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Opinion A new symbol for the Fourth of July: The active shooter

Children's bicycles and scooters are left behind after the shooting at a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Ill. (Max Herman/Reuters)
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At 9:38 a.m. on July 4, the National Rifle Association tweeted a triumphant video featuring a bald eagle superimposed over a waving American flag.

Over the jaunty notes of “Stars and Stripes Forever,” a voice intoned: “The only reason you’re celebrating Independence Day is because citizens were armed. Happy Fourth of July from the National Rifle Association of America.”

Just a few hours later in Highland Park, Ill., a gunman perched sniper-style on a rooftop fired dozens of rounds from a high-powered rifle into a crowd of July Fourth parade-goers, killing at least seven people and sending dozens to the hospital with injuries.

“Because citizens were armed,” no one ended up celebrating at all.

Videos of the parade captured members of a marching band fleeing for their lives as gunshots were heard nearby. Parents swept up their children and left their flags, coolers and lawn chairs behind. Across the Chicago area, Independence Day gatherings were canceled and families hid indoors while the shooter remained at large.

This wasn’t the only episode of gun violence at a public July Fourth event. In Philadelphia — America’s “cradle of liberty” — panicked crowds fled as the national anthem played after two police officers were wounded by gunfire at a fireworks display on Monday night.

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These events should shock us, but more and more they appear inevitable. In 2022, this is how we mark America’s greatest civic holiday: flags and fireworks as background, firearms to the fore. How desperately sad that on a day we are meant to commemorate our exceptional brand of freedom, gun violence has made our lives manifestly less free.

It’s difficult to believe this is the vision our Founders had in mind when they set down “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as inalienable rights. Yet the Supreme Court, in a ruling this past month that makes it easier for gun-toting Americans to carry their weapons in public, argued that a New York law restricting the concealed carrying of guns was not “consistent with the Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation,” building on years of Second Amendment fetishization.

Thus a selective reading of a few of the Constitution’s frozen-in-amber lines is used to override the needs of the present day, in a country where guns outnumber people.

Of course, the court shares only part of the blame. For a shocking number of Americans, this misguided, selfish definition of freedom has overrun any recognition of duty to care for one’s fellow citizens. The most reasonable restrictions on gun ownership for the safety of others — training requirements, age limits, background checks — are described as unbearable offenses against a twisted definition of personal liberty.

But the liberty to attend a public event without fearing gun violence? Immaterial.

“It is devastating that a celebration of America was ripped apart by our uniquely American plague,” Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) said in a news conference after the Highland Park shooting on Monday afternoon. “A day dedicated to freedom has put into stark relief the one freedom we as a nation refuse to uphold: the freedom of our fellow citizens to live without the daily fear of gun violence.”

The Fourth of July is meant to be a salute to our exceptional culture, a tribute to everything quintessentially American: the local parade with its pride and pageantry, the fireworks and family cookouts. The red, white and blue. But the shootings over the weekend drive home the obscene truth that mass shootings and gun scares are now a quintessentially “American” image as well — what the United States has become known for around the globe.

In an exasperated statement to the press on Monday night, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said as much. “This is a gun country. It’s crazy,” he said. “We’re the most armed country in world history, and we’re one of the least safest.” He continued: “I’m concerned every single day. There’s not an event or a day where I don’t lay on my back at night, look at the ceiling and worry about stuff. … I don’t enjoy Fourth of July. I don’t enjoy the Democratic National Convention. I didn’t enjoy the NFL draft. I’m waiting for something bad to happen all the time.”

Thanks to our gun regime, that ever-present fear is now as American as apple pie. And in contrast to what the NRA might have us believe, it’s hard to imagine anyone is celebrating that.