The Cost of America's Gun Addiction
In a country with 283m firearms, we should not be shocked that 33 people are shot dead each day. We should be outraged
"Killing shocks UC Irvine campus" ran the headline in the Los Angeles Times recently after a man allegedly shot his ex-wife to death.
The article, which reported the slaying, focused at least as much on the shock in the community that such a thing could happen in a place like Irvine, California.
I felt sad, of course, when I read it. I felt a twinge of despair. Shock, however? Not the least bit. Of course it happened.
Every year, 12,000 people are shot to death in the US - accounting for more than two out of every three killings. That's an average of 33 people daily.
An additional 240 people get shot and injured every day, and more than 65 million Americans own a total of 283m firearms. Where, exactly, do we expect the 12,000 homicides to happen? Do we really think that the places with gangs and high crime rates are the only places where people are going to use their guns?
The widespread numbness to the especially high murder rates in our poor inner-city neighbourhoods is egregious enough. But that's matched by the widespread denial that the epidemic of gun violence is playing out every day in every kind of neighbourhood across America.
Of course it happened. The inevitable, psychology-laden post-mortem news coverage in the coming days will purport to explain why, exactly, this man allegedly killed his ex-wife - as if we need to understand in detail why such a shocking thing could have happened there. And if you knew the man, then you might be truly shocked that this specific person is being accused of this specific unspeakable act. You might need this complex explanation.
For the rest of us, though, the relevant explanation is far simpler. The man was angry. Deranged, probably. A lot of people are. He owned a gun, which is unmatched as a powerful and easy tool to kill people - either in the heat of the moment or with premeditation. If someone assaults you with a knife, you are five times less likely to die. So he used a gun, according to the police. It happens all the time.
I personally know three people who have been shot. My brother and his fiancee were shot and killed by her mother in a dispute over an apartment in San Pedro, California. A friend of my mother was shot and injured in the 2008 shooting at a city council meeting in a St Louis suburb.
How many people does the average American know? Since December in the Los Angeles area, victims have included a man in Koreatown who confronted someone who threw a beer can at his car, a woman at her home in Burbank, a well-know actor's brother in Beverly Hills and nine members of a family at a Christmas Eve party in Covina.
Of course it happened. In April, 13 people were shot and killed in a citizenship class in Binghamton, New York. Two were shot at a hospital in Long Beach, California. Three by a marketing professor in Athens, Georgia. Four at their home in Morro Bay, California. Two at a religious retreat in Temecula, California. Five children by their father in Graham, Washington. Two in a dorm at Hampton University in Virginia. All in April.
All of these shootings were followed by news coverage of how shocked the community was. But of course it happened. The massacre of 32 people at Virginia Tech? It was tragic and horrifying, but it was going to happen somewhere. Five people at a Salt Lake City mall the same year? Of course.
And it's going to happen again. Every day. In the near future - this year, most likely - someone is going to open fire on a university campus. Another at a high school. Another in a restaurant. Some of the killers will have criminal records, but many will not. Some will have a record of psychological problems, but many will not. Six or eight people at a time will be killed. Fourteen another day. Seventeen. It will happen. Guaranteed.
If you believe that it is a worthwhile trade-off to lose thousands of lives every year in return for the unrestricted right to own and carry a 9-millimetre semiautomatic handgun or an assault rifle - a right that may or may not be guaranteed by a much-disputed phrase in the second amendment to the US constitution - then so be it.
However, for those of us who do not believe this trade-off is acceptable, then how dare we be shocked, shocked every time this happens? We need to stop being shocked every time someone gets shot to death in a "safe" community and start acting unsurprised and outraged instead.
Shock only perpetuates the problem of gun violence. Only when we expect that thousands and thousands of people in every kind of neighbourhood will die at the hands of other people with guns every year - only then, perhaps, at last, will we be able to generate the public support necessary for effective laws to seriously restrict access to guns.
And in Irvine?
"You just don't expect something like this to happen," one student said.
But of course it did.
This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
© 2009 Guardian News and Media Limited