Here we go again.
After I heard about Saturday’s shooting in El Paso, I turned to the Internet to wrap my head around the horror of yet another mass shooting in my home state. Such as it is in the immediate aftermath of a shooting, reports from the scene were chaotic and contradictory.
Seeking clarity, I did something I’ve never done before: I looked up videos and images captured by witnesses and survivors of the massacre. Skipping past the “Graphic Content” warnings, I thought I had been thoroughly desensitized by Hollywood spectacle and Breaking News alerts.
I was wrong.
The echoing reverb of multiple gunshots. The screams and yelps of parents and young children. Overturned shopping carts surrounded by pools of blood that looked both too bright and too dark. The raw immediacy of a jostling iPhone camera panning over gore-streaked bodies lying limp and ragged in a Wal-Mart parking lot.
I also read the El Paso shooter’s manifesto, posted online about 20 minutes before he opened fire in the harsh daylight. In the hate-filled screed, he wrote, “This attack is in response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” and, “I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement.”
There is an invasion happening in America. But it has nothing to do with immigrants seeking asylum or overstaying their work visas. The invasion crippling America is an invasion of hate-filled ideologies, and it’s an invasion of cultural apathy regarding gun violence.
I grew up in a part of the country where guns were mostly seen as tools. I shot my first deer before I was ten, and, instead of getting drunk on my 21st birthday, I applied for a license to conceal carry. In college, my church sponsored “skeet-shooting” Sunday afternoons for the men’s ministry.
The shooter in El Paso used a semi-automatic variant of an AK-47, which he purchased legally. The shooter in Dayton used a legally-purchased semi-automatic AM-15 rifle equipped with a 100-round drum magazine, a weapon advertised by its manufacturer as “an orchestra of metal and hellfire” in a fist-pumping promo video.
The Dayton shooter was put down by a cop 20 seconds after he opened fire. During those 20 seconds, he fired 41 bullets and killed 9 people and injured more than 31 others.
These are not tools. They are weapons designed to throw as much lead downrange as possible while scraping under the bare minimum definition of an assault rifle. Recoil-absorbing stocks, barrel-stabilizing foregrips, 30-round magazines, and fire rates of 1 round/sec make for efficient killing devices in target-rich and public environments.
You don’t need these firearms to hunt, and you don’t need these firearms to mow down U.S troops in your dystopian police-state fantasies.
I don’t want to live in a society where I feel as if I have to be armed and “on alert” every time I go to church, a movie theater, a club, or a mall. I don’t want my children (or anyone else’s children) to live in that society, either.
But this is the reality I’m told to accept. To not “be prepared” for a fusillade of 7.62mm rounds to come ripping through the frozen food aisle of my local Wal-Mart is apparently my own damn fault.
But this is the price of “freedom,” I guess? A 2-month-old girl huddled under the bullet-ridden corpse of her mother during a routine shopping run.
Yes, people kill people. But people with guns kill people easily and efficiently. If given a choice, I’d much rather face down a crazed individual armed with a knife (or pistol or shotgun) in a public space than someone armed with a semi-automatic rifle locked and loaded with dozens of armor-piercing bullets.
Other countries have violent video games, declining church attendance, racism, high divorce rates, and people struggling with mental illness. But those countries don’t endure multiple mass shootings per year.
The number of kids killed by guns in the U.S. since 2009 surpasses that of U.S. soldiers killed overseas since 9/11. Of all children (ages 0 -14) killed by firearms in developed countries, 87% are U.S. children. From homicides, suicides, and accidental discharges, more than 38,000 people die per year in the U.S. from gun violence.
We live in a country that idolizes weaponry. An idol promises safety, control, deliverance, and power. An idol promises to rid the world of evil. When something becomes an idol (or addiction) in your life, nothing becomes more crippling or fear-inducing than the thought of its absence.
The thing about idols is that they’re insatiable. They always demand more – more money, more time, more sacrifice. You can never have too much and no cost is too great. We’re drawn to idols because they work – for a little while.
The seductive power of guns is in their ability to be viewed as solutions to the very problems they create. We buy guns to protect ourselves from other people who buy guns. That’s a great religion, and it’s an even better business model.
Our democracy is broken, and we’ve grown numb to body counts and elected officials spewing xenophobic rhetoric. We can’t just put another “Jesus bandaid” on gun violence and hope it’ll get better eventually. If our churches are unable or unwilling to root out the idolatry of guns or the myth of redemptive violence in our own congregations, then we certainly can’t evangelize our way out of this one.
I don’t want your pistols, shotguns, or hunting rifles. I just want to know how much more blood we’re willing to spread across the altar of the Great American Gun in order to justify another white supremacist’s right to purchase a legally-sanctioned harbinger of blasted-out skulls, gaping exit wounds, and corpse-strewn parking lots.
I just need to know how much more of this I need to prepare myself for before we all admit that we’ve had enough.
Addendum: The Power of Words
In a 2016 campaign ad promoted by the Trump campaign on Facebook read, “We have an INVASION! So we’re BUILDING THE WALL to STOP IT. It’s CRITICAL that we STOP THE INVASION.”
A line from the El Paso shooter’s manifesto reads, “This attack is in response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas. I’m simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement replacement brought on by an invasion.”
During the 2016 Presidential election, the Trump campaign promoted over 2,000 Facebooks ads that used the word “invasion” to describe immigration.
In the book of James, the brother of Jesus writes that the tongue is a “small part of the body,” and, yet, like a “small spark” it has the power to ignite a “great forest fire.”
Prior to killing 51 Muslims at a mosque in New Zealand in March, the shooter released a 74-page manifesto in which he praised Donald Trump as a “symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.”
What type of fires are you setting?
What type of fires are you putting out?
The President did not cause the shootings in El Paso and New Zealand. The choice to pull the trigger rests ultimately with the shooter themselves.
But they did not exist in a cultural vacuum.
The conduct and content of our speech have implications that extend far beyond the tips of our tongues. It’s a lesson we impress upon children at a young age, but it’s a standard we seem hesitant to hold our elected officials accountable.
Our cultural lexicon matters.
The rhetoric from our leaders matters.
Fear-mongering and instigating racial division may – unfortunately – earn a candidate a lot of votes. But beyond personal gain, it can normalize a way of talking about people who look, think, and live differently than us that we incorrectly assumed resided only in the darkest corners of our history.
In Dare to Lead, Brene Brown writes,
“In times of uncertainty, it is common for leaders to leverage fear and then weaponize it to their advantage. In the short term it’s relatively easy for leaders to stir up scarcity and promise to deliver more certainty with easy answers and a common enemy to blame. But in the face of complex problems, that certainty is quite literally impossible to fulfill.”
You may love the President and his policies. You may even love his brash take-no-prisoners attitude. I get that, and I understand why people thought they had no choice but to vote for him. Supporting President Trump doesn’t make you a racist or a white supremacist.
But when our President’s talking points start appearing in the manifestos of mass shooters, it’s probably time to start demanding more from the Office of the President.
We deserve better.
And every one of us can do better.