We Are Broken
There is no simple or easy way to stop mass shootings. But we still have a responsibility to try.
Thursday was going to be the last day of class at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
I can still remember what that time of year felt like as a kid. The anxiety for the week to end so summer could start. The week where nobody did any real work, where the teachers were suddenly happy no matter what. A shrill excitement permeated every conversation, school projects were somehow unambiguously fun, the weather for recess was always perfect, and the air conditioners (if you were lucky) would be blasting inside when recess was over—the kids tumbling in, sweaty and dirty and covered in stories to share with friends. All the talk was about the pool, the beach, camp, vacation, all the video games you were going to play and ice cream you were going to eat, and the fun you were going to have.
Instead of that summer bliss, on Tuesday, the kids at Robb Elementary were exposed to something else. Something much worse. Some horrifying thing at the intersection of everything we do wrong as a society here in the United States. Some manifestation of our brokenness.
An 18-year-old walked into the school and—well, forget it. You know the story. He was a young man. He had multiple guns. He opened fire. Law enforcement came, or they were there but they didn't react quickly enough, or they couldn't stop him.
Parents were sent to a civic center as the "reunification point" to find their kids. They sat outside in little groups as police, doctors, and school officials tried to help them locate their children. Because of the nature of the crime, the weapons involved, and the size of the victims, identification was not easy. Reporters witnessed "audible screams" and eruptions of sobs as DNA matches and descriptions of children were confirmed. At this very moment, we know for sure that 19 children are dead. Nineteen.
Elementary school kids. Babies. Two adults, too, both teachers. We're just a few days out from the shooting, so the "motives" are still unclear. On the surface, it appears different from the Buffalo shooting, which was a crime of racial animosity. This was a Hispanic teenager, in a predominantly Hispanic town in Texas, killing mostly Hispanic elementary school students. Unlike the Buffalo shooter, he did not survive; details are still unfolding, but it appears that he was killed by a Border Patrol agent who responded to the shooting and—thankfully—entered the school without waiting for backup. Somehow the horror could have been worse, if such a thing can even be comprehended.
In this moment of madness, I saw two reactions to the news that struck me as wholly true. The first was from conservative columnist Noam Blum, who said pointedly and concisely that "Nothing is monocausal. There are just parts of our society that are unfathomably broken and they occasionally intersect in unspeakably awful and evil ways." The other is from The Onion, the satirical website whose famous headline was rightly being shared again yesterday: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”
I subscribe to both of these ideas even though they seem contradictory. First, we should all begin with the understanding that fixing only one thing will not fix the problem of mass shootings and gun violence in America. Second, we should recognize that the regularity of gun violence—especially mass shootings—is unique to our country.
In the U.S., there have already been 213 mass shootings—defined as an incident where four or more people are shot—this year alone. There have already been 27 school shootings where at least one person was injured or killed. And things seem to be headed in the wrong direction. There were 417 mass shootings in 2019, 611 in 2020, and 693 in 2021—nearly two a day. At our current pace, we'll have far more this year than we did in 2019, but fewer than we did in 2021. We typically expect more violence in the summer, though, so the next few months are likely to be worse.
Mass shootings in America account for around one percent of all gun deaths in our country. Over half of all gun deaths in the U.S. are suicides, and most gun violence in the U.S. is committed with handguns. I'd like to reject from the outset, however, the notion that these mass shootings are somehow less damaging or less important because they kill fewer than one percent of all the people who die in gun violence. This way of thinking disregards the ripple effect of these tragedies.
Mass shootings have an impact on the psyche of our society writ large that a lot of other gun violence does not. They are, in simple terms, very effective acts of terrorism. They terrorize. When you report on these shootings, something quickly becomes very obvious: They don't just irreparably damage the lives of the family and friends who lose someone in the shooting; they also traumatize witnesses, law enforcement officers who respond, the doctors and nurses who care for the injured, and the community as a whole. And that trauma spreads like a wave outward.
I was 13 the first time I ever shot a gun. I was, coincidentally, in Texas. When they are handled responsibly, moments like this are burned into your memory like a first kiss or a first beer or the first time you drive a car by yourself. My cousin had taken out a .22 rifle and I sat quietly as I watched him load it. We were sitting atop a hill on his 10-acre tract of land staring down at a set of hanging spoons about 35 yards away.
Before he taught me to aim and shoot, he taught me to always keep the gun pointed at the ground, under all circumstances, whether I thought it was loaded or not, and no matter how many times I had checked. He taught me to hold it safely with my finger inches away from the trigger, and he made it as clear as humanly possible that if I ever went near it without him around, the repercussions would be on an order of magnitude worse than any momentary fun I might have without him.
There was a reverence in the moment. A solemn rite of passage that accompanied this chance to learn to shoot. It wasn't about letting me run wild or flexing my manhood; it was a test of my responsibility, of my maturity. How would I react? How would I comport myself? Was I old and mature enough to handle something that could take a life?
I do not know what our gun culture is now, but it isn't that. It isn't what I knew growing up: a world where you often didn't know if a gun owner was actually a gun owner because they had no interest in advertising it to you. It is unrecognizable to me now. Today we have politicians who take armed family photos in front of Christmas trees.
On Wednesday, self-described "disaffected liberal" Tim Pool tweeted, "I'm going to buy more guns today." I don't know if Tim is trying to be funny, provocative, or really believes that owning more guns will make him safer. But I do know this: The attitude represented in that tweet, even if it is meant to be a joke, is far too common.
There is so much more bragging, flaunting, and intentionally provocative behavior around gun ownership today than I remember. Something that, in the most toxic way possible, associates gun ownership with a false sense of strength, power, and liberty. If guns make us feel free and strong, then any restriction on the sale, distribution, or ownership of those guns makes us feel less free and less strong. So the obvious answer is to resist all restrictions on guns.
Americans make up about 4.4% of the global population, but we own 42% of the world's guns. As of 2018, we had more guns (398 million) than people (326 million) in the United States. In the last four years, gun ownership and manufacturing has continued to skyrocket. This summer, the Supreme Court appears poised to further loosen gun restrictions in New York and across the country, making it harder for legislators to limit when and where someone can carry a concealed handgun in public. In short: Our society in the U.S. is already flooded with guns, and you can expect sales, ownership, and public prevalence to increase in the coming years.
In Texas specifically, gun laws have recently become much less restrictive. In September, the Unlicensed Carry Law went into place, so anyone 21 or older could carry a handgun without a permit or training in most places (some private businesses, schools, and colleges still require permits).
That does not mean these laws allowed this shooting to happen. Details are still emerging, but it is quite clear that laws were broken left and right. You cannot carry a gun onto school grounds in Texas or into a school zone (usually about 1,000 feet around a school). You cannot carry a handgun in Texas when you are under 21, as the alleged shooter was.
More fundamental than any specific law or regulation, though, is that in our country, it is very easy to buy and own guns. Waiting periods are rare, even though we know they reduce handgun deaths. Red flag laws exist but are mostly inadequate or ineffectively enforced (see Buffalo, and Uvalde). You do not need to pass a test like you do to legally drive a car. In most states, under most circumstances, buying a gun requires identification, cash, and a background check (though our background check system, and expanding it, has had very mixed results). Simply put: We regulate the right to own firearms a lot less than we regulate other weighty responsibilities in our society. The fact that nearly 400 million guns exist in the U.S., and our corresponding rates of gun violence and mass shootings, cannot simply be treated as if they are unrelated.
So what should we do?
First, on an interpersonal level, we all need to have our eyes and ears open for gun violence. This includes everything from suicides to homicides to mass shootings. The Buffalo shooter announced his plan to an entire classroom. The Texas shooter reportedly posted his guns and a threat on Instagram before his violent act. There are almost always signs, and in retrospect, they are often quite obvious. Your friends and your family are your responsibility; as a society, we need to care for each other and ensure that the people we know and love do not become so isolated, lonely, and angry that they will commit an act of violence like this.
Second, when we do take these actions, we need a more engaged law enforcement response. We need clear protocols for what local police and the FBI should do—and we need to make those protocols strict. Far too often, in case after case, we learn that the interpersonal box was checked, that someone did try to get an eventual shooter help, did flag law enforcement, did what they were supposed to—but the institutions failed.
Third, we need to better enforce the laws we have and better utilize the resources that already exist. Federal law on background checks, for example, theoretically prevents anybody who has been convicted of a crime, committed to a mental institution, received a dishonorable discharge, or has a record of drug addiction from buying a gun with ease. But the system is riddled with flaws.
The background check requirement only applies to licensed sellers, and about 13% of gun sales come from unlicensed small-scale sellers like hobbyists or pawn shop owners who are not required to have a license. Furthermore, local police, the military, federal and state courts, hospitals, and treatment providers regularly fail to send criminal or mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System when they are supposed to. These failures mean licensed gun dealers regularly run a clean background check on someone who should be caught by the system. Additionally, we do almost nothing about the people who lie on background check forms. It’s common knowledge among gun control advocates, the NRA, and criminals that lying on a background check form is a very low-risk activity. There were 112,000 "lie-and-try" crimes in 2017 alone. Only twelve of them were prosecuted.
Finally, we should create more friction in the process of buying and owning a firearm. Gun ownership should be more like driving a car—requiring both training and licensing. We don't allow a 15-year-old to get inside a car and drive without training or a supervisor because we know a car is dangerous, and that the teenager could kill someone or themselves. We also know that people are not born with the ability to drive, so we teach them. This exact same logic applies to guns. Mandatory training is a great way to know that people understand the machines they are operating and are responsible enough to use them safely—reducing the odds that they will accidentally (or intentionally) kill people. Furthermore, a licensing structure similar to that of automobiles would be familiar and would not eliminate the Second Amendment right to gun ownership. The evidence is strong, too, that licensing systems help prevent gun violence and mass shootings rather well.
Is this plan foolproof? Of course not. Car accidents are still very common, and sometimes people even use their cars as weapons. But that doesn't mean it wouldn't help. Research and common sense say it would. The least we could do as a collective society is try it. The least our legislators could do is have an honest debate about it.
Ultimately, my most fervent wish is that this moment ends differently than all the others. It is that this shooting, and gun violence more generally, cease to be as predictable as the sun rising and setting. And that maybe this time we can be shocked into action, into change, into a collective will to better look out for each other and a collective movement to shore up our laws and follow the research.
This is not about one issue, and this is not a problem that we simply have no control over. The least we can do—for the kids of Uvalde, the shoppers in Buffalo, and all the victims before them—is have some hope and join together in refusing to accept this as normal. I know we are broken, but I hope we are not so broken that we can’t do that.
Isaac Saul is a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, one of the most politically divided places in America. He is the founder of Tangle, a newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from the right and left on the news of the day. You can sign up for free here.