My rough, unscientific estimate is that we are about three-quarters of the way through the national grieving process for Las Vegas. Americans are pretty familiar with the rhythmic mourning of mass shootings: Widespread shock, political chest-beating, internet rage, and then silence. Then our wounds start to heal and the nation moves on, leaving the thousands of people who were injured or lost someone they loved to recover on their own. Those individual broken hearts will keep bleeding for years—many, like mine, will burst open again every time there’s another shooting.
My mind still flashes back to my hometown every time news of a shooting breaks, even though Tomasz was killed almost five years ago. It was early on Christmas Eve in 2012 when a man set his family home on fire and shot the firefighters who responded to the blaze from a berm across the street. He used the same model of assault rifle that was used in the Sandy Hook massacre two weeks earlier.
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I found out Tomasz was dead on Twitter. I had been watching footage of my town burning for hours, hoping that I didn’t know the people who had been killed. Then a local reporter tweeted a picture of a piece of notebook paper where she had scrawled the names of the victims. She spelled Tomasz’s first and last name wrong, with “ch”s where there should have been “z”s and “k”s, but that felt almost appropriate. His Polish name had confused people for his entire life—at least 25 percent of people responded “bless you” when he introduced himself, and when teachers struggled with the pronunciation during roll call his entire class used to shout his name in unison.
Our town was never particularly pro-gun, but after Tomasz was murdered we became fierce advocates for gun control. And about three weeks after his death, New York State had a new gun-control law to show for it—with a special provision that makes the penalty for murdering a first responder life in prison without parole. It was lauded in New York City, and Albany, and even my hometown, but once you step over the county line, “Repeal the SAFE Act” signs dot the front lawns. There, the law is viewed with a mix of indignation and hostility—an encroachment on a centuries-old way of life of people who genuinely don’t believe their guns are part of the problem.
I’m a product of that side of the county line, too. My grandfather taught me and my brothers how to shoot tin cans and milk jugs before Thanksgiving dinner when I was ten years old. He thought of guns as a tool, and grumbled instructions with the same matter-of-fact directness he used when he taught me how to change an alternator. I’m still not a great shot—I hit low, because I drop my arm—but I’m competent. That was important to my grandpa—he respected that my brothers and I were nervous nerds, but he needed us to be able to fend for ourselves.
Grandpa made the only joke I ever remember him telling during that shooting lesson. One of my little brothers was telling a story, and—forgetting that there was a pistol in his left hand—he flailed his little eight-year-old arms towards Grandpa’s torso while his index finger was still on the trigger. My grandfather pushed the barrel of the gun back toward the ground and flipped the safety on before chuckling, “Be careful where you point that thing—my flesh is very tender, and doesn’t much like being shot.”
That’s the thing about guns—no one much likes being shot. But last year, 33,594 Americans were killed by guns—5,000 more than the number of people who died from prostate cancer. We’ve changed the way we practice medicine to make sure those cancer patients get the treatment they need—but guns, not so much.
The trouble with guns is that they were designed to kill, and they do it more readily than anything else we’ve created for the job. Even people who grew up with them—who think of them as tools, and respect their inherent danger—know that. That’s why they were written into our constitution, and that’s why we cling to them. It’s because that power—the power to kill—is a thing white Americans feel entitled to.
And it is, to be clear, white (mostly male) Americans who are worried about our guns. We are 80 percent more likely than black Americans, and 157 percent more likely than Hispanic Americans, to prize gun access over gun safety. That level of concern spiked right after Obama was elected, and in the years following the top reason gun owners cited for having a weapon switched from “hunting” to “safety.” That’s also when, as Bill O’Reilly put it, white folks started to realize that it might not be “a traditional America anymore.”
Over the centuries, white Americans have felt entitled to a lot. We’ve felt entitled to usurp land, and to lay waste to human bodies, and to enrich ourselves by exploiting others. We have been forced, very slowly, to recognize that those things aren’t our right. None of it has been graceful—we fought wars for land and slavery, rioted for segregation, and elected a white supremacist in response to our first black president—but eventually we can shake this part of our history loose, too. Just because guns are a part of our legacy, that doesn’t mean they have to be a part of our future.
I have to believe that we can realize that. Because the alternative—that we keep bleeding American lives just to prove that we can—is too gruesome to bear.