In April 2021, a 7-year-old girl, Jaslyn Adams, was waiting with her father in the drive-through at a McDonald’s on Chicago’s West Side when an Audi pulled up behind them. Two men got out, one wielding a Glock pistol, the other a Draco AK-47 pistol, and they fired dozens of rounds. They killed Adams and wounded her father. A few weeks earlier, at 2:30 in the morning, just a couple of blocks away, a police officer chased 13-year-old Adam Toledo as he ran down an alley holding a gun. When Toledo suddenly turned — he apparently had dropped his gun — the officer shot once and killed him.
In the aftermath of these two shootings, Chris Kempczinski, the chief executive of McDonald’s, texted the city’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot: “Tragic shootings in last week, both at our restaurant yesterday and with Adam [Toledo]. With both, the parents failed those kids which I know is something you can’t say. Even harder to fix.”
When the text was released months later as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request, Adams’s mother, Lanesha Walker, told a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times: “I am a grieving parent. I’ve been grieving for the longest, and from your place of power, you insult me. . . . Mr. CEO, you have no clue what it’s like to live on the South Side and West Side, in the trenches, where it gets real treacherous, just to survive, just to protect your children. You come from privilege. You can’t speak about me.”
Kempczinski apologized, but this moment symbolized the abandonment of meaningful and empathic responses to the gun violence across our country. Consider the flood of mass shootings in recent years. Too many politicians and civic leaders offer empty prayers and cynical schemes, including the ludicrous suggestion that we should arm our teachers. Or they make promises they have no intention of keeping. After the massacre at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 students and teachers were killed, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) declared that he’d support raising the age limit on assault rifle purchases, from 18 to 21; four years later, he no longer favored such restrictions.
What will happen if we continue to do nothing? I can tell you what I’ve seen in Chicago, or the parts of Chicago where the gun violence has for 30 years been maddeningly stubborn and persistent. People turn inward. They withdraw. Young people, especially, become agitated. And despondent. And distrustful. They drop out of school. They self-medicate. They arm themselves for safety. They erupt in anger. So you can see how one shooting can lead to another and to another and to another. And, too, as we neglect the impact of these shootings on the spirit of individuals — victims, friends, families and neighbors — you can see our social compact slowly disintegrate.
It’s no coincidence that during the pandemic, homicide rates soared in city after city. The social institutions that connect us to one another — our schools, our restaurants, our parks, our neighborhood centers, our work — shuttered. In 2020 murders increased by 30 percent from the previous year in nearly all of the three dozen largest cities. In 2021, 12 midsize cities — including Albuquerque, Louisville, Tucson, St. Paul, Minn., Columbus, Ohio, and Austin — endured a record number of homicides. Also during this time, the nation experienced a spike in mass shootings, according to a study in the journal JAMA Network Open. Take one month, July 2020: There were 88 mass shootings compared with 42 for the same month in 2019. (The study’s authors defined these incidents as “shootings in which 4 or more people were killed or injured, not counting the perpetrator.”) The numbers are simply staggering.
Let me first point out what we already know: It’s impossible to think about our nation’s gun violence without thinking about the easy availability of guns. Guns, Paul Auster writes in his slim yet remarkably powerful book, “Bloodbath Nation,” are “the central metaphor for everything that continues to divide us and, as the post-election battles rage on, now threatens to tear us to pieces and put an end to the American experiment.” Auster is clear where he stands: “To say that guns do not cause gun violence is no less ludicrous than saying that cars do not cause car crashes or that cigarettes do not cause lung cancer.”
It does seem self-evident that we need to impose some restrictions on guns, restrictions that would make killings and suicides less likely. An assault rifle ban. Or background checks. Or waiting periods for firearm purchases. Or banning the 3D printing of guns. The problem, of course, is that we’re so polarized on matters of gun control it feels almost Sisyphean. Even in the wake of recent massacres in Colorado and Virginia, gun-control advocates in Congress have thrown in the towel. One senator conceded, “The blunt, stark fact is that there simply aren’t enough votes.”
Auster points out, too, that if by some miracle tomorrow we stopped manufacturing guns, there would still be nearly 400 million in circulation in the United States, enough to arm every man, woman and child. It’s not that common-sense gun control doesn’t matter. It does. But in the end, as Auster suggests, it’s really about us, our character, who we are as a nation. Or more aptly put, who we aren’t.
“Peace will break out only when both sides want it,” Auster writes, “and in order for that to happen, we would first have to conduct an honest, gut-wrenching examination of who we are and who we want to be as a people going forward into the future, which necessarily would have to begin with an honest, gut-wrenching examination of who we have been in the past.”
Violence is a part of us. It’s ingrained in our history. The violence of Manifest Destiny. The violence of slavery. The violence of the Jim Crow South. The violence of crushing poverty. (The gun violence in our cities occurs mostly in economically distressed and isolated neighborhoods, places where the window of opportunity has narrowed, not widened.) The violence of mass incarceration. The violence of political rhetoric — which has become particularly widespread and dangerous in these Trumpian times. (Consider Eric Greitens, who in his run for Missouri’s GOP Senate nomination produced a campaign ad in which he cradled a rifle and, accompanied by four armed men in military garb, burst into a home; he proclaimed: “Join the MAGA crew. Get a RINO hunting permit.”) Is it any wonder that we feel so disconnected from one another? Is it any wonder we often stand before our fellow citizens in fear and in judgment rather than in kindness and with empathy?
Accompanying Auster’s sobering, impassioned plea are haunting black-and-white photographs taken by Spencer Ostrander. Each depicts the location of a mass shooting: A hotel. A bar. A nightclub. A movie theater. A supermarket. A church. A synagogue. A Sikh temple. A high school. A one-room schoolhouse. A community college. A factory. A city hall. A department store. As I write this out, it sinks in how ubiquitous mass shootings have become — and how they occur most often in locations that in the best of times contribute to the maintenance of the body politic, places where we find kinship. Many of these places, Ostrander points out in accompanying captions, never reopened. A few days before I received a copy of Auster’s book, a lone gunman (solitary and awash in grievances, Auster writes, seem to be the characteristics of most mass shooters) entered Club Q, a haven for the LGBTQ community in Colorado Springs. He shot and killed five patrons before being subdued. A few weeks after this bloodbath, the owner of Club Q, Nic Grzecka, declared that the nightclub wasn’t going anywhere, that it would reopen. “Everybody needs community,” he said.
The greatest threat to our nation may be the unrelenting, devastating gun violence that has no equal anywhere else in the developed world. It destroys any sense of fellowship, even with our neighbors. It splinters us. “From the earliest days of the Republic,” Auster writes, “we have been divided between those who believe that democracy is a form of government that grants individuals the freedom do whatever they please and those who believe that we live in a society and are responsible for one another, that the freedom given to us by democracy also comes with an obligation to help those who are too weak or too sick or too poor to help themselves.”
This reminded me of something the author and oral historian Studs Terkel once said, so simple yet so foundational to who we are — or should be — as Americans: “I live in a community, and if the community isn’t in good shape, neither am I.” That’s how it should be for all of us.
Alex Kotlowitz is the author of four books, including his most recent, “An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago,” the winner of the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize. He is a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
By Paul Auster
Grove. 147 pp. $24
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