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American Carnage

Gun deaths now seem factored-in to the discourse as acceptable losses. In this America, these shootings cannot be stopped.

I have written this piece – the piece after a mass shooting in America – so many times before. Dozens of times, I have stared at this exact blank page, thinking: what can words do in the face of such horror?

December 2012. Sandy Hook. I am in Texas. Listening on my car radio to hear Obama speak after the massacre, I have to pull my car over to the side of the road. “Yesterday morning, a twenty-year-old man in Connecticut woke up, dressed, and stepped out into the cold grey dawn,” I write.

Writing about gun violence in America is starting to feel like being the vegetarian writer-in-residence at a slaughterhouse. On Sunday, America, as Buzzfeed’s Brandon Wall put it on Twitter, went to bed to one nightmare and woke up to another. 20 people were murdered in El Paso, Texas on Saturday afternoon. At least nine more were murdered in Dayton, Ohio, on Sunday morning.

“My prayers go out to the victims of this terrible violence,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tweeted on Sunday morning. McConnell has consistently blocked gun control legislation in the Senate and has described himself as the “grim reaper”

“God bless the people of El Paso Texas. God bless the people of Dayton, Ohio,” President Trump tweeted on Sunday. At a rally back in May, using words the shooter in El Paso would echo in his dreary manifesto, Trump described a migrant “invasion” of the United States. “How do you stop these people?” the president asked the crowd. “Shoot them!” someone shouted. The president laughed. “Only in the panhandle,” he quipped, grinning.

God could not be reached for comment.

February 2015. Isla Vista. “After stabbing his two housemates and another man to death, [the shooter] began the second part of his murderous rampage with a triple vanilla latte from Starbucks,” I write. I used his name in the original piece. I know better now.

In 2012, the year I moved to America, I wrote my first article about gun violence after the massacre at Sandy Hook. There were a total of 33,563 gun deaths in the US that year, a third of them homicides. That number has continued to steadily climb. In 2016, there were 38,658 gun deaths. 

In 2017, the latest year for which the CDC has released complete data, there were 39,773. That’s more than 108 per day. A human being is killed by a bullet in America roughly every thirteen minutes. 

While the sheer horror of mass shootings captures public attention, they are only a small part of the gun death epidemic. If El Paso and Dayton were the only gun deaths, this weekend would actually be a long way below average. But they weren’t. On Saturday alone, on top of the 20 killed in El Paso, the Gun Violence Archive lists 27 more people killed with guns, in Chicago and Baltimore; in Gretna, Louisiana; in Hartford, Connecticut; Denver, Colorado; Fayetteville, North Carolina; Birmingham, Alabama. A lot of this violence happens in poverty-stricken areas, and is barely reported.

On top of that, nearly two-thirds of US gun deaths are the result of suicide. The US firearm suicide rate is ten times that of comparable countries. Research has shown that the single factor of having access to a gun literally triples the risk of suicide.

October 2015. Umpqua. The 994th mass shooting event in three years, depending on how you count it. “Barack Obama put words to the desperation of millions of Americans – and the despair of the rest of the world – after another mass shooting at a school in Oregon on Thursday, the latest of nearly 1,000 since his re-election in 2012. ‘Somehow,’ the president said, ‘this has become routine’,” I write.

After Sandy Hook, president Obama had vice-president Joe Biden lead a taskforce to pass sensible gun control legislation. After Umpqua, he renewed that call to action. But progress was stalled at every turn

A bipartisan amendment proposed in early 2013, after Sandy Hook, by senators Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey to close the so-called “gun show loophole” – which means that firearms can be purchased from private sellers without even the need for identification – was voted down in the Senate 46-54. Five Democrats voted against it. 

After Umpqua, it was brought to the floor again, and defeated again, 47-50.

December 2015. San Bernardino. I am covering the election. “Mass shooting events in America happen at an alarming rate, with roughly one every day. When an attack hits the headlines, like the recent shootings in San Bernardino, California, and Colorado Springs, the prospective Republican candidates for president have a clear playbook,” I write. 

After these events occur, conservatives often blame mental health. “These are the acts of a deranged mind”, they argue; “don’t blame ordinary gun owners for the acts of mad men!” This is, of course, circular reasoning: if you define a shooting as an insane act, then all shooters are by definition insane. 

There is an awful moral turpitude and potentially horrific real-world consequences in stigmatising people with mental illnesses and blaming them for these kind of events. People living with mental health problems are no more statistically likely to be violent than those who aren’t – but they are ten times more likely to be victims of violent crime.

The logical fallacy here is obvious and easily debunked. The majority of mass shooters do not have prior mental health diagnoses. Mental health is, loosely, a global constant – while America is the only country on Earth in which such mass shooting events regularly occur.

Either Americans are a uniquely violent people, or there is a catastrophic structural problem at play.

July 2016. Dallas, Minnesota, and Louisiana. “Two black people are dead, murdered by police in two separate incidents in Louisiana and Minnesota. Five police officers are dead, mown down by at least one and maybe as many as four gunmen on the streets of Dallas, Texas,” I write. “This level of horror is so ubiquitous now, the news cycle so grimly predictable, that it may not have a tangible effect one way or the other on November’s presidential election.”

The right reaches for the comfort of defining mass shootings as de facto acts of madness – asking that the left not “politicise” the tragedy – because it shifts the focus from the two real areas of concern. Those are online radicalisation – which is often, though not always, into the kind of far-right ideologies that the modern Republican party now tolerates and Trump actively encourages in his political base – and the easy availability of weapons.

The latter is the province of the National Rifle Association. What started as a club for sportsmen and hunters has metastasised into a cancer of the American body politic. It is one of the country’s most influential lobby groups, and its sole aim has become to implacably oppose even the most widely-supported, common-sense gun control legislation. 

They even oppose universal background checks, which polling has shown are supported by an overwhelming majority even among NRA members.

In the 1990s, the NRA pressured Congress into passing an amendment practically barring the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) from conducting even basic research into firearms as a health issue, which means that the US lacks the ability to properly understand the firearm epidemic. Obama, in an executive order in 2013, finally lifted that ban – but Congress still refuses to grant the CDC the funds it needs to properly conduct such research.

October 2017. Las Vegas. “On Sunday night in the United States, a gunman opened fire at a music festival in Las Vegas from the 32nd storey of the Mandalay Bay hotel. Details are still hazy in places, but the death toll currently stands at least at 58 people, while a further 515 are injured. The Las Vegas attack is now the deadliest mass shooting in American history,” I write.

Journalists, myself included, have had to learn on-the-fly how to cover these horrific events. Over time a set of best practices have emerged. Don’t report on the content of, and certainly don’t link to, the inevitable dogmatic screeds these shooters leave behind. Don’t trust early reports from the chaos – there is almost never a second shooter. 

Don’t, if you can help it, name the perpetrator. I used to do that in news stories – now I don’t. I’ve spent enough time reporting on the online message-boards where they get radicalised to know that they want us to know their names. Don’t give them the satisfaction.

I have had to read enough of their dismal, self-satisfied manifestos myself, though, to know that there is a clear ideology and identity that many of the perpetrators of mass shootings share. They often come from places like 4chan or 8chan – the latter of which was, indeed, linked to the El Paso shooter this weekend. 

Chan sites like these are dark and febrile communities, whose anonymised and atomised structures create the perfect conditions for radicalisation and the normalisation of violence. Those who are most vulnerable to the toxic ideology of resentment at the core of this culture are young men. They are lonely. Aggrieved at the world. Online, they are helped to find people to blame. Women. Refugees. Gay people. The other. Under Trump, this ideology has been emboldened, empowered, winked-at from the White House. He’s their guy.

When these men wind up on these boards, they think they have found a community of fellow-travelers who encourage them. Maybe they have; often they are just being messed-with by trolls looking for nihilist kicks. In these anonymous spaces, it is often completely impossible to tell the difference. As I wrote in a recent profile of 8chan’s founder, “in evaluating its behaviour, it is probably helpful to think of a chan site not as a collection of individual people but as some kind of many-headed trickster-god; a psychotic consciousness in its own right.” There are no leaders in “chan” culture: it is a hydra. 

It doesn’t matter. The ideology takes root either way.

June 2018. Capitol Gazette. I am at home. “On Thursday afternoon, a man with a shotgun walked into the offices of the Capital Gazette, a local newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, and shot five people dead,” I write. At the end of the piece, I write: “And I will write this story again, and again, and again, and again, and again.”

...And again. And again. 

Back in December 2012, before I wrote this piece for the first of too many times, I parked on the verge of a darkened road in rural Texas and listened to Obama speak on Sandy Hook. His voice cracked with emotion in a way I hadn’t heard before. I didn’t know how often I would hear it since. I stared at the radio. Afterwards, nursing a beer in a near-empty chain restaurant, I wrote that Obama “must now make gun control his legacy.”

Even then, there was already a litany of carnage to draw on to write the piece. “If this very real sense of national anger is not capitalised upon, America will sigh and it will dwindle,” I wrote, “just like after Clackamas, after Oak Creek, after Aurora, after Oikos, after Seal Beach, after Tucson, after Fort Hood, after Binghampton, after Brookfield, after Meridian, after Wedgewood, after Virginia Tech, and after Columbine. The media will briefly obsess over trivial details in the killer’s life story, then wring its hands and agonise about its coverage, and then swiftly forget as the cycle turns.”

“And in six months or a year,” I finished, “another kid with a grievance will pick up another assault rifle, take a breath, and step out into another cold grey dawn.”

On that last point, I was way out in my prediction. It wasn’t six months or a year. It was to be much, much more regular than that: a sickening, rising carnival of carnage and outrage, horror and despair that has this country in its grip and shows no sign of relenting. Obama couldn’t stop it. Trump has no intention of even trying. 

This age will be defined by mass shooting drills just as the Cold War was defined by atom bomb drills. It's just part of what America is, now. Gun deaths seem factored-in to the discourse. Acceptable losses. Regrettable – thoughts and prayers from Mitch McConnell – but no cause for meaningful federal government action. In America, these shootings cannot be stopped, it seems. The NRA is too influential in Congress. The far right is too influential in the White House. People are powerless, and the carnage goes on. 

I have written this piece so many times since 2012. Too many times. There is little more left to say.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.