Executing shooters will not stop gun violence. The solution requires us to overcome apathy.
Immediately after the El Paso mass shooting on Aug. 3, President Trump spoke about adopting universal background checks for gun purchases. He later backed away from considering them after a phone call with the president of the National Rifle Association. The fact that universal background checks are widely popular with the American people, including those who favor gun ownership overall, seems to make no difference. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week found overwhelming support for both background checks and allowing authorities to take guns away from individuals who have been found by a judge to be a danger to themselves or others.
While the Trump administration has spoken positively about red flag laws and rejected background checks, it is also reported to be proposing legislation to make it easier to swiftly execute mass shooters. Despite the lack of evidence that the death penalty effectively deters any kind of murder, despite arguments from gun-rights advocates that criminals will blithely ignore any proposed gun restrictions, somehow the threat of capital punishment is imagined to deter mass murderers—who often kill themselves or are killed by police in the course of committing their crimes. This proposal is nothing more than the desire for vengeance masquerading as policy.
The ongoing violence itself is shocking and depressing, but another grim facet of the American plague of mass shootings is the way we have become inured to it.
Meanwhile, these shootings go on. At a Friday night football game in Mobile, Ala. on Aug. 30, nine teenagers were shot by another teenager, 17 years old, who is now being charged with attempted murder. The very next day near Odessa, Tex., a gunman murdered seven people and injured 22 before he was killed by police officers. Three days later, a 14-year-old boy in Elkmont, Ala., was arrested on murder charges after confessing to killing five members of his family, including his 6-month-old brother. All three mass shootings came less than a month after El Paso and the shooting that killed nine in Dayton, Ohio.
The ongoing violence itself is shocking and depressing, but another grim facet of the American plague of mass shootings is the way we have become inured to it. None of these more recent shootings captured the attention of the country as intensely as the El Paso and Dayton tragedies did in the first week of August. But the even more striking gap between the beginning of August and its end is that we seem to have reached the point of resignation more quickly. After Las Vegas in 2017 (58 dead, 422 wounded), after Parkland in 2018 (17 dead, 17 wounded) and after El Paso in 2019, the United States at least went through the motions of a debate on gun policy. But another set of shootings not even a month later, with the El Paso round of the gun policy debate not yet resolved, barely even registers.
The Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit organization that charts gun violence in the United States, says there have been 275 mass shootings (which they define as any incident where four or more people, excluding the shooter, are shot or killed) in the country so far this year. In 2017, almost 40,000 people died because of firearms. That is more than 13 times the number who died in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Even incremental steps toward curbing the availability of the assault weapons that are so often used in mass shootings face resistance from gun manufacturers and industry lobbyists. When Walmart announced on Sept. 3 that it would no longer stock certain kinds of ammunition, the N.R.A. denounced the chain: “It is shameful to see Walmart succumb to the pressure of the anti-gun elites,” the N.R.A. said in a statement. “Rather than place the blame on the criminal, Walmart has chosen to victimize law-abiding Americans.”
Our collective inability to respond to the epidemic of gun violence in our country or even to its one of its most tragic manifestations in mass shootings is a kind of spiritual paralysis.
Even as mass shootings continue to attract a high level of public attention and sympathy, the vast majority of gun-related deaths in this country, including suicides, take place within homes and families, and most often by means of handguns. None of the proposals to curb gun violence that are realistic politically—with the possible exception of so-called “red flag” laws—begin to address this deadly reality. And even those laws have faced opposition. In Colorado, a number of sheriffs pledged to refuse to enforce a state-level red flag law because they considered it unconstitutional.
Our collective inability to respond to the epidemic of gun violence in our country or even to its one of its most tragic manifestations in mass shootings is a kind of spiritual paralysis. Both the sense of apathy following terrible news and the idea of countering violence with more “efficient” violence in response are marks of desolation, a withdrawal from God marked by a lack of hope. At the same time, the resistance to even the most practical and simple reforms highlights a disordered attachment to guns and, even more basically, to violence as a means to power and security.
There are many questions about what policies will most effectively reduce mass shootings or gun violence overall and even more about what sort of reforms are politically and constitutionally possible. Yet it is clear that the United States has been trapped for too long in the lie that our government can do nothing to limit gun violence.
This lie and the apathy that it induces are part of the logic of sin and evidence of the evil spirit at work. Trapped in this pattern of sin, we as a nation can barely muster attention for shootings whose victims do not number more than 10.
Better laws alone will not solve the nation’s gun violence problem, but in addition to the good they do as policy, they can also help us break through this moment of paralysis. We are not powerless in the face of suffering, nor are we limited to answering violence with violence.