We cannot accept mass murder
Once more the horror. Three mass shootings in California – 11 killed at a ballroom dance hall in Monterey Park, seven killed at Half Moon Bay, and a week earlier, a 16-year-old mother and four others shot in a California farming community – are tragic and grotesquely routine. The savage beating and murder of Tyre Nichols by five Memphis police officers was criminal, and one more incidence of police brutality that too often is unleashed on African American men.
The murders once more trigger demands for reform. The unspeakable shooting of children at Sandy Hook and Parkland led to mass protests, culminating in the March for Life, led by the children themselves. The police murder of George Floyd, one of too many police murders, fed the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, the largest interracial non-violence demonstrations in our history, demanding police reform.
The results feed despair. The killings take place, the demonstrations demand change. Politicians express condolences and promise action. Then the lobbies mobilize to fight against reform. The gun lobby – even with the National Rifle Association scarred by corruption – remains one of the most powerful in Washington and in statehouses across the country. Police unions resist reform and scare off politicians. Reform gets twisted into a partisan issue, with politicians posturing that opponents want to “take your guns away,” or “disarm the police” or side with the criminals against the citizens. The reforms get watered down, the reformers retreat. Real change is blocked. The killing goes on.
Some argue that reform won’t make a difference. Laws cannot erase the violence that a person might carry in his or her heart. But they can make it harder to get access to weapons of mass murder. They can require police reforms that offer training, limit qualified immunity, reorganize forms of policing, and create accountability that changes what is deemed acceptable. As Dr. Martin Luther King taught, “It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless.”
After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy in the summer of 1968, Lyndon Johnson pushed to treat guns like cars, licensing all gun owners and registering all weapons. Laws like that in Great Britain have had dramatic effect. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, that passed the House twice but was torpedoed by Republicans in the Senate, would outlaw racial profiling, restrict use of excessive force, and limit qualified immunity. That would help empower mayors to reform police departments across the country.
When the civil rights movement pushed for equal protection under the law, for voting rights, and for equal access to public accommodations, we knew that changes in the law would not erase the racial hatreds that some carried in their hearts. But we also knew that reform would change actions even if it couldn’t change hearts. And it would empower those who wanted to do right and disarm those who wanted to continue the repression.
We cannot allow ourselves to accept mass murders, gun violence and police misconduct. We cannot allow ourselves to adjust to them or to accommodate them. In the last three years, there have been across America more than 600 mass shootings in which four or more people were injured or killed. That’s nearly two a day on average. An average of nearly 53 people a day are killed by a firearm in the US. Seventy-nine percent of homicides in the U.S. are gun related. That compares to 4 percent in the United Kingdom, or 13 percent in Australia.
A record 1,176 people were killed by police in the U.S. last year, according to Mapping Police Violence. Only 31 percent were involved in an allegedly violent crime. Nearly as many were cases in which either non-violent offenses or no offense at all were alleged. Nearly one-third were in situations where the person was fleeing from police. African Americans were three times as likely as Whites to be killed by police.
There are more guns in America than there are Americans. More die from guns than in any other industrial country. Police brutality turns the law enforcer into the lawless. Yet sensible gun controls and police reform get twisted into partisan posturing.
We can demand better. And we cannot fail to make that demand. Reform may seem impossible. Progress may seem an illusion. But accommodating ourselves to the violence offers no hope. Each horror, each crime, each tragedy must goad us toward greater action. This cannot go on.