Weighing the Dead
Children are heavier.
I’m in Massachusetts right now, tending to a gravely ill aunt and to the needs of my extended family. I hadn’t planned to write anything right now, but I can’t get past the news of the day.
Yet another 18-year-old madman with access to high-capacity weapons killed 21 people in Uvalde, Texas yesterday. Two teachers and 19 children are dead. As details emerge about critical errors in the police response, we’re asking questions about courage and our expectations of law enforcement facing a mass shooting.
I have many questions. The Texas legislature passed a law after the Parkland shooting that mandated active shooter policies for school systems. Every certified police officer since 2005 in Texas has active shooter response training. And that training is explicit: find the shooter immediately and stop that person. Do not wait for backup. Step over the bleeding, screaming bodies of children if necessary to get to the shooter, now. That didn’t happen and we are justified asking why not.
But I also think we have more fundamental questions to ask about what the public can and should do in the face of this obscene violence. We have basically given up. America has abandoned reason as a society.
I rarely discuss gun control as a solution because enacting legislation would require a fundamental restructuring of American politics. We have the gun laws we do because, frankly, many Republican voters want to retain the ability to murder their way into power when they lose electoral majorities in the foreseeable future.
About 30 percent of Republican voters agree with this statement: “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” That is not a fringe position within the party; it is enough to deny a Republican political candidate an election when that candidate fails a 2nd Amendment fidelity test.
A gun reform Republican winning an election seems as rare today as a pro-choice Republican. Exactly three Republican US Senators have anything less than an A-rating from the NRA. Gun rights are so tied to Republican politics that America would have to electorally wipe out Republicans at the federal level to successfully reform gun laws.
Columbine-style mass shootings create a different conversation, even though most people are shot dead by “regular” guns in “regular” murders. The US loses about 700 people a year in mass shootings, out of 45,000 gun deaths. We dwell on the spectacular mass murder, while ignoring regular death.
The answer to this violence is obvious: make it harder for people to get a gun. Any gun. All guns. But because this seems politically impossible, leaders are left with workarounds and stop-gap measures and incremental changes and performative outrage. The impotence of these responses only feeds the argument that nothing should be done.
A few weeks ago, Georgia endured a mass shooting that barely made the news, a shooting that occurred about a mile from my house, in the heart of DeKalb County. The victims of that shooting — three dead, three injured — were poor immigrants at Brannon Hill, a condominium complex notorious for violence.
The media view the dead of Brannon Hill as less sympathetic or newsworthy figures when compared to a racially-motivated attack like the one in Buffalo or children sacrificed on the altar of the AR-15 in Uvalde. Scale matters, I concede. Nonetheless, Brannon Hill, America’s 181st mass shooting this year, was a one-day story.
But I live here.
DeKalb Commissioner Ted Terry, a former mayor of Clarkston near Brannon Hill, sharply criticized the county’s response to festering problems at the complex a couple of weeks ago in a county public safety committee hearing. No effort to revitalize the commercial fortunes of neighboring Memorial Drive will be successful as long as Brannon Hill remains a center for crime and blight, he said.
“If I go back and look at years and years — I mean, literally, every year, there's a cleanup. And I’ve expressed frustration as being mayor of Clarkston,” he said. “I have six and a half years of emails going to commissioners … it’s been three [Dekalb County] CEOs now that have said Brannon Hill is a top priority. But it isn't a top priority. Because the issues that are systemic and the holistic approach isn't being addressed. It's simply about blight. And that's not enough.”
Terry and I have spoken often over the years about Brannon Hill. When he was mayor of Clarkston, he proposed annexing the property into the city in order to police it properly. That never happened.
“I haven't seen any public safety strategy,” Terry said at the hearing. “We know that we consistently get calls there. We consistently see murders, rapes and assaults. The community comes to us. … I know we're doing the food distribution and the cleanup the Saturday but that's that's triaging. That's just responding to the crisis. What is the holistic, long term approach to turn this place around?”
Terry’s question elicited a long presentation by the county’s administrative leaders about how hard it is to condemn property at Brannon Hill and how the county would be on the hook for rehousing people there if the community were shut down. DeKalb County tried to buy out a similar complex — Blue Sky condos near East Lake — only to have to abandon the effort and sell its stake to a developer willing to try the same thing.
It’s difficult. But everything is difficult. Accepting a regular death toll is difficult.
“There needs to be extensive federal action/legislation to address all aspects of the issue. Current pursued remedies mainly inspired by mass killings – namely, universal background checks and banning assault weapons – essentially exclude the sources of our city’s gun problems. Illegal handguns, via out of state gun trafficking, are the primary culprits.” These are the words of Katherine Massey, a 72-year-old writer in Buffalo. Massey, a community leader who wrote extensively about gun violence, was much like me in her community.
A white supremacist killed her a few days ago, along with nine others, while she was shopping at the Buffalo equivalent to Big Bear supermarket on Candler Road. Big Bear held a vigil after the Buffalo shooting. It could have been for their own dead. A gunman killed a cashier and wounded two others there last June. Perhaps you remember that.