When it comes to gun violence, American-style apathy is not the answer

by Paul Constant

Illustration by Nigel Hood

I’ve gotta tell you, Canada, I’m feeling pretty rotten these days. I live in Seattle, and a couple weeks back a man opened fire on three students at Seattle Pacific University. One died. A heroic student monitor tackled the shooter as he reloaded, averting a potential sky-high body count. It’s come to this: in the United States, when a spree killer doesn’t own a gun capable of firing hundreds of bullets at once, we consider ourselves lucky. Some of us thank God. We understand it could’ve been much worse.

The SPU shooting came a little over a week after the shootings in Isla Vista, California, where a 22-year-old who loathed women for not having sex with him killed six and wounded 13. There was another shooting at an Oregon school that same week. School is letting out for summer vacation all over the U.S. right now, so we’re consoling ourselves with the thought that we’re looking at two solid months with a very low likelihood of another school shooting. It’ll start all over again in September, but so what? As you can probably tell from our environmental laws, we’re bad at taking the long view down here, anyway.

Because mass murder in the U.S. always arrives wreathed in statistics like a professional sport, CNN reported we’ve seen 73 school shootings since the ghastly Newtown massacre in December 2012. A few days later, CNN corrected itself, claiming there have been 15 school shootings since Newtown. Where’d the other 58 shootings go? CNN deemed them unofficial because they “included personal arguments, accidents and alleged gang activities and drug deals,” rather than garden-variety madmen. Because those other wounded and dead students don’t count as victims of gun violence if their shooter had an understandable motive. Because gun death somehow doesn’t count if it’s an accident.

We’re picky about what does and does not count as gun violence in the U.S. A week before the SPU shooting, Dwone Anderson-Young and Ahmed Said were gunned down in Seattle’s Central District. Unlike the incident at SPU or in Oregon or even the one in California, the story of Anderson-Young and Said’s murder didn’t dominate Seattle media’s spotlight. When people of color die by gunfire, it’s not front-page news. In America, when a white man with a gun demands our attention, we stop everything and give it to him. We pay attention to people murdered by the dozen, but when, say, 40 people — many non-white — are shot in separate incidents in Chicago over Easter weekend, we mumble a bit, try not to make eye contact, and quickly change the subject.

Satirical news site The Onion published a story right after the Isla Vista killings with the headline “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” It was a jagged truth that cut so sharply it left a bolt of exposed bone; people shared it on social networks and e-mailed it to each other. I saw the headline circulate again on Facebook and Twitter after the SPU shooting, and the shooting in Oregon. I’ll see it after every massacre from now on. It’ll get pulled out and dusted off like Christmas decorations every time, because that’s what we do here. That’s who we are. We like our outrage to be eminently shareable. We’re professional finger-waggers who share and post and link to stories about bad behavior, feel a momentary mixture of adrenaline and oxytocin slither across the tops of our brains, and then, having done our part by pushing an imaginary button on a screen, we move on to the next outrage, ready to quiver in our office chairs with anger and the particular thrill that comes when your worst, most noxious suspicions about humanity are proven to be  true. It’s the illusion of activism without any of the results.

I’m not blaming the Internet for making our delusional inactivity worse, but it sure has made it easier to observe.

I know you’re still reeling from the June 4 Moncton shootings, and maybe an American offering sympathy and support to Canadians on the issue of gun violence feels like a drug dealer showing up at the funeral of a teenaged customer who overdosed. But I also know that we share the same frustrations. After all, your Conservative government scrapped the firearm registry that was established after a Canadian man, possessed by the same hatred and misogyny as our Isla Vista shooter, murdered 14 women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique. I also read the Canadian Sport Shooting Association’s claims that Moncton was primarily a mental health issue and not a gun issue, and to me that sounds like the kind of bullshit, equivocating faux-conversations that happen in the U.S. after every gun massacre. Of course governments should help care for people with mental health problems. But governments should protect us from guns, too.

We argue about guns all the time in America, but the truth is we all know what we have to do to stop this. We know the gun control laws implemented in Australia and the UK after their horrific mass shootings saved lives and greatly reduced gun violence. More than eight out of 10 Americans want stricter background checks for gun buyers. About half of us want much stricter gun control. And we all know what’s keeping us from passing those laws. The National Rifle Association, funded by the lucrative firearm manufacturing industry, pours millions of dollars into politics. Our politicians have been bribed into inaction.

Because money is free speech in the United States. As in, officially. Our Supreme Court has ruled that money should be protected under free speech laws, allowing corporations — which our Supreme Court ruled count as people, remember — to smother the political system in billions of dollars. Nobody even bothers to hide it anymore. Our government is about to destroy net neutrality, allowing telecom corporations to control the speed at which certain websites load, giving wealthy media conglomerates a louder voice online than independent sites. And like gun violence, everyone knows it’s wrong, but nobody is doing anything about it.

Intellectually, I understand normal citizens can bring about change — you can draw a direct line, for example, from the populist Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 to a discussion on income inequality culminating in the election of socialist Kshama Sawant to Seattle’s City Council and our recent city-wide adoption of a $15-an-hour minimum wage. We decriminalized pot in Seattle, which will hopefully save a whole generation of young people from imprisonment in our overcrowded jails on trumped-up drug charges. After a long fight with some loud and especially moronic Christians, gay marriage is quickly becoming the norm all over the U.S.

But I don’t think meaningful change is happening fast enough to repair the invasive rot chewing the foundation of our nation into so many soggy toothpicks.

You celebrate your nation’s birthday on July 1. I hope you’ll take the time to appreciate the qualities that many of us to the south envy about Canada — your health care; your gun laws which, even diminished as they are, remain a thousand times better than ours; your somewhat responsible media.

These words are being published ahead of July 4th, our Independence Day. The United States will be 238 years old. A little more than two years from now, we’ll be electing a new president. Popular thinking suggests the two candidates will be former First Lady/New York Senator/Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush’s supposedly smarter brother, Jeb. There was either a Clinton or a Bush in a major position of executive power in this country from 1980 through 2012.

This is America. Our imaginations are withering and our children are dying in pools of blood. And we won’t change, because we simply can’t be bothered to put forth that kind of effort.

Paul Constant is an editor at Seattle’s Pulitzer Prize-winning alternative weekly newspaper The Stranger. Cheer him up with some kind Saskatchewan words at www.prairiedogmag.com.