Mundane truth of America's gun death nightmare

PUBLISHED: 14:13 10 November 2017 | UPDATED: 10:55 13 November 2017

Mona Rodriguez holds her 12-year-old son, J. Anthony Hernandez, during a candlelight vigil after a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas

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For a true idea of the untold tragedy of gun crime in the US, look beyond the mass shootings to the ‘mundane’ murders. ANDREW PURCELL reports

In the early hours of last Sunday, a gunman approached a group of teenagers on a street in Philadelphia and fired eight shots, killing 16-year-old Marquez Houston.

A little while later, a drinker was kicked out of Toya’s Bar and Grill, in Detroit. A block from the bar, he was shot in the back. He was dead on arrival at hospital.

Shortly afterwards, another man, aged 34, was shot dead at a property in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, while in Allentown, Pennsylvania, a 54-year-old man shot a woman at her home after an argument, killing her and wounding her teenage daughter. Still in the early hours, in Oakland, California, two teenage brothers were standing outside their house when two men sprayed them with gunfire, killing the eldest, Soane Mausia.

At 10am, local time, a man was shot dead in the parking lot of a block of apartments in Harris County, in Houston, Texas. Around an hour and a half later, at 11.30am, in the same state, 26 worshippers were shot dead at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs.

Later on, in Louisville, Kentucky, a husband was shot dead in front of his wife in the Cherokee Triangle neighbourhood after arguing with a stranger in the street. An hour later, across town, police found a man dying from multiple gunshot wounds at the corner of 44th Street and Elliot Avenue.

Only one of these incidents has attracted much attention. That atrocity will continue to be the focus of news stories (though decreasingly so) while the others are likely to be all but forgotten – except by those individuals directly affected; those for whom each incident represents the loss of a loved one.

By the end of Sunday, a total of 77 people across the US had been shot dead. Only around a third of those fatalities occurred at Sutherlands Springs First Baptist Church. While that shooting is a useful focus for examining the issue of gun crime and gun ownership in the US, for a truer – in some ways even more depressing – picture of this aspect of American life, visit the website of the Gun Violence Archive, where all these shootings – and many, many, many more – are catalogued.

Using manual and automated searches of more than two thousand local news organisations, police blotters and media channels, the archive chronicles gun violence in the United States of America in real time, or as close as possible, providing a summary of the incident and a link to the source whenever someone is reported shot. The toll for this year – which does not include suicides – stands at 13,200 deaths.

Certainly, for those who live in other parts of the world, where gun crime is rarer occurrence, but also for most Americans, the scale has to be seen to be believed.

“I don’t think people realise how large the problem is,” says Mike McLively, director of the Urban Gun Violence Initiative. “A lot of people get most of their news about gun violence from reading about the mass shootings, but that doesn’t give us the full picture. In particular, there are tens of thousands of non-fatal shootings that occur each year, and those get almost no attention at all. Most Americans, if you ask them, would have no idea that this is happening.”

“Most Americans have a very limited understanding of gun violence in this country,” agrees Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Centre. “They see it solely as a crime issue, as opposed to the broad public health issue that gun violence represents in the United States.”

In October 2015, a Huffington Post/YouGov survey asked respondents to guess how many people are killed by firearms each year in the USA. The median estimate was 5,000, less than a sixth of the true figure.

According to statistics released last week by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, around 38,000 people were killed by guns in 2016, of which two-thirds were suicides.

On average, there is a mass shooting, defined as when four or more people are shot in the same incident, around once a day in the USA. True massacres – sometimes referred to as rampage killings – are rare enough to be recalled by their locations: Columbine and Orlando, Charleston and Virginia Tech, San Bernardino, Newtown and Las Vegas. Three of the five deadliest have occurred in the last two years.

“One of the most disturbing things that you see in the US is that we go from the worst mass shooting to the next and without missing a beat, you have a short-term focus on the issue and it fades away,” says Sugarmann.

“The increased number of victims – and this is a crass way to put it, but unfortunately accurate – raises the bar as to what shocks us as a nation. The American public becomes deadened to the impact of these shootings, and the numbers at some point do not hold the meaning that they should when you recognise that each of these victims have friends, family and communities that are forever changed.”

“We are, as a society, becoming numb to these shootings,” says McLively. “It’s incredibly painful to read about these, and I think people just want to avoid the trouble of thinking about it. Also, we end up having the exact same conversation every time and people are getting a little tired of that. Having some different conversations about costs and possible solutions beyond just regulating firearms might make a difference.”

He cites the USA’s opioid epidemic, which has belatedly attracted a great deal of political attention and media coverage to the toll of addiction. “People are starting to understand the scope of the problem. There’s more calls from different levels of the government to take action. People are investing in evidence-based solutions, and that’s what we need to happen in the gun violence space as well. We need recognition that this is a major problem on the scale of the opioid epidemic and requires a major investment of resources.”

One major difference between the opioid scourge and other drug plagues in the USA is that most of the people dying of overdoses are white, including ‘good’ kids from ‘good’ families such as those of politicians and lawyers and chiefs of police. Previously, as Barack Obama put it at a drug abuse summit in Atlanta: “The problem was identified as poor, minority, and as a consequence, the thinking was, it’s often a character flaw in those individuals who live in those communities, and it’s not our problem they’re just being locked up.”

Switch drugs for guns, and that sums up the gun lobby’s attitude to so-called ‘black on black crime’ – the people are the problem, not the high calibre semi-automatics in their hands.

The two year rise in homicide rates has been most pronounced in a handful of cities. In the first six months of 2017 alone, 149 people were shot dead in Baltimore. Five students from the same high school, Excel Academy, have been killed in a single year. In August, residents promoted a weekend-long ceasefire under the banner ‘Nobody kill anybody’, only for two more men to be gunned down before Sunday was over.

In collaboration with the Trace, a non-profit journalism project focusing on gun violence, Slate produced an interactive map of shootings in the United States. I was startled to discover that in the most recent period mapped, June 2015 to June 2016, four people were shot dead within a mile of where I live, in a safe, overpriced Brooklyn neighbourhood. On the south side of Chicago and East St Louis, the red markers indicate a fatal shooting every couple of blocks.

Incidents in 2017

“We have our most serious discussions about gun violence when you have a mass shooting that affects a suburban area, and it’s true that the majority of personal violence is concentrated in urban communities,” says McLively. “We as a gun violence prevention movement need to do a better job of pointing out to people that even if you live in a safe, suburban community, it still affects you economically. The loss of human life is horrible, but also, we can’t afford it, and I think that argument appeals to people of different political persuasions.”

Last month, researchers at Johns Hopkins University released the results of a long term project examining the costs of gun violence. By analysing nine years worth of hospital admissions and the treatment provided to 704,000 people who arrived with gunshot wounds, they were able to calculate the bill for medical and inpatient services alone: roughly $2.8 billion per year.

The National Rifle Association donated $30 million to Donald Trump’s election campaign, plus a further $20 million to Republican Senate candidates, and in an online propaganda campaign is now positioning itself as ‘the counter-resistance’ to liberal elites seeking to undermine the president.

The NRA’s most devoted members remain a powerful activist bloc in favour of an expansive interpretation of Second Amendment rights, but they are in a minority, possibly within their own organisation and certainly among gun owners.

In a Pew survey published in June, 89% of gun owners favoured legislation preventing the mentally ill from buying firearms and 77% supported requiring background checks for private gun sales.

In short, the parameters of the debate are not fixed, no matter how remote the prospect of sensible gun control laws may appear after yet another mass shooting greeted with ‘thoughts and prayers’ and no meaningful change. Before the Newtown shooting, in December 2012, Democrats largely avoided talking about guns, and there is now a growing caucus within the party that sees restricting high-calibre magazines and assault rifles as a winning issue.

On Sunday morning, an hour before Devin Kelley opened fire in Sutherland Springs, 61-year-old Manuel Garcia waited for his wife, who had recently filed for divorce, outside St Alphonsus Church in Fresno, California. After mass, as she got into her car with her new boyfriend, he walked over and shot them dead, and later, when police arrived to arrest him, killed himself. He left four grieving children and a community in shock, but few people outside Fresno will ever hear of it. The Gun Violence Archive’s tracker ticks on.

Andrew Purcell is a freelance foreign correspondent based in New York. He has covered the last three US presidential elections, and writes about politics, criminal justice and culture for the Age, BBC radio, the Guardian and the Sunday Herald

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