Wednesday, June 1, 2016
Ever since the Vietnam War, we have been bombarded with images of death and destruction on a seemingly never-ending basis… in our own homes. We have grainy, night-vision imagery from targeting cameras in drones and smart missiles as they deliver their payloads to black and white vehicles or buildings, blasting the occupants to smithereens. War footage. Civilian deaths at home or abroad. Casualty statistics are released in rolling litanies of numbers, from print to telecasts to digicasts.
Political factions manipulate the numbers to support their positions. Indignant victims (those that survive) and their friends/families confront those with killing weapons, each claiming that justice and/or God are on their side. We have slightly-out-of-focus security or smart phone cameras with blurry images of various stages of serious wrongdoers, from police to perps. But what we really have is a hardness, a fading of empathy, as we have become inured to the violence that has permeated our brains for decades… unless we or someone we care deeply about was a victim.
Cincinnati, Ohio police labels a shooting on August 21, 2015 as Incident 159022597.01. Pretty routine, actually, at a downtown Elks Lodge. “According to the police account, more than 30 people had gathered in the paneled basement bar of the lodge to mark the 39th birthday of a man named Greg Wallace when a former neighbor, Timothy Murphy, showed up, drunk. Fists flew. Mr. Murphy ducked out the door, burst back in with a handgun, and opened fire.
“As partygoers scrambled for the door, he chased Greg Wallace’s younger brother Dawaun to a tiny black-and-white-tiled bathroom, where he shot him nine times before the violence spilled out onto the street. There, another Wallace relative, also armed with a handgun, fired back at him.
“By the end, 27 bullets had flown, hitting seven people: Mr. Murphy, who died; Dawaun Wallace, who was grievously wounded; four bystanders, one of whom was hit in the genitals, another in the leg… And Barry Washington… He was in the bathroom when Mr. Murphy cornered Dawaun Wallace there. A single bullet pierced Mr. Washington’s arm, then his heart…
“But what took place at 6101 Prentice Street on Aug. 21 may say more about the nature of gun violence in the United States than any of those far more famous rampages. It is a snapshot of a different sort of mass violence — one that erupts with such anesthetic regularity that it is rendered almost invisible, except to the mostly black victims, survivors and attackers.” New York Times, May 22nd.
Never heard of this incident? Lots of bullets, several serious injuries… and death… but you’ve never heard about it? Do you even care? This is a constant and repeating urban tale, so what would make this particular incident so different that it merits national care and concern? Perhaps that is precisely the point. Is gun control an abstract right, supported by hard slogans and various (and often incorrect) interpretations of the Second Amendment? Is gun control about the appropriateness of guns in open and often-isolated rural country versus tight person-to-person contact in crowded urban environments? Or is it a cry from innocent victims whose lives are taken or forever changed by gun violence?
So the New York Times took a look at 2015 U.S. shootings (358 of them) involving 4 or more gun-casualties to find the commonality. 462 dead. 1,330 injured. “Seeking deeper insight into the phenomenon, The New York Times identified and analyzed these 358 shootings with four or more casualties, drawing on two databases assembled from news reports and citizen contributors, and then verifying details with law enforcement agencies.
“Only a small handful were high-profile mass shootings like those in South Carolina [the slaughter at a Charleston church] and Oregon [a massacre of eight students and a teacher at an Oregon community college]. The rest are a pencil sketch of everyday America at its most violent.
“They chronicle how easily lives are shattered when a firearm is readily available — in a waistband, a glove compartment, a mailbox or garbage can that serves as a gang’s gun locker. They document the mayhem spawned by the most banal of offenses: a push in a bar, a Facebook taunt, the wrong choice of music at a house party. They tally scores of unfortunates in the wrong place at the wrong time: an 11-month-old clinging to his mother’s hip, shot as she prepared to load him into a car; a 77-year-old church deacon, killed by a stray bullet while watching television on his couch.
“The shootings took place everywhere, but mostly outdoors: at neighborhood barbecues, family reunions, music festivals, basketball tournaments, movie theaters, housing project courtyards, Sweet 16 parties, public parks. Where motives could be gleaned, roughly half involved or suggested crime or gang activity. Arguments that spun out of control accounted for most other shootings, followed by acts of domestic violence.
“The typical victim was a man between 18 and 30, but more than 1 in 10 were 17 or younger. Less is known about those who pulled the triggers because nearly half of the cases remain unsolved. But of those arrested or identified as suspects, the average age was 27.
“Most of the shootings occurred in economically downtrodden neighborhoods. These shootings, by and large, are not a middle-class phenomenon… The divide is racial as well. Among the cases examined by The Times were 39 domestic violence shootings, and they largely involved white attackers and victims. So did many of the high-profile massacres, including a wild shootout between Texas biker gangs that left nine people dead and 18 wounded.
“Overall, though, nearly three-fourths of victims and suspected assailants whose race could be identified were black. Some experts suggest that helps explain why the drumbeat of dead and wounded does not inspire more outrage.” NY Times. In the end, unless you live in an affected community, gun control is a pretty abstract argument between mostly white political factions based on a perception of their precious rights. The communities most impacted by gun violence understand the pain; most of those championing free and open use of guns do not.
Hard to think of the National Rifle Association with a strong and significant African-American constituency. Difficult to picture someone supporting the right to carry concealed guns when a victim recalls the moment their body was pierced with the searing pain of a bullet or when they lost a husband, wife, daughter, son or friend from gunfire, whatever the reason.
As gun control advocates try and convince Americans to embrace reasonableness in gun usage, like gunshot victim/former Congressperson Gabrielle Giffords’ Americans for Responsible Solutions, countering NRA diehards, they are dealing in a world inured to violence, enamored of catchy solutions and believing that somehow the Constitution mandates a gun world with almost no limits. Feeling a bullet penetrate your body, recovering in agony for many who survive, just don’t enter the picture, simply escape the once-cherished empathy for which Americans used to take pride. Can we lose our callous disregard of the pain inflicted by guns in our civilian society and care again? Or are we just too selfish, too used to violence to care?
I’m Peter Dekom, and caring about human beings – empathy – needs to be reintroduced into our political agenda to make America great again.