mass shootings and Broome County and beyond

On May 14, 2022, a shooter from Broome County in the Southern Tier of New York State where I live killed ten and injured three in a Tops Supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, a city about three and a half hours away.

This horrible crime evoked immediate grief and rage. In such circumstances, commentators in the media react quickly, which can result in oversimplification of a complex situation. I heard commentators say that mental health problems are just an excuse used when the shooter is white. That his parents must be monsters. That his town must be filled with racists.

I understand the passion and fury of their reaction but they had not had time to look into the realities on the ground here in Broome County. The shooter did have mental health issues. He had been evaluated at a hospital after making disturbing comments about murder/suicide in an online high school class last year, not long before he graduated. He managed to convince people that he had been joking but we now know that he was not. I don’t know if he was referred for any counseling but mental health services in our area, especially for youth, are not easy to access. Wait lists can be long as there aren’t enough providers to meet the needs of residents, especially with the increased mental strain brought about by the pandemic. New York State does have a red flag law which would have removed weapons from his home but it was not triggered because he wasn’t reported as a threat.

The shooter went to great lengths to hide his activities from his parents. He hid his newly acquired assault weapon in his room. Because ammunition clips of more than ten rounds are banned in New York State, he modified the Bushmaster himself. He told his parents he was going hiking when he was making a reconnaissance trip to Buffalo.

The students at the high school in Conklin mobilized to send messages of support to the victims in Buffalo and to raise money for their needs. While it’s true that less than 1% of residents in town are Black, the students wanted to show that their school is not racist. The “white replacement theory” that the shooter espoused was not something he learned there or in town but from mass media and the internet. This is not to say that there aren’t racists in Conklin, as I’m sure there are, but to show that many people there are anti-racist and working to show that in the wake of the shooting.

That mental illness is part of the story in mass shootings is not confined by race. The mentally ill shooter in the April 12, 2022 New York City subway shooting is a Black man. While the Broome County shooter in Buffalo is white, the shooter from the other Broome County mass shooting was not. On April 3, 2009, a Vietnamese-American man killed thirteen people and wounded four before killing himself inside the American Civic Association in Binghamton. He was known to be mentally ill; his father had begged the state not to allow his son a handgun license. This was before red flag laws in New York, which were not enacted until after the Newtown shooting.

The ACA shooting, though it was among the ten deadliest mass shootings in the US at the time, did not enter the national consciousness like other mass shootings. While there was a brief descent by national media, there was no presidential visit or long-standing news coverage of the aftermath of the families and community, except in limited local sources. I wrote this post on the fifth anniversary, positing that, because most of the victims were immigrants from various countries, the American public failed to relate to the victims as people like themselves. Because it was dismissed from public discourse so quickly, Broome County largely did “move on” from the shooting. As a young child at the time, the eventual shooter from Conklin may not even have heard about the ACA shooting, despite it happening in a bordering city to his town.

I had been mulling all this, preparing to write this post, when the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas happened. Nineteen children and two teachers were killed by an 18-year-old gunman, who also injured others, including his grandmother before he went to the school. He was later shot and killed by police.

The United States suffers mass shootings like this on a regular basis. Political leaders offer thoughts and prayers. Democrats typically call for legislation to reduce gun violence and Republicans typically say it isn’t the right time or that nothing should be done to restrict access to guns or that a proposed legal change would not have helped the situation. The Republicans even say that we need more guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens so that they can stop the bad guys with guns, despite the fact that even trained security officers have trouble stopping a gunman with an assault weapon and body armor. So nothing gets done and the cycle repeats.

Will the juxtaposition of these two horrific shootings, each by an 18-year-old wearing body armor and armed with a military-style assault weapon, change any national policies in order to reduce future mass shootings?

I’m trying to have hope but it’s difficult to maintain.

I believe that national level laws are needed. New York has enacted a number of laws that have reduced gun violence and mass shootings, including red flag laws and limiting the size of gun magazines. Sadly, the shooter in Buffalo evaded those. If the size of magazines was limited throughout the US, though, he would not have been able to modify his gun to shoot more than ten rounds, which would have afforded a better opportunity to stop him when he had to pause to reload.

Besides national red flag laws and limiting the size of magazines, other measures for consideration could be universal background checks for all gun sales, requiring safety courses and licensing to own a gun, increasing the age to buy a gun to 21, and banning the sale of military-style weapons. From 1994-2004, the United States did have a ban on these weapons. The number of mass shootings fell in those years and skyrocketed after the ban expired.

The main reason that opponents of gun safety measures give is the Second Amendment to our Constitution. This is due to a misinterpretation; regulation of arms is permitted as has been shown in the courts many times. In his retirement, Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote, “The very language of the Second Amendment refutes any argument that it was intended to guarantee every citizen an unfettered right to any kind of weapon he or she desires.” Still, most Congressional Republicans and many Republican governors maintain that gun ownership is an absolute right, which keeps them from taking action to reign in gun deaths and injuries.

While mass shootings generate the most public outrage, the sad fact is that the majority of gun deaths occur in smaller incidents. The greatest number of gun deaths are self-inflicted. This fact again shows the intersection of mental health and gun violence. In a country with more guns than people, easy accessibility to guns makes suicide attempts more likely to be lethal.

One of the excuses politicians use is that reform X would not have prevented this specific incident. This misses the point. We need to enact a broad swath of reforms which will still not prevent every death but will prevent many of them.

The sickening thing is that the long delay has enabled more and more deaths and injuries to occur. It was discouraging to look back on my posts on this topic, for example, here and here and here. In 2016, I even had a guest viewpoint printed in our local newspaper. I make the same arguments that many others have made in the media and in the political arena.

And here we are again, in national mourning, waiting for action to address the carnage, this time with the spectacle of the National Rifle Association, the most powerful anti-reform group, holding its convention in Texas just days after the shooting in Uvalde.

Will we finally see national action this time, however slight? Will the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings, added to Newtown, Charleston, Las Vegas, El Paso, etc., etc., and, yes, even Binghamton, finally tip the scales in favor of action by the Republican officeholders who have been preventing protective laws? Or perhaps the belated recognition that they are continually losing constituents to violent crime, domestic violence, shooting accidents, and suicide? Maybe they will begin to suffer the cognitive dissonance of laws that withhold alcohol and tobacco sales until age 21, while allowing 18-year-olds to vote, serve in the military, and buy guns – and that charge even young teens as adults for violent crimes.

Congress is currently in recess. When you come back to Washington, please, do something, however incremental, to make a difference. A first step will lead to others so that the United States can make progress toward the rates that nearly every other Western country has regarding gun violence. We elected you to lead us to “domestic tranquility.”

Our current state of sorrow and rage is its opposite.

more on guns

Being in the United States gives me many more opportunities than I would like to write about guns.

This morning, I have already heard at least three stories involving guns.

First, the New York red flag law finally went into effect over the weekend. This allows for family or other people with knowledge of the situation to go to court to temporarily take away firearm access and block the sale of guns to a person who is a risk to themselves or others. It’s good that this law is finally in operation. When there was a mass shooting in my county in ten years ago, the father of the gunman, knowing his son was unstable, had tried to prevent him from getting a gun license, but there was no mechanism at the time to do it. While New York had passed other gun laws, in particular after the Newtown CT shooting, it didn’t pass a red flag law until this year, which is disappointing in that it might have prevented the shooting here, had it been in effect.

Second, a friend’s birthday is today and she is doing a Facebook fundraiser for Everytown for Gun Safety. This organization works to combat gun violence of all kinds. While mass shootings get the most headlines, many more people in the United States are killed in individual circumstances. Sadly, the largest group of gun deaths is suicides. (The suicide prevention lifeline can be reached at any time at 1-800-273-8255; the website link also offers online chat and other information.)

Third, on CBS This Morning, they are starting an interview series with surviving family members of those killed in mass shootings.  One of the comments made was that life in those cities will never be the same, which may be true for Newfield and Charleston and El Paso. I haven’t found that to be the case for Binghamton, which, other than a memorial near the site of the American Civic Association, seems to be carrying on as before.

I think there are a number of reasons for this. The shooting happened ten years ago, when there was media coverage, but not the weeks of reporting that we see now. Even though it was, at the time, one of the deadliest mass shootings in the United States, it was before presidential visits and massive memorial vigils and services were as common as they are now. Lastly, as I have written about before, most of those who died were immigrants or foreign visitors who had come to a class to improve their English skills, when a deranged immigrant, who was now a US citizen, opened fire. In other mass shootings, the public tends to think that it could have been them at that store or church or movie theater, it could have been their children at that school, but their sense of public safety was not shaken as much by a shooting of mostly immigrants in a private non-profit’s building.

I do think that more and more people in the United States are appalled by the level of gun violence and want to enact more laws that keep guns out of the hands of people who kill or wound others. Congress will be back in session soon. Let your representatives know how you feel about this issue.

Government Gridlock: Theme and Variations

Before the Nov. 4 US elections, there was a lot of speculation about whether or not the Republicans would take a majority of the Senate seats. I thought about weighing in, but didn’t because I realized it wouldn’t really matter. We would just be swapping one flavor of legislative gridlock for another.

A primer of the US system, for those who don’t live in the United States:  Legislation must be passed by the majority of both houses of Congress, The House of Representatives and the Senate. (If each houses passes a different version of a bill, a conference committee drafts a compromise version for approval.) The President can sign the legislation into law or veto it. In the case of a veto, the bill doesn’t become law unless a two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress vote to override the veto. The other important word to know is filibuster. In the Senate, 60 of 100 votes are needed to move a bill forward for a vote. This was originally designed as a way for minority views to be heard and was time-limited by the length of time that Senators could speak, but has morphed into a tool to block any legislation for which there are not 60 votes in favor, even if it has majority support of 51-59 votes.

Congress has been gridlocked for most of President Obama’s time in office. There was a brief period in the beginning of his presidency with a Democratic majority in the House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. This was when the stimulus bill and the Affordable Care Act were passed.  The Republicans had vowed not to support anything the President wanted, but they could not stop legislation, so there was no gridlock then, even though the Republicans were refusing to co-operate in governing.

Within months, due to the death of Senator Kennedy and a special election that went to a Republican, the Democrats lost the ability to break a filibuster in the Senate and the first flavor of gridlock began. Instead of the rare use of the filibuster that had been the case for the 200+ year history of the Senate, the Republicans began filibustering almost every piece of legislation and many nominations for judgeships and executive branch appointees. The Democratic majority House was still passing bills, but the Democratic majority Senate could not get them to the floor because the 41 Republicans kept filibustering.

Next, the Republicans, thanks largely to gerrymandering of Congressional districts within states, took the majority in the House, which began phase two of gridlock, where the House passed dozens of bills that were never going to be taken up in the Senate, like voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act fifty times, while the Senate Republicans filibustered almost everything that was proposed. When there was a rare instance of bipartisanship, such as the Senate passage of comprehensive immigration reform, the Republicans in the House wouldn’t even bring it up for a vote. Meanwhile, the filibuster in the Senate blocked nominations for key posts, so we faced the ebola situation without a surgeon general to lead and co-ordinate the efforts and the debacle with Russia and Ukraine without a US ambassador to Russia.

So, with the electorate already frustrated with gridlock and disgusted that this Congress is about to break the shameful record set by the last Congress for least number of laws passed, we held elections last week. Turnout was 36.3% of eligible voters, the lowest in seventy-two years. In many Congressional districts, including mine, an incumbent was running unopposed. The Republicans will hold a majority in both houses of Congress.

One could hope that the Republicans would now decide to co-operate with the Democrats in governing, as many past Congresses have done when one party had majorities in Congress with a sitting president from the other party.

Unfortunately, such hope is not warranted.

We are just going to move on to the next flavor of gridlock, although this one will probably have a bit more spice to it. Some legislation that the Democrats find particularly objectionable will be filibustered in the Senate. Other legislation may pass by both houses on party-line votes, get vetoed by the president, and then die because there will not be a two-thirds majority to override the veto.

The mystery lies in what happens after that political theater is over. Will the Republicans, having satisfied their base with their initial votes, actually work to craft a bipartisan solution which could pass both houses and be signed by the president?

I wish I could say yes, but recent Republican party history and current rhetoric do not give cause for hope.

%d bloggers like this: