After Stephen Paddock opened fire at a concert in Las Vegas, killing more than 50 people, politicians fell into a frustratingly predictable pattern of inaction: outraged Democrats called for federal gun control while Republicans offered little more than thoughts and prayers, and a week later, there’s no sign of significant legislative action. If the current trend continues—and there’s little reason to believe it won’t—in the span of a year or two, another mass shooting will surpass Las Vegas as the deadliest mass shooting in recent history, just as Las Vegas surpassed last year’s rampage at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando.
Progress seems untenable so long as our national debate on guns is stuck. But reporter Lois Beckett, who has covered gun violence for five years and writes about covers gun violence, criminal justice, and the far-right for The Guardian, says that we’re having the wrong conversations about gun violence.
“I think the problem with our whole discussion around mass shootings is that actually, it’s defined as a shooting horrible enough that people pay attention to it. And so, everything sort of works backwards from there,” she told Joanna and myself on our latest episode of Big Time Dicks. “Like we’re having a conversation, over and over again, how to solve the rarest kind of violence in America, the kind that everyone gets upset about because it could conceivably be them and ignoring, over and over again, the majority of the victims.”
While there is no official definition for a “mass shooting,” according to the Congressional Research Service, it can be loosely defined as an incident in which four or more people are shot. By this definition, mass shootings happen daily—but most of them are not premeditated murderous rampages on a crowd, like that committed by Paddock. Instead, they are instances of everyday violence, like murder-suicides, instances of domestic violence, or an escalating acts in a series of aggressions. It’s easy to blame obstinate Republicans or the powerful NRA lobby, but the fact that we only have collective conversations about gun violence during mass shootings suggests there’s “something really weird and puritanical about Americans and what kind of empathy they have,” says Beckett. “There’s this real strong emphasis on, ‘Oh, the victims were innocent.’ Like they had to have been strangers, they had to have been just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and then we’ll say, ‘Oh, that could have been me,’ versus like domestic violence, where your partner turns on you and your friends—actually, that could be you, too, but we don’t talk about it like that, we don’t think about it like that.”
If Americans paid more attention to everyday gun violence, we would see that it is “such a local problem, and so much of it is about mayors, and prosecutors, and police,” Beckett says. “It’s about criminal justice reform, it’s about social service work on the ground, it’s about communities deciding for themselves how to become safer.” But to see that, America would have to grapple with its legacy of racism and disenfranchisement of communities of color.
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“If you look at the neighborhoods where [gun violence] is most clustered,” Beckett said, it’s located in areas with high levels of poverty, low levels of education, and high rates of unemployment. “The places where our murder rates are the highest are places where there is intense poverty, and where the police are just not solving murders.”
“So in fact, we don’t have a country in which everyone has equal access to having the murder of someone they love solved,” she said, adding, “these are places that are broken in fundamental ways in the relationship between the people who live there and the state that’s supposed to protect them.”
National debates about gun violence should be happening alongside conversations about police brutality and community policing, Beckett says. “Fears of black Americans and their criminality, lies about black Americans,” she says, “are central to this debate, central to the reason people own guns, central to why people want to protect the police, and they feed into why police are armed.”
“They’re all part of this same cycle in which people are afraid and buy more guns and nothing gets passed,” Beckett said.
“I sit, like lots of reporters, on panels of journalists, and they’re usually older white people having the same conversation about guns that they’ve been having since the ’90s. That’s the politicians who define the discussion, that’s the reporters,” she said. “Let’s get the voices of the people who are most affected, here.”
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