The following editorial was written for Commonweal’s June print edition. Soon after it went to press, news broke that an eighteen-year-old man had killed nineteen schoolchildren and two adults in Uvalde, Texas, before being killed by police. It is being reported that he was armed with a handgun and an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. Texas Governor Greg Abbott released a statement calling the shooting “senseless” and urging all Texans “to come together.” Texas Senator Ted Cruz tweeted that he and his wife were “fervently lifting up in prayer the children and families in the horrific shooting in Uvalde.” Both men are featured speakers at this weekend’s annual meeting of the National Rifle Association in Houston.
One measure of a sick society is how much suffering it can resign itself to. By this measure, the United States isn’t doing very well these days. Much of the country is now treating an ongoing global pandemic—one that has killed more than a million of our fellow citizens—as if it were already behind us, though thousands are still hospitalized every day. An opioid epidemic that took the lives of more than a hundred thousand Americans last year is often spoken of as if it were a natural disaster: lamentable, mysterious, out of our control. Meanwhile, as the rate of real natural disasters steadily increases, we carry on as if extreme weather events were acts of God rather than evidence of climate change, a problem we helped cause and could still correct if we chose to. Call this attitude exhaustion or call it callousness. Just don’t call it resilience: there are things one shouldn’t get over too quickly, and things one should never get used to. This—not the number of people leaving their jobs—is the Great Resignation we should be most worried about.
Perhaps the most egregious example of this disabling fatalism is our collective unwillingness to do anything serious about gun violence. The intervals between mass shootings seem to get shorter with every passing year. So does the time it takes us to mourn and move on. We know there will be another shooting all too soon, and many of us seem to have decided that there is nothing we can do about it. The names and places change, the death counts vary, but most of these stories are otherwise distressingly similar: a very young man, in the grip of some hatred or delusion, gets hold of a very dangerous weapon and kills as many people as he can.
On May 14 an eighteen-year-old white supremacist opened fire at a grocery store in a Black neighborhood of Buffalo. Ten people died, three more were injured. Eleven of the victims were Black. The next day there were two more mass shootings, one at a flea market in Houston, another at a church near Los Angeles, but these received relatively little media coverage. There is, after all, a limit to how many shootings the public can pay attention to in one weekend. The Gun Violence Archive reports that, as of May 23, there have been 210 mass shootings (shootings with at least four victims) in 2022. That’s an average of ten a week.
Before his rampage, the suspect in the Buffalo shooting posted a 180-page manifesto explaining his motives. He subscribes to the Great Replacement theory, the pernicious idea that an elite made up of Jews and Democrats are trying to replace white Americans with immigrants and Black people. A slightly sanitized version of this theory has lately been taken up by several prominent right-wing figures, including Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York. Last year an ad for Stefanik’s re-election campaign claimed that a Democratic “plan to grant amnesty to 11 MILLION illegal immigrants will overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington.” A New York Times report found that Carlson has made similar claims on more than four hundred episodes of his show. Both Carlson and Stefanik were quick to condemn the Buffalo shooter and his manifesto, which Carlson described as “the product of a diseased mind.” But by normalizing what was until recently a fringe conspiracy theory, Carlson and others are playing with fire. Some Fox viewers may be naïve enough to take Carlson seriously when he says that powerful people in Washington are trying to crowd them out of their own country.
As it happens, the suspect in the Buffalo shooting appears to have been radicalized not by Fox News or a cynical member of Congress, but by the right-wing message board 4chan, where the Great Replacement theory circulates undisguised. Four days after the shooting, New York’s attorney-general, Letitia James, announced an investigation into several social-media platforms used by the suspect.
Tech companies that provide a forum for right-wing terrorists should of course be held accountable, as should public figures who use coded language to stoke racial resentments. But other developed countries have racism, demagoguery, and the internet. The reason only the United States has so many mass shootings is its lax gun laws. Despite having been picked up by the police for making violent threats at his high school, the suspect in the Buffalo shooting was able to walk into a gun store a year later and buy a Bushmaster XM-15 semi-automatic rifle. Such weapons do not belong in the hands of any civilian, let alone an unstable teenager. As a senator, Joe Biden helped pass a 1994 law banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, but it was allowed to expire ten years later, with predictable consequences. Congress should restore that ban immediately and look for new ways to make it harder for people like the Buffalo shooter to purchase any kind of weapon. Gun violence is something no decent society can afford to get used to. We should call out all the politicians still pretending they don’t know how to stop the carnage. Call them out now, and vote them out soon.
—May 24, 2022