A is for Alejandro Martínez.
Alejandro was an only child. He moved from the Pinar del Río province in Cuba to Orlando, Florida when he was 19, in search of work opportunities. He said goodbye to his mother and goodbye to all he loved about life in Cuba and arrived in the United States in 2014. Two years later he went out with friends to celebrate a new job and ended the evening crouched in a bathroom stall, hiding from a gunman and texting his partner, Aday Suarez Molina, just in case. He died without seeing his mother again.
B is for blame.
Here is a list of things we blame for gun massacres in the United States:
Having a “bad day”
Violent video games
The decline of Christianity
But mental illness is found in other countries. So are violent video games. Christianity is declining everywhere but Africa and there is racism, patriarchy, purported satan worship and social media nearly everywhere in the world. But there aren’t mass shootings everywhere in the world. Not like we have in the United States. Regardless of who or what we blame, mass shootings are a uniquely American problem.
C is for Catherine Hubbard.
Catherine had red hair. Carrot red that curled a little around her ears. She had an older brother named Freddy and more than anything Catherine loved animals. She died on December 14, 2012 when she was six years old. In the years since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School her parents, Jenny and Matt, have built The Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary on a small 34 acre farm in Connecticut to honor and remember their daughter. If she had lived, she would be just a few years older than my own animal-loving boy.
D is for a definition of terms.
There is currently no consensus on how to define mass shooting. Congress defines it as “a shooting where three or more people are murdered.” However many find fault with this definition because it does not take into account the number of people who are shot. What counts with Congress’s definition is only the number of people who die. So if 27 people are shot but none of them die, Congress does not recognize it as a mass shooting.
A more widely accepted definition is perhaps the one used by The Gun Violence Archive, which defines a mass shooting as “a shooting where 4 or more people are shot, not including the shooter, regardless of whether those shot live or die.” This definition is also fraught because The Gun Violence Archive’s statistics thus also include domestic violence situations where, say, a man shoots his wife and three children. Some contend that such situations should not count in the tally because being shot at home is not the same as being shot in a mosque or the mall. This may well be true but in this piece, because the statistics most accurately reflect the number of shootings as opposed to merely the number of deaths, all statistics cited will be based on the Gun Violence Archive definition. Besides, a man shooting four people sounds a lot like a mass shooting to me, even if the victims aren’t shot during study hall or standing outside the synagogue.
E is for expired.
America used to have a federal law that banned assault weapons. It was in effect for ten years, beginning in 1994. Was it perfect? No. Did it work? Sort of. Scholars say it did not affect gun violence in general. But several studies indicate that the frequency of mass shootings decreased significantly during the ban.
Might the ban have worked better had it been paired with buy back programs, stricter licensing and longevity? Possibly, but we will never know. The federal ban expired in 2004 and although two Senators and four Representatives from both sides of the aisle attempted to reinstate or introduce a new assault weapons ban between 2003 and 2008, none of the bills left committee. In January 2013 California Senator Diane Feinstein, immediately following the Sandyhook Elementary School shooting, introduced S. 150 — The Assault Weapons Ban of 2013. Both the Republican Congressional delegation from Texas and the NRA condemned the bill and it failed a Senate vote in April later that year.
More recently the city of Boulder, Colorado banned assault weapons in 2018. But in March 2021 that ban was blocked in court. Ten days later ten people in Boulder were dead inside a King Sooper’s supermarket, shot to death by a man with a prior record of assault, who bought a Ruger AR-556 semi-automatic rifle four days after the ban was lifted.
F is for following the money.
The NRA spent more than $54 million dollars during the 2016 election, $30 million of which went to supporting Donald Trump. During the 2018 election cycle the NRA and other gun rights groups outspent gun control activists by more than 40 to 1. Several Congressmen have received more than a million dollars from gun rights groups like the NRA over the course of their political careers; a group which notably includes Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio and our current Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Following the money shouldn’t stop with the NRA. There are also businesses that, wittingly or not, bolster the gun industry. As finance journalist Andrew Sorkin points out, there are not only stores that sell guns but also suppliers and distributors, investors and even credit card processors who all feed into the ecosystem that aids and abets the gun industry. Some of these businesses, thanks in large part to Sorkin’s reporting, have decided to extricate themselves from that ecosystem. Dick’s Sporting Goods, for example, pulled high-capacity magazines from their stores shortly after the Parkland, Florida shooting that killed 17 students in early 2018. Dick’s later pulled all guns off the shelves and their entire hunting section is currently under “strategic review.” Wal-Mart, likewise, has recently announced that it, too, will cease the selling of handguns and ammunition and companies like Square, Stripe, PayPal, and Apple Pay all have policies in place now that prohibit online transactions for guns and gun-related merchandise.
G is for the GOP.
This is where things get really interesting. Although NRA backing has become synonymous with Republican victory at the polls, 72% of voting Republicans would like the federal government to require comprehensive background checks, or “permit to purchase” laws for all gun purchasers, including private sales between two individuals. Not only that, 65% of the GOP’s base support establishing red flag laws that would allow police to temporarily take guns away from someone who poses a threat to themselves or others. Why is there such a large discrepancy between what GOP voters purport to want and what GOP voters get?
H is for staying home.
More than ¾ of American adults reported stress before the pandemic due to the fear of being involved in a mass shooting. Over ⅓ of them said they actually stayed home from certain places and spaces because they were afraid. These numbers will likely look different, post-pandemic, but in what ways? It’s interesting and devastating to note that within literal days of many Covid restrictions lifting, eighteen people were shot to death by two different gunmen in two different states. At least in lockdown we didn’t worry (as much) about being shot when we actually left our houses.
I is for immigration.
Many of the immigrants attempting to enter the United States at the Mexican border are fleeing gun violence in their own countries — namely Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, which are all grappling with a gun violence epidemic. But before decrying the detainees in Texas and Arizona, maybe we should ask where Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador got their guns in the first place.
America’s gun crisis extends much further than our own schools and synagogues. In 2013 the University of San Diego reported that the number of firearms smuggled underground from the United States into Mexico — and then shipped further south — was so high that nearly half of all American gun dealers are reliant on that business to keep their doors open. The most common guns smuggled from the United States? AR-15 and AK-47 rifles and FN 5.7 caliber semi-automatics — and most are converted from semi- into full assault weapons once they are safely south of the border. While we debate at length about deportations and separating families, we ignore our own complicity in the crowding at the border.
J is for judging by the numbers.
Here is where the United States stands compared to the rest of the world. Based on current numbers from The Gun Violence Archive, here is a cursory look at the number of mass shootings in other countries(where numbers are readily available) between January and August 2019:
New Zealand: 0
United States: 243
K is for Chase Kowalski.
Like my oldest son, Chase loved to run and ride his bike. Also like my son, Chase had straight blond hair. When he was shot to death inside his classroom at Sandyhook Elementary School, he was missing his two front teeth. Along with the rest of his first grade classmates, Chase was likely learning how to read that year. Learning the alphabet. One letter for each person who died on December 14, 2012.
L is for lockdown.
My children — two boys — are 11 and 12. As fifth and sixth graders, they are part of “the lockdown generation,” for whom lockdown drills are a routine part of their school experience. As commonplace as fire drills and earthquake preparation. While the likelihood of a school shooting at their school (or any school) is low, 2018 was the deadliest year on record for school violence.
M is for men.
Nearly all mass shootings are carried out by men. And, to put a finer point on it, white men. Beyond being white males, however, there is no singular profile for mass shooters. But one thing that many of these men have in common is what might be called “male grievance” or “male resentment.” Whatever we call it, the commonality is men — white or otherwise — committing horrific violence in the name of real or perceived slights, be they from women, minorities, employers, family or classmates.
N is for Newtown.
O is for Orlando.
P is for Poway, Pittsburg, Parkland, Plano.
It’s also for Port Arthur.
In 1996 a gunman killed 35 people in a mass shooting in Port Arthur, Australia. In the aftermath the government immediately set to work on gun reform laws. They tightened licensing, banned assault weapons and shotguns, and financed both gun amnesty and buyback programs. The result? Over one million guns were destroyed and firearm homicides dropped 59% in Australia from 1995–2006. As for mass shootings, in the 18 years prior to the reform, there were 13 massacres resulting in 102 deaths. In the 18 years following the reform? None.
Q is for quantifiable.
Here is what we know:
- The NRA spent $54 million dollars in political contributions during the 2016 campaign cycle.
- 2018 was the deadliest year on record for school violence.
- Between January and August 2019, there were 243 mass shootings in the United States.
- We used to have a ban on assault weapons but we don’t anymore. The majority of Americans support banning these specific weapons.
- Of the 28 deadliest gun massacres in the United States, only 3 did not include an assault weapon.
So. Perhaps we ought to shift our focus slightly. Instead of using the term “gun control” as a blanket to throw over everything from shotguns to safety locks to handguns to hunting paraphernalia and hoping for broad sweeping reform that includes the likes of licensing, insurance, training and manufacturing, we should focus instead on the one reform we already agree on: banning the production of semi-automatic weapons and encouraging the relinquishment of existing semi-automatic weapons with buyback and gun amnesty programs.
It seems possible that if we could accomplish this one thing, which the vast majority of Americans already support — reducing the number of assault weapons in our country — we might actually have the energy and emotional space to start meaningful conversations about where to focus our attention next. Because there are other things most of us agree on as well — things like “red flag” and permit-to-purchase laws, but those snag in the fabric of sweeping gun control bills that fail to focus on a few specific and measurable outcomes.
R is for reading the constitution.
If there is one thing nearly everyone acknowledges it’s that the wording of the second amendment is confusing.
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
The colonial dialect of our founding fathers is difficult to decipher. Are those clauses dependent or independent? What’s the deal with all those commas? Is it grammatically correct (it is, btw)? Yet despite our difficulty making sense of it, the second amendment has become synonymous, on a cultural level at least, with the right to “bear arms.” Many Americans believe that it is their constitutional right to stockpile as many weapons as they would like, some quite sophisticated, without restriction or restraint.
However, according to professor Joseph Blocher of Duke University, who specializes in constitutional law and the second amendment, the first clause of the amendment cannot be overlooked. He explains that the first clause was “long understood by many if not most courts and scholars to protect state militias from disarmament by the federal government.” Blocher is right. The Second Amendment was ratified on December 15, 1791, as part of the Bill of Rights, and nearly one hundred years later, in 1876, the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Cruikshank, that “the right to bear arms is not granted by the Constitution. The Second Amendment means no more than that it shall not be infringed by Congress, and has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the National Government (emphasis mine).”
Sixty-three years later, in 1939, the Supreme Court ruled again along the same lines in United States v. Miller, stating that the Second Amendment did not protect weapon types that did not have a “reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia.” In fact it was only 13 years ago in 2008 that the Supreme Court went in a new direction altogether. It ruled in the District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to own a gun. This was unprecedented and, according to computational linguist Chi Luu, the presiding Justice — Antonin Scalia — had to redefine many of the words in the original text in order to support this new interpretation.
S is for “strikingly calm.”
That’s how survivors described Tywanza Sanders, the youngest victim in the Charleston shooting at Emanuel AME Church. Sanders tried to position himself between his great aunt and Dylann Roof and talk the shooter down.
“You don’t have to do this,” he said quietly. As Roof moved to pull the trigger, the 26-year-old stepped in front of his aunt, Susie Jackson, and took the first bullet. His aunt was then shot 11 times.
T is for thoughts and prayers.
“My heart is heavy over the school shooting in Florida.
Keeping all affected in my thoughts & prayers.”
— @FLOTUS (Former First Lady Melania Trump)
“My son and his fiancé teach at Stoneman Douglas.
They will never be the same.
We don’t want thoughts and prayers.
We want gun control.”
U is for unlimited access.
There are more guns per capita in the United States than in any other country in the world. There are more guns than people here. Recent tallies tell us that there is a gun for every man, woman, and child in the country plus 67 million left over. That’s nearly enough for every dog in the nation to pack heat as well. How many of these guns are semi-automatic assault weapons? It’s impossible to say and there are two reasons for this: first, there is no official criteria for what constitutes an “assault” weapon. Second, the United States government does not keep track of which types of guns its citizens own. Best estimates put the number of assault weapons (or “sporting rifles” as they are commonly called among gun enthusiasts) somewhere between 15 and 20 million. American civilians didn’t begin purchasing assault weapons in such high numbers until after the federal assault weapon ban expired in 2004. That year there were only about 100,000 assault rifles manufactured. Fast forward to 2013, the year after the Sandy Hook shooting when Catherine Hubbard and Chase Kowalski died, and the number jumps to 2 million.
V is for voting and vagary.
We need to vote for candidates who will prioritize passable gun control laws. This is obvious, I suppose, but despite the fact that 86% of Americans support gun control measures, the gun lobby is much more successful at getting folks to vote for their candidates than the anti-gun lobby. It probably tracks with the money. If the NRA outspends gun control groups by 40 to 1, it shouldn’t be surprising when their candidates win.
So maybe V isn’t for voting. As much as voting matters, maybe our money matters more. We can, of course, give financial support to reputed organizations who are working for stricter gun control laws — groups like Everytown for Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action and The Brady Campaign. But there’s something else we can do as well. Remember when, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush urged us to “go shopping.” He did it again when the country was on the brink of a recession five years later. “Go shopping more,” he said during a news conference in December 2006. He didn’t urge us to get out there and vote. He didn’t encourage us to pick politicians who would right the ship, slay the terrorists and save our economy. No, he told us to get out there and do what we do best: consume. He did that not because he’s shallow or superficial but because he understood something fundamental about the United States and how it actually functions. Where and how we spend our money matters. He knew that our pocketbooks held more sway than our ballots. So if we, as consumers rather than voters, throw our collective weight behind companies who have thoughtful gun control policies and boycott those who don’t, we might actually be able to destabilize the long-held influence and sway of the NRA.
W is for whelm and wallow.
The news rolls in again and again and again about places like Dayton and El Paso and San Jose and San Antonio and White Swan and Virginia Beach and Pittsburgh and Plano, but nothing changes. We got a brief break during the pandemic but we’re apparently going to pick up right where we left off, with horrific news coming in from Georgia and Colorado. The news of the shootings at the spas and the supermarket jolted us because we haven’t had to endure such news in so long. Soon enough, though, we’ll be oversaturated again. We’ll grow complacent again. I’ll grow complacent anyway. I know, because I’ve been here before. Part of me will want to kick and scream and stomp in the streets, decrying the fear and the chaos and the flaccid leadership but another part of me — the dispirited, depressed and deeply sad side — will just shrug, shake my head, and switch over to Netflix.
X is for Malcolm X.
No conversation in this country would be complete without at least a cursory look at the white person’s fear of black bodies and how that fear infuses itself into the conversation. Not that long ago the NRA actually supported gun control. It’s hard to believe but it’s true. The NRA once fought alongside the government for stricter gun legislation. The reason? Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.
Throughout the 1960’s the Black Panthers, influenced by Malcolm X until his death in 1965, fought for the right to own guns. Malcolm X believed that if the government was unwilling to “protect the lives and property” of Black folks, then they had the right to protect themselves. The best way to do that, he reasoned, was with firearms.
In the years following the death of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers used their knowledge and understanding of California’s gun laws to further emphasize and underscore their stand against the subjugation of Black Americans. But according to Adam Winkler, author of Gun Fight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms, the sight of the Black Panthers openly carrying firearms in California, which was completely legal at the time, so frightened politicians and citizens alike that it led to the Mulford Act which prohibited open carry of loaded firearms, among other things. “The law was part of a wave of laws that were passed in the late 1960s regulating guns, especially to target African-Americans,” Winkler explains.
The NRA fought hard to pass the Mulford Act. Because it turns out the NRA is all about gun rights — but not for Black people.
Y is for yesteryear.
America likes to pretend that she used to be better than she is now. More honorable, more lovely. The problem with this is that it’s not true. America’s past is rooted in the genocide of the native people and then built on the subjugation and systemic oppression of people of color. But that’s uncomfortable. So we tell ourselves a different story and long for a time that didn’t actually exist.
America’s predilection for false nostalgia was on full display in 2016 when Donald Trump promised to “make America great again.” His campaign played on the notion that we used to be great but can no longer make such claims. Trump was particularly successful, according to professor Clay Routledge of North Dakota State University, because “he didn’t simply invoke the idea of an idealized past. He provoked the anxious feelings that make nostalgia especially attractive — and effective — as a tool of political persuasion.” In a season when we are feeling a renewed anxiety over mass shootings, it’s tempting to idealize a time when life was simpler and we were safer. But that time doesn’t exist. Research tells us that we are actually safer now than we have ever been. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have a problem with guns and mass shootings. We do. It just means that the solution to our problem won’t be found in a falsified past.
Z is for zeroing in and zooming out.
There is endless minutia in the conversations surrounding mass shootings and guns and it would be so easy to get tangled in the weeds forever, going back and forth ad nauseum about mental illness and male entitlement, safety locks and background checks, instead of zeroing in on the things we already agree on. So let’s pause for a moment and zoom out. Take a break and zoom out with me, high above the fray; up, up, up into the sky where we can catch our breath and gaze down together on the rivers ambling through Texas toward the Gulf and the undulating hills blanketing Vermont. Let’s look at the oceans slapping the shores of Oregon and Washington and Florida and Maine. Let’s zoom out so our vision can recalibrate and our resolve solidify. It might be too late for our own kids but if we squint a little we might see a day when our children’s children have come to see lockdown drills and hiding in closets and cowering in bathrooms and underneath pews as they rightly should: a thing of the past.