In 1997 in Pearl, Mississippi, a teenager opened fire on his high school classmates, killing two and injuring many more. I watched the news footage from my job at the public television station in Austin, Texas. I’d grown up just a few miles from where the shooting took place. I had cousins in Pearl and I spent time there as a child. The news of the shooting shocked me and it shocked my coworkers. Someone asked, “Where would he get the gun?” I said, “Well, it’s Mississippi. He could get it anywhere.” The same was true of Texas, of course, but Austin wasn’t like the rest of Texas and gun culture was not quite so pervasive then. In the next few years there would be school shootings in Florida, Arkansas, Kentucky and other places, but none seemed so horrible to me as the one in Pearl, Mississippi. I knew Pearl. I thought I understood Pearl.
Then in 1999 I moved to Colorado for a job at a Denver public television station. I lived in an apartment in a suburb called Littleton. In April of that year, two teen shooters opened fire at Columbine High School. I watched the news unfold first on a television in my office and later at a local bar with coworkers. I lived within blocks of Columbine. I ran most days at Clement Park, which was often clogged with teenagers from the high school. Had I ever run past one of the victims? Had I run past the shooters? I thought I knew these kids. I thought I understood them.
Now school shootings happen in elementary schools and middle schools and universities on such a regular basis that we are nearly numb to the news reports. And it isn’t only schools. People open fire at at movie theaters and health clinics and night clubs. In Colorado alone in recent years we’ve seen the Aurora Theater shooting (12 killed), a shooting at two churches in Colorado Springs (four killed), and the shooting at the Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs (three killed). There are others, including the man who shot and killed four people in a pedestrian area in Colorado Springs. That man was shielded from intervention by open carry laws, so reports to 911 went unanswered until after the killing started.
All of these Colorado shootings and the one in Pearl, Mississippi, were carried out by Americans and, specifically, white male Americans. These shootings were not the work of radical Islam nor were they committed by immigrants, illegal or otherwise. The news reporters like to call these “lone wolf” shootings if they are an anomaly, but the sheer numbers defy that label.
Although violent crime rates are as low as they’ve been in 20 years and mass shootings account for a fraction of violent deaths, these are the incidents that make the news. And we’re seeing more of them. Mass murder is generally defined by the FBI as a single incident in which four or more people are killed (the standard is sometimes three or more people killed). Thanks to a comprehensive database and analysis compiled by Mother Jones Magazine (A Guide to Mass Shootings in America), we have good data about when and how and by whom these murders are committed. Here’s an excerpt:
“Since 1982, there have been at least 85 public mass shootings across the country, with the killings unfolding in 34 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii. Forty-eight of these mass shootings have occurred since 2006. Seven of them took place in 2012 alone, including Sandy Hook. A recent analysis of this database by researchers at Harvard University, further corroborated by a recent FBI study, determined that mass shootings have been on the rise.”
One thing this article makes clear is that most of the killers in these sorts of shootings are young white American men. Most of these men bought or acquired their weapons legally. Immigrants—documented or not—simply don’t pose the same threat as do white men under the age of 40. And yet there are no calls to keep young white men off college campuses or out of our workplaces (most mass shootings happen in school or workplace settings), there are no increased restrictions for white men who seek to own guns, or who want to travel from state to state or country to country. If we were to apply logic to the stated desire to protect citizens from terrorism, we would do something to stop the young white American males who are committing so many horrendous acts. But we don’t apply logic. When yet another young white man shoots up a church or an office park or an elementary school, we talk about mental illness and whether anyone could have stopped him. In contrast, when a foreign born person commits a similar act we point to the color of their skin, their country of origin, and their religion. In doing so we demonize an entire group of people who have no more in common with these killers than you or I do with all the young white men who commit the same terrible acts.
The current administration is cracking down on immigrants and trying to find a way to ban Muslims from entering our country. The stated goal is to keep the bad guys out and keep Americans safe. Who could be opposed to keeping Americans safe? Not I. But deporting mothers and children and barring doctors and students won’t make us any safer. There is already extreme vetting in place for refugees seeking asylum. We already deport immigrants with serious criminal records and, in fact, the Obama administration set a record for deportations much to the chagrin of many liberals. A woman in America is more likely to be killed by her husband or ex-husband or boyfriend than she is by a stranger. A child is more likely to be struck by a bullet from a gun in his own home than by a bullet on the street. And terrorist acts of mass killings are more likely to be carried out by white male Americans than by any other group. The bad guys aren’t “out there.” They aren’t sneaking in and hiding among us. The bad guys are already here. They are born here and raised here and taught to shoot here. They buy their guns here and they get their religion here. We are raising up the “bad hombres” all on our own and we don’t need any help from other countries.
If the current administration really wants to make Americans safer, they’ll stop terrorizing people who work hard, pay taxes, and are desperate to create a better life for themselves and for their children. Instead, they’ll focus on the ongoing threat of violence from our fellow Americans. We are in desperate need of strong leadership and sensible solutions to protect us from ourselves.