But how it happened is not mysterious. It is so commonplace that it barely merits a mention in most articles about the massacre. The gunman apparently purchased his weapon a few hours before going on his rampage.
The United States is a violent society, and has been since the first Europeans stepped foot on its shores. Millions of Native Americans — we will never know the true number — were killed as Europeans colonized the continent. Slavery lasted for more than 240 years, and it was practiced with a grotesque brutality.
Viewed in this way, our ongoing gun-violence death toll is just another facet of our violent history. But it’s one we could bring to an end, if only we chose to. Our homicide rate dwarfs that of any other comparably advanced nation. In the United States, there are so many firearms in circulation that there is more than one per every American. No surprise, 4 out of every 10 of us say we are personally acquainted with someone who has been shot. Nations with looser attitudes toward gun ownership experience more gun violence than those without.
While mass shootings garner the most attention, our day-to-day death toll is staggering. Even as mass-fatality events plunged in 2020, likely because of the covid-19 lockdowns, gun violence is up significantly in many cities. Murder rates in big cities throughout the United States increased by more than one-third last year, with many cities seeing particularly startling increases: Homicides in Chicago increased by more than 50 percent, New York by 40 percent. The vast majority of this surge was murders committed with firearms. The dead include a father crossing the street with his child, a woman killed by a stray bullet while in her bedroom and several workers at a Wisconsin brewery.
We mourn, we are furious, we wonder about motivations and then it happens again. And again. And again. We live through horror after horror and little changes. In 2018, after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 people — almost all teenagers — dead, millions of students rallied to call for gun control. But to what end? Less than a week after the horrific massacre, the Florida legislature voted down a measure that would have banned assault rifles.
A majority of Americans would like to see it made significantly more difficult to purchase a gun, but it has yet to happen in any meaningful way. Legislation mandating a background check passed the House of Representatives last week, but no one expects it to go anywhere in the Senate. Despite the horrifying massacre in Georgia, the bill is still barely getting a moment of attention. (In New Zealand, on the other hand, when a gunman killed 51 people at two Islamic centers, the country banned a number of semiautomatic guns within weeks. Tens of thousands of guns were subsequently turned in to authorities.)
This is, in part, because our government seems to be controlled by special interests. The National Rifle Association, despite being accused by New York state of serving as a slush fund for spokesman Wayne LaPierre and despite ending up in bankruptcy court, still manages to maintain its grip on power.
But it’s also true that we don’t really agree on how to solve the gun problem. While almost everyone favors background checks and agrees that people with mental illnesses should be banned from owning a gun, other issues are more contentious. Half of Americans say they don’t believe restricting gun ownership will reduce mass shootings, a finding that defies common sense. Political divisions play a role, too: A lot more Democrats than Republicans want to fully ban assault-style weapons.
I suspect that a combination of our bloody past and ongoing inaction on guns feeds on itself, leaving Americans passive in the face of ongoing violence. As a result, the number of people who are killed by guns in our country continues to grow. The eight victims in Georgia — Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Delaina Ashley Yuan, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng and Paul Andre Michels — are now added to that toll. And unless we get serious about addressing our gun crisis, they won’t be the last.