This essay first appeared on DailyKOS on November 1. You can view it there if you’d like.
I researched and wrote most of this while in residency at Williams College in October playing violin, percussion, and singing a brilliant score composed by Ileana Perez Velazquez for a production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s play Blood Wedding. We arrived on campus a few days after the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College. Spending those days in the aftermath wrapped up in the drama of Lorca’s murderous love-triangle spurred several long nights combing through FBI homicide statistics to gather the data that supports my thesis here. But the passion and the poetry of his characters inspired me to follow through and write. The play opens with The Mother unleashing a blistering tirade against knives, guns, and a culture of violence that has cut down her husband and eldest son. Her speech feels hyperbolic, her emotions hysterical, and the play, set in early-20th-century Spanish countryside, historical and foreign. Yet by the final curtain, she has been proven terribly right. And as the weeks of rehearsal wore on and I sank deeper into the play and into my research, I realized just how current and present her words are. The events of Lorca’s tragedy, played out by regular flawed people driven over the edge by circumstance and the foibles of the heart, are a mirror of the epidemic of violence that rages in America in the 21st century. In the opening scene The Mother’s son rolls his eyes as she batters him with invective over his casual insistence on carrying a knife. In the final scene she lays a shroud over his body and that of his rival– “Two torrents, still at last among the boulders. Two men at the feet of the horse. Dead in the splendor of the night.”
Obama Was Wrong About Mass Shootings. Here’s Why It Matters
A few minutes after 6pm on October 1, just before President Obama was to address the nation about the mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon, Jennifer Conklin received a phone call from her father.
He had been at his wits end since the previous Friday when Jennifer’s mother Patricia, his wife of 35 years, left him for another man. But Jennifer was unprepared for her dad’s confession. He had tracked down her mom at her new boyfriend’s home, and shot and killed them both as well as a neighbor who heard the shots and came to intervene. He was preparing to turn the gun on himself. Jennifer later told reporters through tears, “I told him don’t hurt himself, that I needed him. He said it was too late. Then he said he loved me and he was sorry and that it was goodbye.”
Minutes later in Washington, President Obama spoke movingly about the routine of random mass shootings in America and expressed the depth of the frustration we all feel over and our government’s continuing failure to take any action to stop them. What he did not mention was that the nine slain at Umpqua Community College that morning represented merely a quarter of the daily national average for homicides. By midnight, roughly thirty more Americans would have become victims. Upon closer examination, murder in America looks much less like the Oregon shooter who pushed the president to speak, and much more like Jennifer Conklin’s father.
The president said, “We are the only advanced country in the world that sees these shootings every few months.” But in fact, an analysis of mass shooting data from ten comparable nations reveals the US to be in the top third for mass shooting fatalities, but by no means an outlier. However even as mass shootings in America have become much more common in the past decade, they still account for barely three percent of our murders.
We live in a country that is uniquely violent among its peers—with a murder rate more than quadruple that of England, France, Australia, or Germany. But what sets us apart is not the staggering evil of rampaging madmen. America’s epidemic of violence is unspectacular, quotidian, almost prosaic. It is born of personal grudges and scores settled, domestic disputes and arguments gone wrong.
In America, you are four times more likely to be murdered in an argument than in a robbery. If you are a woman, the person most likely to murder you is your husband or boyfriend, with intimate partner violence accounting for six and one-half times as many deaths as unknown attackers. In fact, if you only take the murders in the US committed by victims’ family members and intimate partners, we would still equal or surpass the total murder rates of Spain, Germany, Indonesia, Denmark, Sweden, Slovenia, and Switzerland. And in an overwhelming majority of these fatal encounters, a firearm is the murder weapon. This should come as no surprise given that American citizens are armed like no others in the world, owning four times more private guns per capita than those in any other wealthy nation.
All these guns bring with them an even greater human cost in the form of suicide. While less than 10% of suicide attempts are completed, 85% of those who use a gun die, accounting for more than half of total suicides. In 2013 alone, 21,175 Americans took their own life with a firearm, 50% more dead than our total homicide count.
When asked if she had anything to say to the families of the other victims of her parents’ murder-suicide, Jennifer Conklin said, “That I’m so sorry. That I know they must hate my father and think that he’s a horrible person. But he really isn’t, he was just lost.” Later she elaborated, “My father was a really amazing guy who just lost it this past week when his wife left him and he didn’t know how to handle it.”
He was a good guy with a gun—until the day he wasn’t.
It has been one month since these twin tragedies on October 1. For a moment conversations about gun control abounded in the news and social media, but the lines of debate were well-worn and pre-drawn. Now having paid the requisite respects and lip service to the victims and the possibility of policy change, America’s attention has moved on. In that month, roughly one thousand more Americans have been murdered, two-thirds of them with guns.
Trotting out the ghouls who perpetrate indiscriminate and unspeakable evil has done little to move us closer to action on regulating firearms. Perhaps we will make some progress when we acknowledge that, as frightening as they are, the killers from whom we most need protection are not those rare wild-eyed psychopaths. When a whole nation is armed, concentrated evil is not needed to produce tragedy. All it takes is a heartbreak too profound, or a couple drinks too many, or being crossed on a bad day in a hard year, or one of a thousand other final straws. Given the right tools for the job, regular, flawed folks do killing just fine. And we do, again and again.
Additional data on intimate partner violence provided by FBI and analyzed by Cody Steele