What Mass Shootings Tell Us About America

It’s always different when it’s your place.

I don’t just live in Washington, D.C. for work: I’m from here. My parents live here. My sister is raising her eight-year-old son and six-year-old daughter here. D.C. is where I went to my first concert and my first high school dance, where I took my first train ride and went to my first museum. Unlike many youngish D.C. professionals, who view their adopted home as a sort of gilded purgatory cum playground, I see a real place, full of real people going about their real lives.

So Monday, when every network blared wall-to-wall coverage of the Navy Yard shooting, was a day spent vacillating between numbness, distraction, and heartbreak. Of course, it’d be happily solipsistic to pretend only D.C. natives know the cycle of feelings I’m describing. As I began writing this Monday afternoon, one of my best friends from college checked in to see if I was OK. He’s from Aurora, Colorado — yes, that Aurora. I sent the same message to him just last July.

Gun rampages have become a staple of modern American life. We’ve survived an average of about one per month since 2009. It’s gotten to the point where, as MSNBC reporter and fellow D.C. native Adam Serwer observed, we’ve developed an elaborate set of rituals for mass shooting responses, a dance choreographed down to the sputtering political finale.


But despite the soul-deadening frequency of mass shootings, the events transfix the public in a manner that other routine tragedies — like the fatal shooting of a young, poor black father — simply don’t. Why do mass shootings occupy such an enormous place in the American psyche?

It’s hard to know exactly what to say about this question: it isn’t the sort of issue easily resolved with reams of data and pretty charts. But impressionistically, it seems like mass shootings command the nation’s attention because they shatter the implicit compromise that patches together two Americas riven apart by a cold culture war.

Though experts like to think about gun violence prevention as a public health issue, gun politics more closely resembles the abortion fight than, say, a push for tobacco regulation. “Gun rights” supporters see themselves as defending an essential part of their heritage and culture. “Gun safety” folks are baffled by the notion that requiring background checks for the sale of a deadly weapon could be even remotely controversial. The two sides share approximately zero premises. It’s talking past each other, all the way down.

In practice, this unbridgeable chasm translates into a grisly sort of modus vivendi. Because public opinion on gun regulation is split along predictably geographic red-blue lines, different states and districts end up getting different laws. The red voters, through the NRA, prevent much in the way of meaningful federal action, about which the blue voters complain bitterly but only occasionally attempt to rectify (more on that in a bit). People generally go about their business, strapped or no, letting the gun culture war fall by the wayside.

This compromise is a broken one. Lax gun laws in redder areas help make guns readily available in bluer places with tight gun laws, fueling violence — particularly in poor urban neighborhoods. Though state gun laws can have a real affect on gun violence, there’s no such thing as purely local gun policy. The illusion of compromise is just that.


Normally, though, the spell holds. We ignore the manifestations of the compromise’s failure, like brutal gang shootings, for a host of deeply problematic race-and-class driven reasons. 59 people were murdered by gun-wielders in D.C. in 2012, eleven in September alone. The story is similar, often worse, in cities around the country, including in metropolises governed by laxer gun laws like New Orleans.

Urban violence, disproportionately affecting poor minority communities, has become part of the “normal” landscape of American political life — a part the political class condemns, to be sure, but not something that prompts it to challenge the gun compromise. For long spells of time, most Americans simply pretend that our gun policy is working just fine.

Mass shootings quite literally blast this fantasy apart. Mass shooters take a seemingly safe place, like an elementary school or a movie theater, and rip it apart, demanding that we grapple with the forces that transformed tranquility into chaos. We learn about the shooter’s troubled past and relearn just how easy it is for violent people to get weapons designed for the express purpose of extinguishing human life. The carnage itself reminds us that no one, even in the so-called “safest” parts of the country, is immune from a shooter hell-bent on nihilistic violence. It also reminds us of just how repulsive the idea of “tolerating” routine gun murder really is.

A monologue from The Dark Knight (of all movies!) best illustrates the way “exceptional” acts of violence shatter America’s gun complacency. “Nobody panics when the expected people gets killed,” The Joker tells mutilated District Attorney Harvey Dent. “If I tell the press that tomorrow a gangbanger will get shot or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all part of the plan. But when I say that one little old mayor will die, everybody loses their minds.”

When a mass shooting intrudes on America’s plan, people, sometimes for the briefest of moments, remember that we’re a house divided over guns. Gun safety folks demand real action, while gun rights advocates mobilize against a perceived threat to their way of life. After Newtown, the latter won on the federal stage, but the former made major inroads in states around the country (while losing in a few of the reddest ones).

It’s too soon to tell whether the Navy Yard shooting will be greeted like more Newtown, which precipitated a wave of new gun laws, or more like Aurora, which inspired little actual change of note. But the press coverage on Monday made one thing plain: in my hometown, nothing was going according to plan.