February 4, 2023
On Groundhog Day, 2023 there were 68 reported gun assaults in America with 30 people killed and another 33 injured. The recent mass shootings in California were quickly replaced in the news cycle by mass shootings in North Carolina, Texas, and Florida. And, hey! Is that a Chinese spy balloon? Are they watching us kill each other, too?
Another day, another two mass shootings. According to the data kept by the Gun Violence Archive (gunviolencearchive.org) there are an average of 1.87 school shootings a day in America. Add that to workplace shootings, gang violence, and domestic terrorists shooting up power stations and it’s just hard to keep up. These shootings have become so common, only the most extreme cases rise to the tired rank of “Breaking News.” And when they do, we are more than likely to see it as another passing headline, unless it occurs in our community. Have we become immune to the carnage? Are we no longer shocked by the body counts? Is this just normal life now?
Pioneering sociologist George Simmel, in 1903, defined the “blasé attitude,” a state of absolute boredom and lack of concern caused by life in the metropolis. For Simmel, this was a defense mechanism, an adaptation of our nervous system to the intense stimulation we experience from the explosion of stimuli in modern society, But in 2023, that defense mechanism may be helping to facilitate the death toll from gun violence. What’s the point of trying to prevent today’s mass shooting when there will be two more tomorrow? In reality, our growing immunity to gun violence all but ensures the trend will continue and spread like a contagion. We certainly have seen this dynamic in other epidemics, including AIDS and COVID.
But when people begin to act together those seemingly unstoppable pandemics begin to slow their rate of infection. They didn’t disappear but death rates dropped. In 1995, the peak year of the HIV pandemic, 45,213 Americans died of AIDS. By 2000, that number fell below 20,000 (16,072 deaths) and has declined every year since (7,053 in 2019). Part of what led to the change in our collective response was seeing the victims as disease as “us” and not “them.” When people began to see friends, neighbors, workmates, and family members contracting coronavirus, for example, the masks went on. It was no longer an abstract news story happening somewhere else. Action was required.
The contagion of mass violence has a similar trajectory. You don’t have to tell the parents of Uvalde or the African-America community in Buffalo or Asian-Americans in Monterey Park that action is required. However, to the rest of us, the urgency of another mass casualty event blends into the background noise with all the other pressing issues, and takes a backseat to our own economic, family, and social struggles. Added to this mental malaise is the hyper-vigilance we also experience as fear of our own potential victimization becomes part of that background static. “I’m not really paying attention to the upward trends but I know that I (or the the people I love) could fall victim to the random nature of gun violence.” Paralysis sets in.
So what’s the solution?
We make it personal. The high school students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School organized the March for Our Lives movement after a gunman killed 17 of their classmates in 2018. They realized the school shootings weren’t just news stories, they were a part of a constellation of gun violence in America, not an isolated incident, requiring thoughts and prayers. They organized to highlight the vulnerability of all Americans to this disease of violence.
We need to shift to a state of radical empathy. The hedge against the blasé attitude is to see all gun violence victims, including those killed and injured in today’s 1.87 mass shootings, as members of our community. They are all our family members and action is required.