Monday’s shooting death of Charles Vacca was a preventable tragedy. Vacca was a shooting instructor at a commercial gun range that permitted a 9 year-old girl to fire an Uzi submachine gun, a lightweight, automatic weapon notorious for its recoil. The girl lost control of the weapon, and at least one bullet penetrated Vacca’s head. When it did, Vacca “just dropped,” according to the local sheriff. If the gun range had prevented young children who lack the physical strength to handle Uzis from firing them, Vacca probably would still be alive.
Vacca, however, was only one of several people who lost their lives to a gunshot wound on Monday. Indeed, ThinkProgress uncovered six additional cases of people killed by guns on Monday simply by searching for incidents that were reported in the press. This includes three cases of police officer-involved shootings, one suicide, one case where a man accidentally shot and killed his own brother, and a man who died in a shootout between a fugitive and three bounty hunters. It should be noted, as is explained in more detail below, that six is probably a massive underestimate of the number of people killed by guns in the United States on Monday. This list only includes incidents that were reported in the press, and only includes press reports that could be found in the Lexis-Nexis database to boot.
Each of the three officer-involved shootings allegedly involved men who were shot and killed by police because they were themselves armed with a gun and presented a threat to the cops. In Lubbock, Texas, a man named Guadalupe Esquivel was killed after he reportedly “drew his weapon and raised it toward the officer.” In Livingston Parish, Louisiana, sheriff’s deputies responded to a man named Freddie W. LeBlanc, who was armed with a handgun and who threatened to kill himself. According to a sheriff’s department spokesperson, the deputies opened fire after LeBlanc pointed the gun at them. Finally, in Dallas, Texas, police shot a kidnapping suspect named Steven Douglas after he allegedly pointed a gun at an officer.
Besides Vacca, the only other gun-related death that occurred on Monday which was reported widely in the national media was Army Sgt. 1st Class Paula M. Walker, who barricaded herself in an office at Fort Lee, Virginia and then shot herself in the head. Notably, Walker did not kill herself with a service weapon.
In a particularly tragic case, an unidentified man in North Bend, Washington shot and killed his own brother. The two brothers were roommates. According to a police spokesperson, “one was showing the other his brand-new firearm” when the weapon discharged. The surviving brother, the spokesperson added, is “very upset” by the incident.
Finally, a man named Gary Helman was killed in a literal gunfight with bounty hunters. Helman had failed to appear in court on felony charges, and the shootout began shortly after the three bounty hunters spotted Helman on the back deck of his home. One of the bounty hunters was seriously wounded in the gunfight, along with Helman’s twin brother.
In at least some of these incidents, innocent people or people who may have had mental illnesses would still be alive today if they did not have access to firearms. In others, dangerous criminals placed innocents in danger because they were armed with guns. And it is not like Monday was a particularly deadly day where an unusually high number of Americans were killed by firearms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 32,000 people are killed by guns in the United States per year. That’s nearly 88 lives destroyed by a gun every single day.
Most of these deaths go unreported. In the year following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Slate attempted to quantify every single gun death in the United States by examining media reports. They found 11,400 lives ended using this methodology. That means that as many as 20,000 people were likely killed by guns during that same period, and yet their deaths went unnoticed by the press.
There is a tendency in the media — and on this point, ThinkProgress is probably just as guilty as our peer publications — to fixate on unusual shooting incidents while paying little attention to the many, many gun deaths that, sadly, look a lot like thousands of other shootings in the United States. On the same day in 2012, for example, when much of the national media fixated on a fatal shooting incident at the Empire State Building in New York City, at least 19 people were shot in Chicago alone. Yet these shooting victims, most of whom were shot in predominantly black or Hispanic neighborhoods where the average income is much lower than in the neighborhood that includes the Empire State Building, received far less coverage.
The reality is that the vast majority of gun deaths in the United States do not take place near famous buildings and they do not involve Uzis. Nearly 80 percent of American gun murders involve handguns. Moreover, the most common motive for homicides in the United States is not whatever murderous urges possess mass shooters. Rather, “[n]early half of all homicides, committed by men or women, were preceded by some sort of argument or fight, such as a conflict over money or property, anger over one partner cheating on another, severe punishment of a child or abuse of a partner, retaliation for an earlier dispute, or a drunken fight over an insult or other affront.” An argument occurs, one of the parties to the argument has a handgun, and so what could have been a mere verbal exchange or perhaps a fistfight escalates into a shooting.
And yet, America’s gun laws are exactly backwards in light of the nature of our gun problem. The Supreme Court’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller permits bans on “dangerous and unusual” weapons, such as the Uzi that killed Charles Vacca, but it also treats handguns as a privileged weapon enjoying special constitutional status under the Second Amendment. The kind of gun most often used to commit murder deserves special shielding from regulation, according to five justices of the Supreme Court of the United States.
The result is that lawmakers have all the power they need to prevent many of the kind of gun deaths that make headlines, but they are hobbled when they fight the kinds of guns that will kill dozens of people today, and tomorrow, and the day after that.