Worse Than the War

It’s time for a reality check.

More Americans have been murdered in mass shootings over the last month than have been killed on the battlefields of Iraq or Afghanistan this year.

Here are the grisly statistics: 54 innocents dead in nine shootings over the past four weeks. In Iraq, 45 U.S. soldiers have made the ultimate sacrifice in 2009. In Afghanistan, 43 soldiers have been killed since New Year’s Day.

There are the 13 murdered in Binghamton, New York, last Friday—four more than the March death toll in Iraq. There are the 10 killed last month in Samson, Alabama. Eight murdered in a North Carolina nursing home. Six killed in Silicon Valley. Five children murdered by their father in Washington state. Four Oakland police officers cut down. Three Pittsburgh police officers allegedly shot by a drunk white supremacist who believed the Obama administration was coming for his guns. This Tuesday, four family members were found dead at the hand of a fifth in Greenhill, Alabama. And just yesterday, one person was killed and three injured in an assault on a Korean Christian retreat in California.

Some have tied the rise in mass homicides to the deepening economic downturn—sort of a revenge-fueled root-cause theory. Others point to an unhinged copy-cat killing impulse. Clearly, desperation and violence are on the rise. What’s on the decline is our ability to differentiate the violence—the murders get lumped together in a parade of breaking news headlines and then forgotten, assimilating unfiltered into our databanks.

This bloodshed tally of the past month does not include the murder of an Illinois priest preaching at the pulpit on March 8, 2009. It does not include briefly media-fascinated mass murders like the killer who dressed up as Santa Claus this past holiday season, or the July 2008 shooting of two at a Unitarian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, because of its allegedly “gay-friendly” policies.

The point of listing all this pointless violence is not to add fuel to the fire of a cultural-decline debate. Overall, we’ve had it worse in the past—violent crime has been on the decline in America over the past decade and a half. What’s troubling is the way we can’t mass more than a collective shrug after the initial sensational shock. Even after all the solemn promises to never forget, we forget.

This month marks the 10th anniversary of the killings of 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado (in this tally and others I have tried to exclude counting the deceased killers alongside their victims, avoiding what is a depressingly common blurring of the boundary between murderer and murderee). In the intervening decade, 75 more people have been killed in U.S. school shootings, including 32 students at Virginia Tech in 2007.

In the same 10-year period, 623 law-enforcement officers have been shot and killed in the line of duty, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. So what to do about all this? First, let’s drop the partisan kabuki theater, with conservatives petrified that any expression of outrage over gun violence might invite new legislation, and liberals wanting to ignore the existence of the Second Amendment.

We can work toward a centrist cease-fire in this culture war. Fighting gun crime aggressively does not have to be inconsistent with the individual right to bear arms. Even the NRA strongly supports increased mandatory sentencing for gun crimes. We can protect the right of legal, sane, and trained gun-owning citizens while also dramatically ramping up prosecution and zero-tolerance penalties for illegal gun trafficking, possession, and any crime committed with a gun. We may never be able to stop every crazed lone gunman, but we can make it harder for them to get their hands on a gun—all serving the common-ground goal of violent-crime reduction.

The biggest upcoming Washington, D.C., fight on this front will be to see whether Congress moves to reinstate the law enforcement-backed assault-weapons ban that the Bush administration allowed to expire in 2004. Attorney General Eric Holder says it will be a priority; Speaker Nancy Pelosi so far has been gun-shy about taking on the issue. Is there a body-count amount that will cause a shift in her political calculation?

But we the media have a role to play in this reality check as well. Instead of covering each mass-homicide with breathless intensity and then moving on to the next shiny new horror, The Daily Beast is going to keep a running tally of mass gun violence in America. Every time a new shooting spree takes place this year, we will place the death toll alongside the other fallen. Because these murders do not occur in a vacuum and they cannot be understood in isolation. We need to confront reality if we hope to change it.

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