Column: ‘Why do we do this to ourselves?’ The pandemic supercharged easy access to guns

Officials at an outdoor crime scene.
Authorities search the scene of a mass shooting Sunday in Sacramento.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Father Michael O’Reilly stood on the steps of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in his long, purple robes, looking at a crime scene just feet away where more than a dozen evidence markers were laid out.

It was surreal, he told me, and he felt bad that one of his first thoughts was whether the church would be able to welcome parishioners that morning, with a mass shooting shutting down streets for blocks around us.

But people were already wandering into this grand cathedral that lies within sight of the state Capitol, unaware of the shooting or maybe needing comfort because of it. Life goes on, even with six bodies still on the pavement. We accept the unacceptable, or at least endure it.


This is, after all, the 12th mass shooting in California this year. We all know what happens next. The process has already started. We are horrified. Outraged. Saddened. I’ve got a stack of press releases from politicians across the state who want voters to know this is unacceptable.

I won’t be quoting any of them. I think you know why.

It’s all sound and fury for a gun violence crisis that has long eaten at the soul of this country. People die every day, shot by those who don’t respect laws or lives, or who are so unstable they shouldn’t have guns in the first place. All the while, the rest of us argue over whether the 2nd Amendment protects the use of automatic weapons on our city streets.

But there was little discussion of gun rights among those I spoke with Sunday morning, as police collected bullet casings and bloody evidence and the corpses of three men and three women waited in the unseasonable heat to be collected.

I stood behind police tape, where family and friends tried to separate themselves from the dozens of television reporters whose cameras were trained on the tragedy, filing their reports for the afternoon news. Fred Harris, the father of Sergio Harris, one of the victims, pushed under the tape twice to confront officers and demand answers.

Sacramento police say the shooting occurred around 2 a.m. in a busy entertainment district that was filled with people.

April 3, 2022

But the truth is, there are no answers that will soothe his pain. His son is dead. I have spoken to too many family members who lost a loved one to violence. Many of them have shared this sorrowful reality with me: Nothing can make it right.

The people I spoke with said there are more guns on the street than ever. The pandemic, they said, pushed up the numbers of every kind of weapon — the legally owned ones, ghost guns that are Frankensteined together with untraceable parts and guns stolen, traded, imported or otherwise not part of the official system.


Police found a stolen handgun at the scene, they said, and multiple people who were there Sunday told me of rapid shots coming from a speeding car, the telltale sound of an automatic weapon being fired.

“Rat-a-tat-tat,” said Timothy Langier, a homeless man who was in a nearby doorway.

“Everybody has a gun now,” said Stevante Clark, a community activist who came to comfort the family members of victims. “Anyone who tells you otherwise is living under a rock.”

Berry Accius, another community activist who has long worked on violence prevention, arrived downtown shortly after the 2 a.m. massacre and had been there for five hours by the time he and I spoke. He echoed Clark, telling me that at the start of the year, he cautioned that we should be “laser-focused” on guns after the pandemic. But no one was listening then.

Now, as Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said at a press conference later in the day, “summer is coming.” He said it like a warning, twice. “Summer is coming.”

People are coming out of isolation, with all those guns. K Street, where the violence occurred, is home to some of Sacramento’s most popular clubs. It’s a walking street, and on warm weekend nights, it can be packed with revelers in the early morning hours, when those bars close and the patrons spill out.

Because Sacramento is small and there aren’t many clubs of note, all kinds of people — some who don’t get along — find themselves crammed together on K Street. Nearly every night, said Clark, there are fights. For years, ever since this strip of downtown has tried to revitalize itself after years of decline, there’s been talk of how to keep peace on the Kay, as city marketers dubbed the stretch.


Relatives gathered near a bar where the gunfire is believed to have erupted, hugging each other, looking for information and coming to terms with losses.

April 3, 2022

I don’t know if gangs were involved in whatever happened Sunday night. But, as Leia Schenk, who also works on community issues, said, all those guns mean “you can’t have a fist fight anymore.”

Someone is going to pull out a gun, and “then all these bystanders are killed,” she said.

Sacramento County Dist. Atty. Anne Marie Schubert, who is running for state attorney general on a get-tough-on-crime platform, told me that since 2019, her office has seen a 45% increase in the number of cases filed for felons in possession of a firearm. It’s not just Sacramento that’s seeing that rise, she said. It’s happening across the country.

“I’ve been screaming about this for over a year, how many illegal guns there are on the streets,” she said. “You talk to any chief of a major city across the country, they will tell you the same thing.”

Schubert and I have been talking for months about that rise. She thinks it’s from a combination of factors: people afraid during the pandemic, rising economic inequity, organized unemployment fraud that left criminals with millions in ill-gotten funds. It was, she said, inevitable that COVID-19 would make things worse.

“I’m not saying I’m a tarot card reader; I’m just saying it’s a bad combination of things,” Schubert said.

So, California, that’s where we are at. A crisis of guns that was devastating before the pandemic has now been supercharged, regardless of who you ask. We all know it.


There is going to be a 13th mass shooting, and a 14th and a 15th. Steinberg called America’s position on guns “one of the greatest signs of irrationality and sickness in our country.”

If there’s any way out of this very dark wormhole of gun violence, it’s the possibility that an empowered majority of Americans are waking up to the truth. The truth is that the 2nd Amendment can be protected without enabling easy access to assault weapons.

These weapons have been mistaken as a fundamental value of our democracy, somehow enshrined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, but they are not. Nobody needs a machine gun for self-defense or anything else. Nobody needs to fire 600 rounds in a minute.

Too often, these guns are about death, not self-protection. They are about taking away the most fundamental right: the right to exist, and to do it without fear.

As sunset turns downtown back to darkness, I am left with the image of Pamela Harris, Sergio’s mother, bent in Clark’s arm, yelling to no one, “Why did they do this to my baby?”

And I can’t help but wonder, why do we do this to ourselves?