by Joan Harvey
The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is a more violent world. —Hannah Arendt, Reflections on Violence
When a young gunman murdered ten people at a supermarket in Boulder, a place I’d been in the week before the shooting, I was reading the letters of Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt. McCarthy and Arendt lived through terrible times, the worst being the Holocaust and then Vietnam; McCarthy lost both her parents to the Spanish Flu. In their letters I was struck by some parallels to our time: a friend and I had discussed, in letters, whether to stay or leave the country if Trump was reelected; McCarthy and Arendt did the same about Johnson and the escalating war in Vietnam; our fears of Trump echoed theirs of Nixon (though I’m not sure they could have imagined the disaster of the Trump presidency). But when the shooting took place, I realized that while both of them had lived through far worse atrocities than most Americans living today, neither Arendt nor McCarthy lived through these random mass shootings of children and civilians on American soil. There have always been random killings and serial killers, but not this massive meaningless mowing down of strangers.
As shocking as this event was, especially coming so close to the previous week’s mass killing in Atlanta, what has been less noticed are the many mass shootings (defined as four or more shot or killed, not including the shooter) in the United States every day. As of this date, April 10, 2021, there have been 135 mass shootings in the U.S. in 2021 and we’re just at the beginning of April. More mass shootings than days in the year so far. At least 31 more mass shootings since the one in Boulder.
When as many people die as in the Boulder shooting, the killer is often described as mentally ill. Some form of mental illness must be involved to perform such brutal acts, but surely it is also the mental illness in our society itself that promotes the possession of automatic weapons as a sign of power and masculinity, and that builds so much fear that people need huge arsenals to feel safe. Gun advocates always stress the mentally ill angle when some big massacre takes place, but why, then, are they still so eager for people who are mentally ill to have easy access to guns? As to mental illness itself, treatment is stigmatized, expensive, and often inadequate if given. And in truth the mentally ill are more often the victims of gun violence than the perpetrators.
This whole narrative, of course, primarily extends to killings in white communities, or to those shootings that result in an unusually high number of deaths; we hear far less about mass shootings when less than five people die and when the bodies are black or brown. I take some hope from the work being done in the Bronx, described eloquently by Ian Frazier in the New Yorker, in which instead of turning to violence, kids are taught how to have a voice and how to engage with their congressmen, and learn to fight against stereotypes. The subject of the profile, Shaina Harrison, “believes that finding your ability to speak reduces both racism and powerlessness.” But of course kids have much easier access to guns than to programs like these, which are few and far between.
Many have written eloquently on the roots of violence in this culture. We are a country founded on violence, on the decimation of Native American tribes, on the Revolutionary War. Today we still fight wars, mostly invisible to us, in spite of all the media. Veterans come back traumatized, and kill themselves at a rate 1.5 times that of other adults. In 2019 white males accounted for 69.38% of suicide deaths, and of course many of these suicides were with firearms. This is gun violence that is largely ignored. In her essay “Reflections on Violence,” Arendt writes:
…the greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act…
This makes sense in terms of people rioting for a cause, but I’m not sure it applies to these mass killings of strangers. It does seem as if these lone men don’t have proper resources or outlets for their anger, yet in the majority of mass shootings the motives rarely seem political. Often the gunmen hardly seem to know what they want, except to kill. But perhaps if one’s own life seems meaningless, it becomes impossible to see meaning in the lives of others.
There have been books about the despair in American society that leads to empty lives for so many. Death or a lifetime in jail, accompanied by some notoriety, appears to be preferable to being unseen or unknown for these men who randomly mow down strangers or children. The Boulder shooter, who was born in Syria but grew up in Colorado, occasionally complained as a student about racist remarks made against him, but he didn’t go after people he knew. He didn’t choose a supermarket in his neighborhood. From what we know he wasn’t particularly against liberals either, so he wouldn’t have chosen Boulder for that reason. He was alone, not acting for a cause. His family was well off. Whatever his mysterious reasons, we are now a town in trauma, as so many communities have been; people who were already isolated and alone from the pandemic are now triggered by a trip to their local supermarket.
Ian Frazier mentions at least three dozen anti-gun violence organizations in New York City. While there must be a few in Colorado, gun culture is so strong here that they haven’t got much voice. Ironically, at least two of those murdered at the Boulder King Soopers were against regulations for guns. The father of Eric Talley, the policeman first on the scene who was instantly gunned down, said, “My son would have been deeply offended to know his death would be used to promote gun control.” The 20-year-old supermarket checker, Denny Strong, had, a few weeks before his murder, asked his Facebook friends to celebrate his birthday by making a donation to the National Foundation for Gun Rights, whose website says it works “to expand pro-gun precedents and defend gun owners.” Of course the dead can’t speak. Would they still support the lack of regulation of guns even if it meant their certain death? I can’t help but be reminded of a nurse in South Dakota reporting that people in the hospital dying of Covid continued to deny its existence.
In 2018 I was at a contentious hearing by the Boulder City Council about a potential ban on assault weapons in the city limits. It was attended by many pro-gun people who probably came from great distances. I confess, as someone who hangs out among gentle trans poets, current and former hippies, and the type of political people who earnestly and frequently call and write their congressman, I felt nervous being around so many people who were probably armed. But, in reality, the majority of the people in the mountains where I live have guns. Three of my family members live in Lauren Boebert’s district where she got elected (not by my family!) because she carries a Glock and assumes sexy poses with militia members. Boulder is fortunately different; our Congressman Joe Neguse has spoken up for sensible gun laws. And the Boulder City Council bravely held their ground: the vote on the ban on assault weapons in the city limits was unanimous, in spite of a long line of gun owners speaking in opposition. Their decision was no doubt the will of the majority of Boulder residents. But then, ten days before the King Soopers shooting, a judge struck the ban down, saying that local governments did not have a right to make a ruling on these weapons that was more stringent than state law. Would keeping the ban in place have stopped this latest killing? Probably not. The shooter’s purchase of the gun in the county where he lived would still have been legal, and there would have been no way to know that he had brought it into Boulder. Yet symbolically it meant something, a little bit of standing up to the guys with the AR-15s.
Speaking out about gun violence or trying to legislate it is of course very difficult in much of the country and certainly in Western states. In 2013 two members of the Colorado Senate were recalled because they supported reasonable gun measures. While their seats were later again filled by Democrats, we’ve all learned to tiptoe around the desire of people to be armed without regulations. Frank Rich tells us we have to stop calling it gun control, and no doubt he is right. On a local website where people discuss their favorite plumbers and Subaru repair shops, a dialogue about the shooting rages on, with the pro-gun people talking about how cars kill people, about freedom, about how they need guns for protection, about how if more people were armed we’d all be safer. Personally I doubt that if someone began shooting in a supermarket and a bunch of untrained and heavily armed people all decided to shoot back, that many lives would be saved. Certainly sorting out who killed whom would be more difficult.
In 2019 Colorado did make a little progress, passing a so called “red flag” bill which allowed people to file a petition in the court system if they thought someone was at risk of committing an act of gun violence against themselves or others. But few people are aware of it—certainly the family of the Boulder shooter was not—and even the idea of having to petition the court is, I think, overwhelming for most. From the bill:
The petitioner must establish by a preponderance of the evidence that a person poses a significant risk to self or others by having a firearm in his or her custody or control or by possessing, purchasing, or receiving a firearm. The petitioner must submit an affidavit signed under oath and penalty of perjury that sets forth facts to support the issuance of a temporary ERPO (extreme risk protection order) and a reasonable basis for believing they exist.
The bill does allow law enforcement to remove the gun until a judge, within 48 hours, can consider the circumstances. And it has been used a number of times, though of course Republicans have been fighting it. It is chilling to think that until this mostly unknown law was passed, it was illegal to ask that a gun be removed from someone who clearly seemed dangerous. And Colorado is ahead of the game. The Justice Department has just published model “red flag” legislation for states to follow if they choose, but it can be implemented nationally only if passed by Congress, which seems unlikely with the filibuster still in place.
Mary McCarthy wrote to Hannah Arendt about how tired people were of protesting the Vietnam War: “[P]eople had sent so many telegrams to their senators, signed so many statements, marched and demonstrated so many times that they were tired, ‘usés,’ and anyway nobody listened to them any more.” Many of us feel this exhaustion while trying to make the system work better—how many letters and phone calls must we make to try to reduce senseless murder? There is always a flurry of activity after a shooting, then it all dies down. And, on the other hand, all the people whose sense of agency and power comes from possessing large numbers of deadly automatic weapons take to the phone as well.
President Biden has announced several small executive actions to begin to tackle gun violence, but gun advocates are already saying the measures violate the Second Amendment. With seats in Congress almost tied, and a Democratic majority quite precarious, the way forward is far from sure. If we lose the midterms we lose any chance for progress towards a more sensible approach to owning lethal weapons, as well as (perhaps more important), better access to health care and better paid jobs, which could at least mitigate some of the pain in our society. Before Biden was elected, Joseph O’Neill wrote, in the New York Review of Books, “Somewhat unexpectedly, ensuring the success of the Democratic Party has become the most important political project in the world.” While we have defeated Trump, at this point the continued success of the Democratic Party is far from assured. Unless H.R.1, the comprehensive voting rights bill that does away with partisan gerrymandering, passes by July, Republicans will have the ability to gerrymander even more districts their way, and Democrats are almost certain to lose the midterms. Passing H.R.1 depends on its not being filibustered; currently Senator Manchin of West Virginia says he’ll support the filibuster no matter what, and Senator Sinema of Arizona seems to be basking in the attention she gains from gumming up the works.
In Boulder, our local ban on assault weapons was overturned; the state legislature in our still very much cowboy state is hesitant to go ahead; and on the federal level there’s little that can be done with the current Congress. The deaths keep piling up. 11,672 gun violence deaths from all causes in 2021 as I write. By the time you read this there will doubtless be many more.