The shooter in the mass gun shooting in Orlando early Sunday morning, which killed at least 49 people and wounded dozens of others, was initially characterized as a “lone gunman.’’ But for those of us in public health, who have seen the deadly merger of access to weapons and senseless hate play out again and again, with no government action to stop it, the gunman, Omar Saddiqui Mateen, was by no means alone. He was aided and abetted by our inertia.
When will we say: “Enough”? Just this year, there have been 133 verified mass shootings in the United States. More broadly, there have been close to 6,000 firearm-related deaths, more than 12,000 injuries, and more than 1,000 accidental shootings. In 2013, the United States suffered more than 30,000 gun deaths — and there is no reason to think we will not see similarly horrific numbers by the end of this year. It would not be hyperbolic to say that gun deaths have become routine.
The FBI has said that Mateen “may have [had] leanings toward radical Islam,” and that they are investigating the attack as a “terror incident.” But while details are still emerging, the tragedy appears to have been motivated by hate. Mateen’s father said that he does not believe that there was a religious motivation for the attack; instead, he said that his son became angry when he saw two men kissing in Miami in recent months. If anti-gay bigotry and hate were indeed the shooter’s cue for violence, then he becomes the latest in a string of grim clichés. Hate has taken over more and more of our public stage in recent years — whether directed at countries, specific communities, or individuals. We have seen this globally, with the rise of ISIS and the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels. And we have seen it domestically, with the less egregious but still deeply troubling hate-fueled rhetoric that has colored the national political conversation.
These forces create a kind of echo chamber, where noisy threats and bluster, punctuated by tragic news reports, can drown out the voices of civility and tolerance.
And these forces are given voice — an opportunity to realize their worst impulses — because we are awash in weapons that allow hate to find its worst expression. Because we consider it acceptable that abundantly available gunsdrive violence in this country — despite legions of grieving parents, destroyed families, and a clear consensus on the part of the American people that our gun laws need to be changed — we keep waking up to scenes like in Orlando. Congress, despite holding its 25th moment of silence for gun violence victims since the 2012 Newtown massacre, continues to abdicate its responsibility in this regard, even denying funding to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research this glaring national problem. With this state of affairs, we have moved beyond numbness toward, shamefully, a kind of complicity.
Guns facilitate hate. They give it a voice that it does not deserve to have and should not have in our society. With our country’s history of gun violence, its frequency, and the tragic familiarity of its statistics, none of us are in a position to claim ignorance on this issue. We know what guns are doing to us.
When we prioritize the proliferation of these weapons over the safety of our communities, we signal our peace with the status quo. We say that we can live with the possibility that an angry, spiteful person could, at any time, access an assault rifle and use deadly force to broadcast his grievance to the world.
Until we are ready to work toward making the acceptable unacceptable, there are, in reality, no “lone” gunmen.
Dr. Sandro Galea is the Robert A. Knox professor and dean of the Boston University School of Public Health.
Correction: Authorities revised the death total in the massacre, from 50 to 49, on Monday morning.