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Gun culture makes mass murder routine

Police blocked a road leading to the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Thursday morning.Brian Snyder/REUTERS

two nights ago, America’s sick gun culture was revealed to us once again – in the most tragic, yet seemingly predictable manner. A church. A Bible study group. A peaceful Wednesday evening. Nine black men and women. One white man.

These types of mass shootings are the moments that most Americans associate with the epidemic of gun violence in this country, in part because these events are so horrific and so tragic that they somehow seem like outliers.

Yet gun violence in America is actually a routine event. It's sudden, it's unexpected, and it leaves in its wake more shattered lives.

It's a reality captured by a new HBO documentary called "Requiem for the Dead." It premieres Monday, and it's the story of eight devastating incidents of gun violence, all of which occurred in the spring of 2014, a three-month period in which 8,000 Americans died at the hands of a firearm.


It is a harrowing documentary, in large measure because the filmmakers, Shari Cookson and Nick Doob, relied exclusively on found media — tweets, Facebook posts, police interviews, surveillance video, and TV reports. The effect is to memorialize these individuals, both as victims, but also as ordinary Americans, living ordinary lives. None of them might have been famous or influential, but their lives mattered so much to those closest to them — and in the matter of an instant, a gun in the wrong hands changed everything.

So we hear the frantic, primal, incoherent screaming of an 11-year-old boy in Frazeysburg, Ohio, as he called 911 to report that he'd just shot and killed his best friend — with a loaded revolver that his father left under his bed.

We watch the videos, see the pictures, and read the Facebook postings from Renotta Jernigan of Chesterfield, Va., talking about the love she feels for her two young children – only weeks before Father's Day, when her husband killed all three of them and then turned the gun on himself.

These incidents are the reality of gun violence in America.


In a sense, Charleston is the outlier not just because it's so horrible, but because Americans, for a brief moment, will pay attention to this constant, unending carnage.

In the days and weeks to come, much of the attention in Charleston will be focused on the particularly heinous nature of this crime — as it should. A white man killing nine black parishioners in a church — and to do so out of apparent racial animus – is a uniquely evil offense.

Indeed, the clear racial element to this crime is reflective of what in the United States is the original sin toward black Americans.

But the instrument that was used is, today, representative of America's second sin — this nation's sick gun culture and the fresh tragedies that it bequeaths to us 88 times a day and more than 30,000 times a year.

Perhaps this will be the moment when Americans stand up to the NRA, the craven politicians, and the gun enthusiasts who care more about their "rights" then their fellow citizens' safety, and say, "Enough. Our lives are more important than your guns."

Or perhaps we'll just go on with our lives . . . until the next mass shooting that we know, without a doubt, will surely come.

Michael A. Cohen's column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.