It should not be normal to know that every time you go to the grocery store or your local coffee shop, somebody could gun you down and kill you, or that you could find yourself running and hiding from a mass shooting attack. It is not something that people in most countries in the world experience, or that anybody should experience. Yet when you hear from Americans who have survived mass shootings, there are a lot of reflections like, “I always knew in the back of my mind that something like this would happen to me one day.”
“It’s been in my head that something like this could happen,” Logan Smith, who was working in the Starbucks kiosk at King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, CO, when a man murdered 10 people on Monday, told the TODAY show on Tuesday morning. He explained that there had been other times his and his coworkers’ lives had been threatened, though they were “not as severe.” During the shooting, Smith helped a coworker hide behind some trash cans, and tried to find cover himself. He said two of his coworkers were killed in the shooting, and that he still hasn’t heard back from a third. “It’s harder even than it was yesterday, just thinking about the friends that I’ve lost.”
The U.S. is the only country in the world where mass shootings like the ones in Boulder and Atlanta, where a young white man killed eight people across three Asian-owned spas last Tuesday, are a regular occurrence. Depending on one’s definition of a mass shooting, there are between a dozen to hundreds of mass shootings in the U.S. each year. On top of these deadly events, there are many more far less publicized, entirely preventable gun deaths. According to Giffords, 38,000 Americans die from gun violence every year, which is approximately 100 a day: 61% are suicides and 36% are homicides. This crisis is happening because we have some of the weakest gun laws and the most firearms in the world — and we also have shameless politicians who line their pockets with NRA cash and refuse to do anything about it.
Back in November 2020, comedian Dave Chappelle joked on Saturday Night Live that COVID had at least one silver lining. “Do you guys remember what life was like before COVID?” he asked the studio audience. “It was a mass shooting every week. … Thank god for COVID. Something had to lock these murderous whites up, keep them in the house.” Mass shooters are overwhelmingly young white men, which has started a number of necessary conversations about white supremacy and toxic masculinity.
And Chappelle had a point: Mass shootings in public places had become less frequent during the pandemic, as more businesses and schools were closed. Before last Tuesday’s attacks in Atlanta, there had been no similar killings since March 2020, according to the Violence Project. That is not to say that violence decreased: The early months of the pandemic saw an unprecedented spike in gun purchases, and there has been a sharp increase in homicides and a domestic violence epidemic. Still, the wave of public attacks, ensuing in mass grief and outrage and calls for gun reform, only to be met with “thoughts and prayers” from politicians, receded. “There had been a hope that maybe we broke the cycle and maybe we won’t return,” Jillian Peterson, PhD, a criminal justice professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN, and cofounder of the Violence Project, told The New York Times. “Now that it’s back, a number of scholars are really concerned.”
As more people continue to receive vaccinations against COVID-19 and states begin to relax restrictions, many are eager to get back to a semblance of pre-pandemic “normal”: for their children to go back to in-person school, to have large parties, to not fear catching a deadly virus at the grocery store.
The desire to feel free and not live in fear is not only universal, but very understandable. We feel nostalgic for aspects of our past lives before this major upheaval, even though the circumstances of those lives were flawed. But amid the attempt to return to “normal,” it has become apparent that “normal” has never meant safe or free. It means weekly mass shootings at grocery stores. It has become exhausting to point out that it doesn’t have to be this way. Just a few days before 10 people were senselessly killed at King Soopers, a Colorado judge ruled that Colorado cities and counties are barred from adopting their own local firearm restrictions, which means Boulder was blocked from enforcing its assault-weapons ban, on the books since the Parkland, FL, high school shooting in 2018. The gunman on Monday carried an AR-15-style firearm that could have potentially been included in the ban.
Most Americans, including many Republicans and NRA members, support sensible gun restrictions such as universal background checks, a federal database to track gun sales, and bans on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines. Yet our homicide rates are stratospherically high compared to those of other countries. The reasons range from an out-of-control gun lobby to a near-cultish adherence to (and misinterpretation of) the Second Amendment to negligence among NRA-paid politicians. But there’s one common-sense solution: Pass legislation that will prevent this violence from happening. It's worked in other countries, and it can work here.
There are many aspects of pre-pandemic life that we considered normal and should be anything but, and the pandemic's consequences have revealed cracks in our society that were already deep, from income inequality to racism to misogyny. The frequency of mass shootings is yet another one: The fact that we consider them normal is the sign of a deeply sick country and society. I’m crossing my fingers that we’re going to envision a “new” normal from now on, but I’m not holding my breath.