Whether it is perpetrated by violent extremists, lone gunmen or police officers, gun violence is woven into the fabric of our daily lives. For some more than others certainly, but the sheer volume of gun violence in the U.S. is at unmatched proportions. Yesterday, my own Mayor, Annise Parker of Houston, tweeted the question, “Do you know what to do in an active shooter situation?” and shared a link about how best to try and survive such an incident.
Every single abortion rights activist I know has asked themselves this question, has worried about violence directed against them or their patients. I’ve been evacuated from buildings where reproductive justice meetings were going on because of bomb threats. Every person of color I spoke to about police violence in the wake of Sandra Bland’s death told me that they dared not change lanes while driving without signaling. Some of us live under threat of violence consistently.
This summer, on the evening of June 17, a group of parishioners gathered for worship at the at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. During their evening Bible study, 21 year old Dylan Roof opened fire with a Glock 41 .45-caliber handgun killing 9 worshippers. He was carrying eight magazines holding hollow-point bullets — designed to inflict maximum damage to the bodies they hit.
Dylan Roof had previously been arrested, twice in the months preceding his attack at Emmanuel AME Church. According to FBI Director James Comey, a police report detailing Roof's admission to a narcotics offense should have prevented him from purchasing the weapon used in the shooting, but an administrative error within the National Instant Criminal Background Check System kept Roof's admission (but not the arrest) from appearing on his mandatory background check.
In the days after the attack, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said that she was sure of only one thing, that "we do know that we'll never understand what motivates" people to commit such acts of violence. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, running for president at the time, expressed his understanding of the situation, saying in a statement, “There are bad people in this world who are motivated by hate.”
Just days after the shooting in Charleston, the House Appropriations Committee quietly rejected an amendment that would've allowed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to study the underlying causes of gun violence. Convenient for those elected officials, like Haley and Graham, who maintained a teary ignorance as to why and how someone could do such a thing.
Early Sunday afternoon, November 29, Robert Dear walked into a Colorado Planned Parenthood health and clinic killed 3 people, and wounded 9 others. A man the New York Times initially called a “gentle loner,” albeit one “who occasionally unleashed violent acts towards neighbors and women he knew,” was convicted in 1991 for unlawfully carrying a “long blade knife” and illegal possession of a loaded gun. In 1992, he was arrested for rape. Despite these and other charges, Robert Dear got a gun and used it to kill people.
In the wake of this violence, if the perpetrator is white, there are many questions about his mental health. In the days after Charleston and Colorado Springs the mental state of Roof and Dear were litigated in the media coverage of the violence. In the aftermath of the shooting on Wednesday at in San Bernadino, California in which the perpetrators, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, have been identified as having Middle Eastern heritage, the question raised in the media are about their ties to Islamic fundamentalism and “radicalization.”
As shooting after shooting happens around the country, we must examine our gun control laws -- specifically why it’s so damn easy to get a gun -- whether you are a lone gunman or operating in the legacy of hundreds of acts of violence incited by political rhetoric, such as in the case of the consistent and ongoing targeting of women’s health facilities and abortion providers. On Wednesday, about the same time as the shooting in San Bernadino, another shooting occurred at Clinica Hispana, a women’s health clinic in Houston, Texas.
What are we to make of all this? One important part of the story is the lack of gun control policies in the face of America’s ever-growing gun violence crisis. Another is the tenuous and shifting application of the mental health defense, offered to white perpetrators of mass violence exclusively. These characterizations betray a national consciousness that seeks to rationalize white violence, and criminalize and pathologize the same violence if done by people of color. It elides the violence perpetrated by law enforcement officials who kill and hurt people of color with relative impunity. It stigmatizes those who live with mental illness and have never, nor will ever, harm another soul.
We must also challenge each politician who stands before a podium, shoulders hunched with shaking head and blank eyes, saying they don’t know why people commit these horrific crimes. The truth is we do know. We know some people have proven themselves violent towards others, and they should not have access to guns. We know some hate abortion providers and wish their death, and they should not have access to guns. We know some people are virulently racist, and they should not be able to walk into a store and by a Glock 41. Nobody really needs to buy a Glock 41, actually. While some with records of violent crime, like Robert Dear, are able to buy guns, commit mass shootings and be apprehended alive, Black children like 12 year old Tamir Rice are shot and killed by police for holding a toy gun. The officer who shot Rice then refused to give him first aid.
Some of us walk into stores buy weapons of mass murder, use them to kill, and are apprehended alive. Others of us live under threat of violence consistently.