With the coronavirus pandemic seeming on the wane in America, an epidemic it displaced is suddenly back, with a vengeance.
I’m talking about the one in which young, troubled males go out and buy a gun — still easier, in many parts of the land of the free, than voting — and then commit mass shootings of unsuspecting strangers in public places, such as malls, schools or churches.
It’s a distinctly American disease that was running rampant before the coronavirus lockdowns put it on pause.
“There hasn’t been a single mass shooting in the U.S. since the COVID pandemic took hold,” The Associated Press reported back when 2020 ended, calling it a “silver lining to a year of pain.”
That’s over. We’ve had seven mass shootings this year and two in the past week alone — the killing of eight at Georgia spas and the gun massacre of 10 Monday at a Boulder, Colorado, grocery store.
There was a scourge of murder by gun during the pandemic, including here in Seattle, but it tended to involve an underlying crime like robbery or drug dealing, or where the victim and killer knew one other. What stopped everywhere during COVID-19, criminologists say, were those “indiscriminate assaults at a concert, restaurant, or other public setting” that kill four or more people and that terrorize the broader public, said James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern who studies the phenomenon.
I had almost forgotten too about the tortured rituals that nurtured this old epidemic. You know, there’s the “thoughts and prayers” phase, followed by the pointless debate about “it’s a mental health problem, not a gun problem” (pointless because it’s obviously both). It ends with a shrug that it’s all something no law can possibly fix.
Former President Obama said it best Tuesday: “A once-in-a-century pandemic cannot be the only thing that slows mass shootings in this country. We shouldn’t have to choose between one type of tragedy and another.”
Agreed. So what is being done to prevent the next mass shooting from happening here? Because it assuredly will (Washington state officially had seven of them in the 15 years before the pandemic hit, or roughly one every other year).
Republicans in Congress had already thrown up their hands on Tuesday:
“Every time there’s a shooting, we play this ridiculous theater where this committee gets together and proposes a bunch of laws that would do nothing to stop these murders,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
The Washington Legislature isn’t much better. They couldn’t muster so much as a hearing this session on a proposal to ban assault-style rifles. A bill to limit high-capacity ammo magazines did move out of a Senate committee, but then last week it was stuffed into what the Legislature dubs its “X File” — a sort of Area 51 where bills vanish without being put to a vote.
Two years ago, the state convened a Mass Shootings Work Group, which put out a report. But it was radioactive the day it was released, as state Attorney General Bob Ferguson denounced it for dodging meaningful gun control efforts.
What’s maddening is that it’s not hard to imagine putting up some simple roadblocks to shootings like the ones in Atlanta and Boulder, without banning guns or violating the constitutional rights of regular gun owners.
So both maybe could have been prevented with a simple training requirement. Thanks to voters here, who approved Initiative 1639 in 2018, we have such a law for assault rifles (though not for handguns like the one used in Atlanta).
In Washington state, you have to complete a firearm safety training program before you can buy an assault rifle. This came about after the insane situation in 2016, when a teenager in Mukilteo bought an assault rifle at Cabela’s, and then, because he had no clue how to use it, sat in his car reading the instruction manual before shooting up a party, killing three and injuring one.
He admitted, at his trial: “It was the ease of acquiring a gun that enabled me to act on my emotions.”
So voters here made it harder. It should be made harder with respect to buying modern handguns, too. The right to bear arms can be maintained without making it so flippantly easy that even people having a mental crisis can just grab and go.
But people have been pointing out obvious things like this for decades, and it doesn’t make a dent in Congress (see quote above about ridiculous theater). I realized Tuesday, listening to their debate, that I shouldn’t have been taken aback last year when so many political leaders went into denial about the coronavirus, treating it as a partisan hoax.
They have a long track record of doing exactly that with America’s other deadly contagion.