I haven't gotten jaded or cynical about mass shootings — but it's getting harder

Yes, it's frustrating and enraging that nothing has changed. But we created this hell, and we can get out of it

By Brian Karem


Published May 26, 2022 6:30AM (EDT)

Guns Rights (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Guns Rights (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Longtime White House correspondent Brian Karem writes a weekly column for Salon.

I refuse to grow numb.

I refuse to lose my anger.

I refuse to grow complacent even as our government refuses to do anything about the number of mass shootings in this country.

According to CNN, Tuesday's shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, marks at least the 30th shooting at a K-12 school in 2022. Other news services say it's only the 27th.

Mother Jones has compiled an excellent database of the 129 mass shootings since the early 1980s that fit the definition of a "mass shooting." There have been many  more. I covered gang fights in San Antonio in the '80s where three and sometimes more people were killed — but those weren't indiscriminate killings. They were like the St. Valentine's Day massacre: Criminal activity was the primary factor and a certain logic was involved — even if it was terrifying, violent and extreme. I couldn't accept them, especially after seeing some of the dead in their final repose, lifeless and bloody in the street.

RELATED: Texas school shooting: The right responds to massacre by calling for more guns

The first time I remember a "mass shooting" that didn't have anything to do with organized crime or gang violence was the 1984 Dallas nightclub shooting when a patron got pissed off and gunned down six people, including a woman who had brushed him off on the dance floor. He blew her a kiss before he blew her away. 

As the New York Times reported June 30, 1984: 

An unemployed waiter who was rejected by a dance partner at a plush Dallas nightclub ''blew her a kiss'' before fatally shooting her and five other patrons early today, the police said. The suspect, who stopped firing only to reload his 9-millimeter Smith & Wesson, also seriously wounded a seventh person in what the police called the worst mass murder in Dallas history.

I was 23. The shooting was considered an aberration — an anomaly brought about because a man with a diseased mind acted irrationally. There were heartfelt outpourings of "thoughts and prayers" from legislators, celebrities and the general public. But no legislative action was taken. During the last 40 years, the best anyone could do to answer this problem has been that limp offering of "thoughts and prayers." It was heartfelt, perhaps, in the beginning. Today it is an insult to the victims and their families. It is a brush off. It's a refusal to act, hidden behind a faux-act of remorse and concern. It has become a middle finger hoisted to victims' families and anyone who suggests we do anything more to end the violence.

"Legislation? Well, our thoughts and prayers are with the family." Oh, by the way — you still have to pay for the funeral expenses. 

Maybe "thoughts and prayers" were heartfelt once upon a time. Today they're just a middle finger to anyone who suggests we actually do anything.

A mass shooting by a disgruntled former employee at Standard Gravure printing company in my hometown of Louisville in 1989 marked the first time in my life I knew someone involved in a mass shooting. One of the victims was a family member of a friend of mine. By the time I was 30, I had covered my first of many mass shootings — the Luby massacre in Killeen, Texas, in 1991.

As I've grown older, the mass shootings have continued, growing more deadly — if that is possible — and more obtuse. Sometimes they seem to have no motive at all. Sometimes it is racism or misogyny, and sometimes it has to do with someone hating someone else because of their sexual preferences. We are a barbaric, brutish people in this country. We ignore the victims of carnage while remaining intent on defending a person's right to stockpile weapons and use them on the very children we claim we want to protect. 

The shooting in Uvalde, Texas, this week involved school children as young as seven. Nineteen died needlessly. Perhaps one of them would've been a Rembrandt. Maybe one of them was destined to be a football coach who would mentor young kids. Maybe one was destined to be a just and wise politician who would find a way to limit the ownership of guns. We'll never know. The families who survive will never get to see their sons and daughters go on a first date, go to the prom, get married or have children of their own. They will never know the joy of seeing their children grow up. They will only have bitter memories of things that might have been. 

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This is the American tragedy: Thousands of needlessly dead people. Their deaths spread across the last 40 years have not only poisoned the lives of the survivors, but by extension every person in the United States, as the cancerous poison has spread. 

Let that one sink in. In my professional life as a reporter, I've covered a wide variety of deaths. I've covered hundreds if not thousands of murders, from war and riots to crime and accidental killings. The accidents include people firing firearms into the air to celebrate the New Year – with people miles away killed by a bullet that fell back to earth. I've been able to handle these deaths and process them the way most cops and cop reporters do — with a dark sense of humor, and sometimes by imbibing copious amounts of alcohol. But it has never numbed me.

The youngest victim of a shooting I ever covered was a 14-month-old being walked by her mother in a stroller on a San Antonio street. She was killed from a wayward shot fired by two nearby battling street gangs. The image haunts me to this day.

Many have abandoned hope that this country will ever do anything about gun violence. But if we got ourselves into this hell, we damn sure can get ourselves out.

It is the epidemic of gun violence in this country, the steady rain of unwarranted death that has led to a flood of fear and anguish — that's what overwhelms me at times. Wiser people than myself have said that hell is the absence of hope. There are many who've abandoned hope that this country will ever do anything about our peculiar hobby of indiscriminately shooting each other out of bitterness or for sport. That only means we live in a hell of our own construction. And if we got ourselves here, we damn sure can get ourselves out. There's nothing wrong with America that can't be fixed with what's right with America. Remember that pithy political aphorism?

During the Clinton administration, the Senate narrowly approved an assault weapons ban that went away 10 years later, due to a sunset provision. There is some evidence that mass shootings may have diminished during those 10 years, but the ban was mostly symbolic and had little effect on gun violence in this country — especially after the law ceased to exist. Today, gun enthusiasts act as if the assault weapons ban was a nightmare. They still defend the need to go deer hunting with an automatic rifle — I guess just in case Bambi is walking through the forest armed for battle.

We have descended into a circle of hell populated by political candidates who actively promote Jesus and gun ownership in the same breath. Kandiss Taylor, a gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, literally had "Jesus, Guns, Babies" as a campaign slogan this year. Members of Congress like Lauren Boebert proudly sponsor commercials and photos promoting gun ownership and distribution.

The implied logic of the gun lobby is that if everyone is armed, everyone will be safer. I've never felt safer in an environment with lots of guns. Those are called war zones.

Some, like the moron Sean Hannity, have called for surrounding schools with militia members and retired military. Some advocate arming teachers. This would amount to escalating the violence. The implied logic, according to a gun lobbyist I spoke with, is that if everyone is armed, then everyone will be safer. I've never felt safer in an environment with lots of guns. Those are known as war zones.

Today, the entire United States of America is a war zone. It has been one for most of my adult life.

The people who continue to defend the unfettered right to own and use firearms are barbaric, moronic and twisted. Some have been twisted by the gun lobbyists — particularly our elected representatives. Some are incapable of imagining a world that isn't the Wild West. No manner of shooting, no matter how horrific, will make them change their mind. Members of Congress were shot, and some of those shooting victims still oppose gun control.

President Biden took a slow walk off Marine One on the South Lawn on Tuesday after his trip overseas and faced the latest tragedy. He walked into the White House and addressed the violence as bluntly as any man could. "As a nation we have to ask, when in God's name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby? When in God's name will we do what we all know in our gut needs to be done?"

This president, like every other president, cannot wave a magic wand and make gun violence go away. We cannot just blame the gun lobby. We cannot just question the mental health of the shooters and we have to quit merely offering "thoughts and prayers" in a futile and useless gesture that only serves as a prologue to the next round of gun violence — which could occur before you finish reading this story.

Ultimately this boils down to us. If we continue to vote crap into office, it is crap we will get back. Garbage in, garbage out. Those who put their personal interests ahead of the interests of the nation are not only unsympathetic narcissists, but they lack the empathy a human being needs in order to serve and represent others.

You know who you are. We know who you are. And voting you out of office is the Christian thing to do.

Biden tried to shame opponents of gun control in his speech from the White House Tuesday. "We have to make it clear to every elected official in this country. It's time to act. It's time for those who obstruct or delay or block the common-sense gun laws, we have to let you know we will not forget. We can do so much more. We have to do more."

Yes. But that is just a start. Shame doesn't work on the shameless.

Mental health and education are part of the puzzle. But for now, let's take the first step: Get rid of the goddamn guns.

Remember, the 18-year-old shooter in Uvalde bought two rifles just two days before he killed 19 children and a teacher.

In what circle of Dante's hell is that acceptable?

Read more on the latest wave of gun tragedies:

By Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East and is the author of seven books. His latest is "Free the Press."

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