If you believe there is some grand design to the world that can explain the seemingly inexplicable, then you might believe that the second mass killing in California in just three days would somehow finally cast a new and revealing light on our nation’s tragic affair with gun violence.
There were so many strange similarities — two older Asian-American men, both apparently using semiautomatic handguns, both stopping at two potential killing sites, both with motives still unclear, allegedly opened fire on unsuspecting innocents in what were described as small, largely-immigrant-populated, tightly-knit communities and killed, between them, 18 people.
A nation, we were reminded by grim-faced TV news anchors, was shocked. A state was shocked. The communities were shocked.
But, as we know, there was nothing especially shocking about what happened in California except that the killers didn’t necessarily fit the stereotype of disturbed young men with easy access to deadly, military-style weapons.
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Yes, these killings were different. These were older, disturbed men with easy access to deadly, military-style weapons. And neither required any grand design to go about their deadly business.
Did news of one massacre set off the other? It reads that way, but who can know? Were mental health issues a factor? Maybe so, but there are similar mental health issues in all the countries where these kinds of shootings happen either very rarely or virtually never.
If we had once been trained to think of mass killings as Columbine-like school shootings or racist massacres like those in, say, El Paso or Pittsburgh or Charleston, S.C., we’ve learned — certainly in Colorado — that these shootings take place anywhere and everywhere, for whatever reason and for no apparent reason at all.
A theater, a grocery store, a school, a church, a ballroom dance studio, a plant nursery, an LGBTQ nightclub, nail salons, gang shootings, domestic violence shootings. The list never ends because the killings never end. And the mass killings never end because easy access to guns designed to kill many people in a small amount of time never ends.
If you’re looking for a more stereotypical shooting, there was one that came on the day between the two California mass shootings, this one in Des Moines, Iowa, where two were killed and one wounded, and an 18-year-old with a 9mm pistol and an extended clip was charged. We hardly noticed it.
That shooting didn’t qualify as a mass shooting, of course. Not enough victims. A mass shooting, as defined by the all-too-busy folks at the Gun Violence Archive, requires at least four victims. The Half Moon Bay killing — the second of the two California gun massacres — was listed as the 38th mass shooting of the young year.
Six of those, including the two in California, were defined as mass killings — four or more shot dead. It was the third mass killing in a week in the state. Earlier, in the tiny town of Goshen, not far from Fresno, six people were killed, including a 10-month-old baby, in what is thought to have been a drug-related, execution-style attack.
That we need these definitions to help us understand what is happening before our eyes is disturbing enough. And then there was this:
As California Gov. Gavin Newsom was at a hospital comforting survivors of the first massacre, in Monterey Park, near Los Angeles, he was pulled aside Monday to be told of the second massacre, in Half Moon Bay, near San Francisco.
And so Newsom tweeted, “Tragedy upon tragedy.”
Yes, never-ending tragedy heaped upon tragedy upon tragedy upon tragedy. There have already been 69 deaths from mass killings this year. And, of course, mass shootings account for only a smallish subset of the tens of thousands of Americans who die each year of gun violence.
As one who has been described over the years as a would-be gun grabber, I have to point out that although no one has the exact number, the latest estimates suggest there are something like 390 million guns in America, far more than any other country. Yemen ranks a poor second.
If having more guns made us safer — I’ll just posit that it’s painfully obvious that it doesn’t — we’d be the safest country in the world instead of what we are, which is by far the deadliest nation among our peer societies.
And so I applaud the brave souls in the Colorado legislature who are pushing for a ban on selling so-called assault weapons. The Colorado Sun required an editor’s note to explain why we need to use “so-called” in describing such weapons. That’s because although we know what an assault weapon is meant to look like, there are so many varieties of guns that might qualify. And so in a bill like the one Rep. Andrew Boesenecker, D-Fort Collins, plans to introduce, he has to show a precise list of defining factors.
An early draft of the bill, which was leaked to the far-right Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, would have banned not simply the sale, but also possession of the weapons. The leak led to the expected uproar and, presumably, to a more moderate bill.
With Democrats holding large majorities in both houses of the legislature, the latest draft of the yet-to-be-introduced bill — although a tough vote for many Democrats and a no vote for virtually all Republicans — should still pass, except for one problem. Gov. Jared Polis has yet to sign on, and it’s questionable whether the legislature would take such a hard vote if Polis were to veto the bill.
Even if the bill were to become law, Coloradans could still cross the border to any nearby state to buy the same banned guns and legally bring them home. There’s no solution to banning so-called assault weapons, except a national solution, which isn’t going anywhere, no matter how many mass shootings we have.
There had been a 10-year ban on the purchase of assault weapons, one that had been pushed by then Sen. Joe Biden as part of a now-controversial crime bill. The ban, which covered military-style semiautomatic rifles, expired in 2004. Biden is calling for another such ban, as he has repeatedly as president, citing in this case “mass shootings from Colorado Springs to Monterey Park.”
Yes, he made that call just moments before learning of the Half Moon Bay killings.
The truth is, the issue of gun violence seems to be heading in the exact wrong direction. Following a recent Supreme Court decision upending a longstanding New York state gun-safety law, the Hill reports that judges around the country have ruled unconstitutional laws that would ban guns lacking serial numbers and prohibit bringing guns to, say, an airport. Just wait until those get to the Trump-McConnell Supreme Court.
And it has been pointed out, by both sides of the gun-violence debate, that California has the strictest gun laws in the country. And yet, we’ve seen what happened just this week. But it’s not as simple as that. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a 2020 study, California had the seventh lowest gun mortality rate nationwide. Another study shows Californians are far less likely to be killed in a mass shooting.
It is a crime, I believe, to ever say in Colorado that we should in any way resemble California. And yet, if Rep. Boesenecker and the Colorado legislature can pass more gun-safety laws, including the ban on the sale of assault-style weapons, it just may be a comparison we can live with.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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