifle ban that Boulder had enacted in 2018. The National Rifle Association challenged the city ordinance in court. The suspect’s sister-in-law told authorities that she had seen him playing with what she described as a machine gun a few days before the shootings.

The efficacy of some gun-control legislation is debatable. Conservatives argue that if we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns. Simplistic though it may be, there is some validity to it — there has always been a black market for weapons. Equally simplistic is the NRA talking point that the antidote to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. It’s not without a kernel of truth but underestimates how badly an untrained armed person can aggravate an already deadly situation. And, of course, though mass shootings generate lots of attention, the everyday tragedy of regular gun violence actually appears to have worsened in many cities during the pandemic.

Driven historically by effective, well-financed lobbying from the NRA and others who assert Second Amendment absolutism even for the most extreme armaments, red states obliged with laissez faire gun laws, as Virginia did through 2019.

Bullets that can pierce police officers’ body armor? No problem. High-capacity magazines filled with dozens of rounds capable of blowing fist-sized exit wounds through a human body? No problem.

Those 18 innocents in Georgia and Colorado also had an absolute right — to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Surely we remember that one. No less a Virginian than Thomas Jefferson wrote it right there in the lead of our country’s seminal declaration of rights.

Rights not balanced by a measure of responsibility eventually lose the support of the people. Polls show that, while support for gun controls fluctuates from year to year, a majority consistently favors some limits on firearms sales.

The most effective curbs against gun violence are focused not so much on guns but on the behavior of people who try to acquire them. It’s a self-evident truth that not everyone is fit to hold in his or her hand the arbitrary and unilateral power to instantly take a life. Clearly, the first two mass killers of our new normal were prime examples.

In two years under Democratic rule, Virginia imposed its own limits on guns. It mandated background checks on all gun sales, including gun shows. It expanded the time period for state police to conduct a background check on a gun buyer from three days to five. It enacted a “red-flag” law that allows authorities to temporarily seize guns from people judged to be a threat.

Pro-gun localities accounted for nearly half of Virginia’s red flag orders in law’s first months

Might tougher gun laws have averted 18 funerals in Georgia and Colorado at the dawn of our new normal?

We will never know. But those now being buried at least deserved the chance.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]