The Abomination of Gun Violence

The endless succession of mass shootings is horrifying—and it is the result of a political choice.

View toward downtown San Bernardino, where Wednesday's mass shooting took place, from the hills on the north of town (James Fallows)

Three years ago, after that week’s American gun massacre (the one at a movie theater in Colorado), I wrote about our horrific shared understanding that these killings will go on. Similar things happen in other countries, but nowhere else do they keep happening. Australia, Norway, the U.K., Canada—societies like these do something about it. A society like the United States doesn’t. Can’t. The shootings are appalling. And our public paralysis is worse.

A few massacres back (after the one at a community college in Oregon), I wrote that I admired President Obama’s refusal to stick with the “thoughts and prayers are with the families” bromide and instead to remind his fellow citizens that the role of guns in this society is a choice:

This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America.  We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction.

When Americans are killed in mine disasters, we work to make mines safer.  When Americans are killed in floods and hurricanes, we make communities safer.  When roads are unsafe, we fix them to reduce auto fatalities.  We have seatbelt laws because we know it saves lives.  So the notion that gun violence is somehow different, that our freedom and our Constitution prohibits any modest regulation of how we use a deadly weapon, when there are law-abiding gun owners all across the country who could hunt and protect their families and do everything they do under such regulations doesn’t make sense.

All of these shootings are appalling. The one a few days ago at the Planned Parenthood center in Colorado was horrific. The next one will be, too, in Pennsylvania or Florida or Illinois or Texas or wherever it happens to be. And the ones after that. As an intellectual matter, they are equally unacceptable. But as an emotional and empathetic matter, we can never tell which will strike us unusually vividly. Here is why today’s news from San Bernardino particularly grabs at me (as, surreally, I sit on a United airplane on a very long flight, following the news via airborne wifi.)

San Bernardino is a city I know very well. I grew up a few miles from this latest shooting site. San Bernardino has always been a tough, proudly blue-collar place, but through the past generation it has moved downward from grittiness to being one of the hardest-luck cities in the entire country, as my wife Deb and I tried to explain in a series of reports earlier this year. (One of the premises of our reporting project was that a lot of cities get national attention only when there’s a disaster, natural like a flood or tornado or man-made like this one.) San Bernardino’s hardscrabble circumstances make it all the more impressive that groups of determined and purposeful people, younger and older and in between, have thrown themselves into trying to make a difference.

And so to learn of “active shooters” at a center for developmentally disabled people and others needing assistance, in a city where even the very best-positioned people must fight hard to keep things together—that news has hit me with surprising power, for its sheer cruelty. I suppose that nothing matches the cruelty of shooting little children at an elementary school, but this is close.

I don’t cry very often. I would probably be a better person if I did it more. But as I sit here, among strangers on an airliner, I find tears running down my cheeks as I see the dreaded report of “active shooter at center that serves the developmentally disabled in San Bernardino.” A flight attendant who saw me looking strange while typing has just asked me if there is anything she can do for me, and I said: thanks, but no.

And I know another reason this has hit me so hard. I was terrified when I saw the first reports, for fear that the shootings were at a different San Bernardino center for the developmentally disabled, one that is barely a mile away from the Inland Regional Center where the shootings actually occurred.

In the real-time uncertainty of the news, I won’t give the name or address of that other center right now, nor show pictures of the people we saw there. I will say that it was a place where patient, generous instructors work with adult-age local people who had a range of developmental problems, so as to bring out the students’ artistic possibilities and skills. Here’s the kind of thing I’m talking about: murals on the outside of the (obviously very modest) classrooms.

And an inside view, featuring drawing and paintings and the center’s best known student work: a “Dinosaur Museum” of many dozens of model dinosaurs, lovingly fashioned out of tin foil by a large, gentle, middle-aged man who as a student at this center has specialized in them for many years. (This photo is at a distance, but for the moment I don’t want to use any of the closer scenes showing the dinosaur artist or other individuals.)

When I read “active shooter at San Bernardino center for the disabled,” this is what came to my mind, along with the people who work and study there, and is why I began to cry. What if it was the man we met? What if he had greeted these strangers as he did most others, by asking if they wanted to see his dinosaurs?

It turns out that the shooting was not here, though the shots would probably have been audible across the short distance. I don’t know whether any of the people I met at this art center would have been at the county-resource center, though they could have been. And other people a lot like them would have been there.

It cannot go on. And at this moment, I can’t bring myself to complete the thought by saying, but it will. This is an abomination, and it is a political choice.

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For rounds of discussion after the past few massacres, go here. For an assessment of one of Obama’s more powerful post-massacre speeches (after the one in Charleston), go here. For local news on-scene, go to the San Bernardino Sun and reporter Ryan Hagen’s Twitter feed. For a different political choice, go to the polls.