Critic’s Notebook: We cannot accept mass shootings as the new normal

SWAT officers search for suspects in the San Bernardino mass shooting in the sort of image that is becoming commonplace on our televisions.

SWAT officers search for suspects in the San Bernardino mass shooting in the sort of image that is becoming commonplace on our televisions.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
San Bernardino and why we've become too comfortably numb about mass shootings

“Just another day in the United States of America, another day of gunfire, panic and fear.”

That’s how the BBC chose to open its coverage of Wednesday’s mass shooting in San Bernardino. And while the tone was certainly questionable, the accuracy was not.

The real shock and horror was the near universal lack of shock and horror.


In its place was something far more dangerous than terrorists or highly armed psychopaths, more fundamentally terrifying than butchery or bombs: Numbed acceptance, bordering on disassociation.

Democracy can survive violence, invasion and even fear, but it cannot survive malaise.

From the moment the killings were first reported, it became instantly clear that a year filled with senseless slaughter — there have been 355 mass shootings in 2015, according to the Washington Post, including two on Wednesday — had left its mark on those who report the news and those who consume it.

The shooting at the Inland Regional Center was called the deadliest since the 2012 killings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., but even as the number of reported dead climbed into the teens and the wounded flooded hospitals, the reporting, though thorough, was strangely subdued.

Follow live coverage of the San Bernardino shooting >>

News outlets, including this one, flooded the area with a frightening efficiency born of repetition. Gone was the stutter-step of disbelief, the voice-choked sorrow, the barely concealed rage that marked coverage of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown and Aurora. Gone was the first stage of denial or cautious diminishment, the hope that the harm done would not, could not, be as great as feared.

In its place was the grim reality of a nation that knows better, a near mechanical acceptance of a now-familiar scenario. Everyone hit their marks, were, in fact, horribly aware of hitting their marks, but no one knew what else to do.

Phrases like, “In what has become an increasingly commonplace scene” and “In yet another mass tragedy” opened news reports on virtually every medium. The tones of news anchors varied from personality to personality, but the terrifyingly rote nature of the script everyone followed did not.

Presidential candidates dutifully took to Twitter and Facebook to make the same statements they uttered during the last mass shooting — the Democrats called for stricter gun control, the Republicans offered prayers and praised law enforcement officials.

Democracy can survive violence, invasion and even fear, but it cannot survive malaise.

— Mary McNamara

On social media, the split was similar. The BBC opener was passed around, along with stories and charts about this year’s extraordinary number of mass shootings (“mass” meaning four or more people were shot), answered by the equally predictable responses: “Gun control won’t cure insanity” or “If the victims had guns, they wouldn’t have been victims.”

Prayers were offered by many, and rejected by others as, at worse hypocrisy, at best an excuse to preserve the status quo.

Infusing it all was a sense of reluctant acceptance, even helplessness. Every time a gunman mows down a group of random people, we begin a conversation about guns that invariably devolves into a red state/blue state feud — about the 2nd Amendment, the nature of the NRA, the tradition of gun ownership — in which too many people seem more interested in defending their position than solving the problem. Already the reality of 14 dead and 21 wounded is being lost in arguments over the interpretation of statistics and the notion that the massacre could have been prevented if some of the victims had been armed.

Here’s the thing about the NRA: Far fewer Americans belong to it than do not. So if everyone who opposes the ironclad grip it purportedly has on Congress, if they would stop tweeting and start organizing, voting, boycotting and protesting — exercising all the amazing freedoms this still astonishing democracy allows — that great and powerful NRA might just shrivel to a couple of men pulling levers behind a curtain.

As many have noted, the 2nd Amendment was passed long before the invention of semiautomatic weapons, which is the target of most gun control legislation. Very few Americans support the criminalization of handguns or rifles, just the weapons built for the sole purpose of killing a lot of people in a small amount of time with minimal effort.

The 2nd Amendment is also part of the Constitution, which was written to protect this young democracy and (eventually, with a few additional amendments) all its citizens.

Not its guns, its citizens.

In the days following the agonizing killings at Sandy Hook, it seemed impossible that this country would not take big steps to curtail gun violence. Instead we argued politics and let things get worse.

Whether the perpetrators of the San Bernardino shootings are foreign or domestic terrorists, disgruntled employees or a simply a band of killers shouldn’t distract us from the inescapable, unacceptable trend of gun violence. We do not live in an occupied nation, we should not have to instruct our children how to dodge gunfire, we should not fear sudden senseless death in the workplace. We must not allow ourselves to be held hostage by the mental illness or murderous intent of our fellow citizens.

The only way 355 mass shootings in 336 days becomes an acceptable reality is if we accept it.

And if we do, we can no longer blame Islamic State or Al Qaeda or the axis of evil for threatening the American way of life.

We will have destroyed it ourselves.

Twitter: @marymacTV


FOR THE RECORD: 7:50 a.m. A previous version of this story referred to the invention of “automatic weapons.” The reference has been changed to “semiautomatic weapons.”



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