Another day, another massacre. Time to check the box again.
On Sunday, in Sutherland Springs, Texas, the shooter was white, divorced, kicked out of the military for domestic abuse, and once charged with animal cruelty. That brings a certain clarity to what happened — or so we want to believe. It fits a certain stereotype, one that lets us define what happened and move on.
Devin P. Kelley, 26, used an assault-style rifle to kill 26 and injure 20 men, women, and children who had gathered to worship in a small church in rural Texas. Those who live in the tiny, tight-knit community said they were shocked such terrible violence could happen there. But news like that is no longer surprising to those of us watching it from afar. We determine the flavor of the atrocity — race- or religion-based, or some miscellaneous quest for revenge — and then progress past the horror, into our own respective boxes.
Gun control advocates will rail against the too-easy access to powerful weapons. The pro-gun lobby will insist that someone who wants to kill as many people as possible will find a way to do it, whether it’s by flying an airplane into a building, driving a truck into cyclists, wielding a knife, or shooting a gun, legally obtained or not. Deadlock ensues until the next deadly massacre.
Who the killer is will change the way he is described. Of Kelley, President Trump said, “This was a very deranged individual. We have a lot of mental health problems in our country, as do other countries. This isn’t a guns situation.” Just a week ago, when an Uzbek immigrant plowed a truck into a group of bicyclists, killing eight and injuring a dozen others, Trump described the attacker as an “animal.” Who the killer is will also determine whether we consider the crime an act of terror or malevolence. After Stephen Paddock, a 64-year-old white retiree, opened fire in Las Vegas on country music concert-goers, killing 59 and wounding hundreds more, there was much debate over whether the incident should be classified as terrorism. Trump called Paddock’s attack “an act of pure evil.”
The common thread is a kind of citizen surrender to the unpredictability of it all. The pattern of violence and political response to it are now so familiar, the only expectation is for continued gridlock over how to stop the deaths of innocents. When it comes to guns, consensus is hard to reach. Gun control advocates note that, in April, Trump reversed an executive order signed by President Obama that, according to Politifact.com, made it mandatory for the Social Security Administration to release information about mentally ill recipients of Social Security benefits. That information could then be included in background checks, stopping someone with mental illness from buying guns. Yet, as Politifact also reported, Obama’s order was opposed by the National Rifle Association — and by the American Civil Liberties Union, which said the rule “advances and reinforces the harmful stereotype that people with mental disabilities, a vast and diverse group of citizens, are violent.”
I support reimposing the assault weapons ban, even though I don’t believe it would end violence in America. But if such a ban makes it even a little harder to do what Kelley did on Sunday, it’s worth it. Meanwhile, the massacre headlines do take their toll. They have changed our expectation of safety, haven’t they? If you are at a concert, a sporting event, on a train, or even walking down the street, the possibility of some random act of violence is no longer shocking to contemplate. It’s not enough to paralyze, just enough to make you realize all the box-checking is a way to make us feel more in control of a world that too often feels out of control.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.