In a country plagued by scandals, both real and imagined, our collective focus can easily be drawn to each shiny new outrage du jour, with our dwindling attention spans unable to linger too long on the horrors of yesterday. Then, a fresh new tragedy brings our focus back just before it can fade away.
Such was the case with the mass shooting in Santa Monica, California on Friday. Though the specifics may have differed, this seemed to be on the surface much like any of the other in the parade of recent slaughters—multiple victims, a cache of weapons and ammunition, questions of mental health and a trail of blood and bodies. But, it is this very similarity that is so noteworthy. If it all seemed familiar, it is because it is. We have seen this before. And we apparently have resigned ourselves to the reality that we will see it again. And we will if we do nothing to stop it.
First, a brief recap. On Friday morning, a 23-year old man shot and killed his father and brother in their home before setting the house on fire. He then hijacked a car and forced a woman to drive him to nearby Santa Monica College, but not before shooting at another woman driver near the house as well as numerous pedestrians and a city bus, leaving four people injured. Once at the college, he shot and killed a groundskeeper and his daughter (the man died on the scene and his daughter died Sunday morning in a local hospital). He shot another woman on the campus before entering the school’s library, where he fired 70 rounds at the students there before being shot and killed himself by police.
In all, five innocent people and the shooter lost their lives and many others were injured. And, beyond that, a college campus and an entire city were terrified. But nationally, this was little more than a five-minute segment on the news, quickly forgotten for sexier scandals.
For the sake of disclosure, let me say that I was in Santa Monica at the time of the shooting. I work mere blocks from the college where the shooting spree ended. Though I did not hear the gunshots, I definitely heard the sirens of responders and the deafening whir of the helicopters that rushed to the scene. I was close enough to see the roadblocks and the police tape that crossed all the streets surrounding the school. And I was certainly close enough to wonder what I would do if I was staring down the barrel of a gun held by a man determined to kill me.
But none of that scared me as much as the photos released by the Santa Monica Police, because while it may be easy to dismiss the actions of a shooter with alleged mental health issues as an aberration (though these sorts of aberrations seem to be happening more and more often), it is far harder to ignore the equipment with which he carried out his plan.
Look at this picture:
This is a man with bad intentions. He is a civilian, but he wears protective gear associated with police SWAT teams or the military. Yet, no flags were raised when he acquired it.
Now, look at this picture:
This is just some of the cache of weapons and ammunition assembled by the shooter. The AP reports that he carried an AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle, a .44 revolver and more than 1,300 rounds of ammunition in several cartridges. The revolver, though potentially deadly, is the least worrying of the bunch, as it is slow and difficult to reload (at least in comparison to the rifle).
Much more troubling are the rifle and the ammunition. The shooter (for the record, he has been identified, but I have no interest in using his name, as it is his actions and not his identity that concern me) possessed a weapon capable of firing a very large amount of bullets in a very short amount of time, as well as enough bullets to kill more than a thousand people. Of course, that assumes that every bullet found its target, which is highly unlikely. But, the weapon he used has proven popular in recent mass shootings including those at the Aurora, Colorado movie theater and the Newtown, Connecticut elementary school specifically because it is so easy to fire quickly and accurately. And again, he was apparently able to acquire all of it without raising any suspicions.
Recent federal gun proposals would have banned the type of gun he used, as well as the extended magazines he carried. And, background checks would have prevented someone with his history of mental illness from legally purchasing a weapon or ammunition. But, that doesn’t matter because gun advocates fought to defeat the proposals.
But, in California, we do have stricter gun laws that should make it impossible for a shooter like this to do what he did. Yet, he did it.
So, what does this mean? Are gun laws ineffective? Or, can they prevent shootings like this from happening?
The truth is that the gun laws currently in place fail because they are inconsistent, both in their content and their enforcement. Someone who is unable to buy guns from a licensed dealer here in California can easily go to Nevada or a private seller at a gun show or on the internet. Or, he can steal them or buy them from someone who has stolen them. This is possible because the same rules don’t apply to everyone, and the rules in place don’t do enough to track guns and who owns them. And, until they do, the gun violence problem will continue.
But the future of gun legislation is cloudy. While states like California, Maryland, Connecticut, and Colorado have made progress in strengthening their gun laws, federal attempts to do the same have stalled. Even Joe Manchin, the congressman who co-sponsored the recent gun legislation proposal puts the chances of getting that legislation passed at 50/50. That is far from encouraging.
And this doesn’t even mention the fact that proper mental health care is severely lacking (and getting worse) and that gun advocates have blocked attempts to research the causes of gun violence, hoping that ignoring the problem will make it go away or pretending that no problem even exists.
If we can’t agree that guns are a problem, how can we agree on a solution? How can we convince people to see that events like this are not aberrations but a pattern of violence that is escalating? How do we make them care? How do we make them see?
Think of gun violence as a leaky pipe—a crude analogy, of course. But, just like an unchecked leak can cause a foundation to rot, so can gun violence rot the very foundation of American civilization. Each drop of blood that is spilled brings us one step closer to collapse. We are destroying ourselves and we are doing nothing to stop it.
That must change.