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.

again and again and again

I didn’t want to write about mass shootings in the United States today. I’ve written way too many posts about this in the past, most recently about the Atlanta-area shootings last week.

But here we are again, mourning the deaths of ten people, including a responding police officer, at a Boulder, Colorado supermarket. A suspect is in custody, but it is early in the investigation so many details are not yet public.

It is likely that this will become the third Colorado mass shooting to lodge in the nation’s consciousness along with the high school in Columbine and the movie theater in Aurora.

The list of mass shootings in the United States is so long that only some of them are invoked as a litany. I live near Binghamton, New York, which suffered a 2009 mass shooting at the American Civic Association. This post that I wrote for the fifth anniversary of that shooting explains why I think Binghamton is not part of that litany.

There has long been a majority of the public in favor of taking measures nationally to curb gun violence. Some of the proposals are universal background checks to purchase firearms, limits on size of ammunition clips, banning of military-style assault weapons, and requiring gun licensing. At this point, each state has its own laws with some allowing municipalities to enact stricter regulations and others not.

There are also proposals to better diagnose and treat mental health issues. Some mass shooters, such as the one in Binghamton, suffer from mental illness. The biggest potential reduction in deaths from firearms related to mental health would be from self-inflicted shootings. In the United States, suicides account for the largest percentage of gun deaths every year. (For help with issues about suicide in the United States, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ .)

What compounds the recent tragedies in Atlanta and Boulder, though, is that there will be sadness, outrage, prayers, vigils, fundraisers, and hopes that this will be the time when Congress finally takes action – and they won’t. Again.

And then, inevitably, there will be another mass shooting which gets attention and hundreds of other murders and thousands of suicides which won’t.

And the cycle will repeat.

Mourning

As anyone who has dealt with it will tell you, mourning is a process.

Likely, a lifelong process that has different impacts over time.

As this TED talk explains, grief is not something you move on from, but something that you move forward with.

It’s been a bit over three months since my mom’s death. Much of that time has been busy, with a lot of things that needed my attention, although I have often felt that my brain was full of holes and I wasn’t thinking clearly.

I kept hoping that I could clear out some mental space and feel that I could organize my thoughts better – and maybe even feel a bit creative, which is important as I have some poetry commitments coming up.

Instead, I’m just feeling overwhelmed and sad. I don’t feel like thinking or deciding things. I can make myself do important things, but it is difficult to feel I am doing them well.

I’ve been talking with some wise friends who have helped me to realize that where I am now is not unusual.

Or permanent.

That mourning is personal and unpredictable and meanders through the terrain of life as it will with no apparent timeframe.

I think I have cried more in the past week than any week since Mom died. I know that is okay, even though it seems sort of backwards.

I am blessed with family and friends to help me while I am in this frame of mind and am trying to muster the energy to ask for help when I need it, although even that can be difficult when organized thought feels like so much work.

But I’m okay. Really. Please don’t worry about me.

It’s just grief.

another sad day in the US

I will probably get back to post about Slovenia later today, but right now, all I can think about is the horrible juxtaposition of the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. So many dead. So many wounded. So many times we in the United States turn on our televisions to have them filled with police officers behind crime tape and press conferences with politicians and police chiefs updating the death toll and the condition of the wounded and what we know about the perpetrator.

Each new iteration feels like a surreal retelling of the same story. Different details. Same shock, grief, and bewilderment.

People ask, “How could it happen here?” It can happen anywhere in the United States. A school. A church. A store. A nightclub. A workplace. A movie theater. Any day. Any time.

It happened a few miles away from my home in April, 2009.

Many of us have made pleas for stricter gun laws, which sometimes works at the state level. Many of us have advocated for better mental health care, which sometimes works at the state level. But state borders are easily crossed, so we need action at the federal level.

Increasingly, though, the perpetrators appear not to be suffering from mental illness. Instead, they are shooting at people as an expression of hatred, because of race or religion or national origin or sexual orientation or some other difference that, in their viewpoint, sets “us” against “them.”

It is hateful rhetoric turned into hate-fueled action.

I don’t know if that brand of rhetoric stops, it will lead to fewer deaths and injuries, but it is well-worth trying, especially if it is replaced by respectful conversation where people of differing viewpoints actually listen to one another.

It may sound like a pipe dream, but it is possible. There are already people in both the public and private sphere who model this behavior.

It’s something we can all do, in addition to the oft-requested thoughts and prayers.

Today, I am renewing my commitment to respectful dialogue. Will you?

Handel, the ACA, and Parkland

On Saturday, my daughters E and T and I, with Baby ABC in tow, attended a choral sing of Handel’s Messiah Part I plus Hallelujah Chorus. The Madrigal Choir of Binghamton and their director Bruce Borton, choral director/professor emeritus at Binghamton University, organized the sing, with Bruce directing and Madrigal Choir members serving as soloists and section leaders. Volunteers from the Binghamton Community Orchestra provided a twenty-piece orchestra to accompany us. It was so much fun!

I had a number of friends among the choral attendees from my long-time affiliation with University Chorus. It was nice before we began to introduce ABC to friends. Her smile and wide eyes added to the already high spirits in the room. I also love every opportunity to sing with my daughters. We are all sopranos, so we get to sit together and sing.

The event featured a free-will offering for the American Civic Association, which, since 1939, has served the Binghamton area with immigration services, refugee resettlement, citizenship classes, and cultural and ethnic preservation and education.  In these days when some in the United States, including the President, are not supportive of immigration, the ACA and their work in our community are more important than ever.

Anything involving the ACA has a special poignancy because, in 2009, a mentally ill gunman opened fire there, killing fourteen and wounding four. Most of those killed were immigrants or foreign nationals affiliated with Binghamton University. There is a beautiful memorial featuring sculptures of doves in flight a short distance from the ACA building, which reopened a few months after the shooting.

When news broke of the Parkland, Florida school shooting on Valentine’s Day, I had the familiar thought of “not again” coupled with the thought that this atrocity too would probably result in “thoughts and prayers” from those in power, but no action to curb gun violence.

In 2013, in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, New York State passed the SAFE Act, which has a number of provisions on assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and ammunition, background checks, and mental health. It doesn’t mean that there will never be another mass shooting in New York, but violent crime rates have fallen. New York is also proactive in making mental health treatment more available, which is important not only in preventing the small number of people with mental illness who are also violent from using firearms but also in keeping the much larger number of people who become suicidal from shooting themselves.

It seem unlikely that Florida Governor Rick Scott and the Florida legislature will enact similar policies despite the Parkland school shooting and the Orlando Pulse Nightclub massacre. It would also be possible for the United States Congress to finally listen to the vast majority of the general public and of gunowners who favor stronger background checks and other gun control measures.

Unfortunately, such action is also unlikely on the federal level, despite the horrific history of mass shootings and other gun violence and the eloquent and poignant voices of the survivors in Parkland. Sadly, this Congress and President have been moving gun policy and mental health care in the opposite direction. The first legislation DT signed as president was to rescind a rule making it more difficult for some people with mental illness to pass background checks for gun purchases. A current bill in Congress would make concealed carry permits granted by one state valid in all other states. The Trump budget calls for cuts in mental health care funding. These and comments from Congressional leadership indicate that the platitudes will continue without any meaningful action to prevent further bloodshed.

In the 2018 Congressional election, the candidates’ stance on gun control and on mental health care will definitely be important in my decision-making. Millions of others will join me and maybe we will finally get some national legislation to help reduce the plague of gun violence in the United States.

another mass shooting

Another week, another horrific mass shooting in America.

Another post I did not want to have occasion to write.

As some of you know, I live in the Binghamton, New York area, which was the scene of a 2009 mass shooting at the American Civic Association. Because of this, I know that these crimes can happen anywhere in our country. We lost the sense of “it can’t happen here” years ago.

Every time there is another mass shooting, much of the public response seems the same. “It’s a mental health issue, not a gun issue.” (Unless it is Muslim shooter, in which case it is a terrorism issue, not a gun issue.) “It’s disrespectful to talk about gun control when people are in mourning.” Corollary: we can talk about gun control later, except that we as a country are always in mourning/recovery from a mass shooting because they happen so frequently, so the “appropriate time” for the discussion never arrives. “The Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms.” “The guns were all legally purchased.” “This (insert gun control proposal here) would not have stopped (insert particular mass shooting here) from happening.”

Enough. Time for a reality check.

The issue is complicated. It needs and deserves thoughtful analysis and strategies to prevent future incidences. It needs and deserves consistent attention from the public and from public officials, because it is about the health, safety, and well-being of individuals and the country.

Yes, the mental health treatment system in the United States needs to be more robust, affordable, and compassionate. The shooter at the ACA was known to be mentally ill; his father begged the state of New York not to issue him a gun license, but the laws at the time allowed it. To its credit, New York made some legal changes to tighten qualifications for gun licenses and accessories like high-capacity magazines. New York has also made mental health treatment more accessible, as has the Affordable Care Act on the national level. Anyone who is serious about preventing mass shootings and other forms of violence needs to be serious about funding outreach and access to mental health services.

This leads to discussion of another characteristic that many mass shooters share, a history of domestic abuse. It lends even more weight to the current growth in public awareness of how widespread sexual harassment and assault are in our society. Abuse of all sorts is at its roots an abuse of power. Firearms in the hands of an abuser multiply the destructive force to the victim/s. Yet, too often, perpetrators of domestic or sexual violence are not prevented from owning firearms and are not adequately treated for their mental health problems.

The second amendment to the US Constitution is usually quoted only in part, only about the right to keep and bear arms not being infringed. If one reads the whole amendment and looks at the historical context, it is clear that the intent of the framers had to do with militias, not an absolute individual right. In July of 2016, I had a guest viewpoint on gun control published in the local paper; you can read it here. I think it can help to consider other military arms at this point. Do you think the second amendment gives individuals the right to own a rocket-propelled grenade launcher or a nuclear missile? Those are “arms,” as well. Should a military assault rifle be considered differently?

…which leads to my next point. We need to look at what kind of guns and accessories are available for sale to the general public. Fully automatic weapons are banned, so why is it legal to sell bump stocks that make semi-automatics behave like fully automatic weapons? Hunting for game is an old and time-honored tradition and most people use hunting rifles for this purpose. Even for the minority of hunters who use assault-type weapons, it seems that high-capacity magazines are not necessary. If you need thirty bullets to take down your prey, you are not skilled enough be hunting. I think that weapons designed for military use should not be in the hands of civilians and hope that Congress will again consider an assault weapons ban.

There should be public health research about guns and gun violence. Federal funding for this kind of research has been highly restricted due to the gun lobby’s leverage with members of Congress. Sadly, the presence of a gun in a household increases the risk that someone in the household will die or be injured with a gun. There are many heart-breaking instances of children inadvertently killing a sibling or friend after finding and playing with a gun in their home. Most people do not know that the majority of gun fatalities in the United States are suicides. Obviously, this ties into the mental health topic as well, but I don’t think that people who buy a gun for protection realize that owning a gun increases the chances that someone in the household will be injured or killed by a gun instead of protecting against that. People need all of these public health facts to inform their decisions and viewpoints.

Today – and every day – are appropriate ones to discuss and work on issues surrounding gun violence. There is never a day when someone is not mourning death or injury by guns, whether through mass shootings or other crimes, accident, or suicide. This is not an insoluble problem; nearly every other country has managed to cut gun deaths to low levels per capita.

The United States can do it, too.

Let’s begin today.

Alzheimer’s article

A blogger-friend Susan Cushman posted a link to this excellent article on dealing with Alzheimer’s disease.

There is significant history of Alzheimer’s disease in my family. My paternal grandfather and two of my aunts and one uncle were affected. We are very lucky that my dad, who is now ninety, has not been affected and is well past the age at which his own father and his siblings first had symptoms.

My parents have also had many friends who have developed Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.  There was so much in Dasha Kiper’s piece that was familiar to me from listening to my parents, from symptoms to everyday life to reactions of caregivers and family.

Enough from me, because the article is on the longer side and I’d much rather you spent your time reading Ms. Kiper’s words rather than mine.

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