A few days ago, they gathered at San Manuel ballpark in San Bernardino. They stood shell-shocked, candles in hand. One by one, the town's civic and religious leaders came to the microphone to speak. They spoke of resilience, of healing, and the biggest applause of the night came when they thanked the first responders. On a large scoreboard at the far end of the field were projected the words, "SB Strong."
A few months ago, they gathered at Stewart Park in Roseburg. They stood shell-shocked, candles in hand. One by one, the civic and religious leaders came to the microphone to speak. They spoke of resilience, of healing, and the biggest applause of the night came when they thanked the first responders. In the silence between speakers, someone in the crowd yelled out, "Roseburg Strong."
It is sometimes said that, given that the United States now averages more than one such incident a day, the country's mass shootings start to blur together, melding into a single unending tragedy. But beyond the killers' wellspring of violent anger and the tools of massacre, most mass shootings differ starkly from one another. Some are carried out by anti-abortion zealots, others by virulent racists, others by radicalized extremists. Some end in suicide, others in arrest, others in a bloody shootout with police (contrary to the popular gun-lobby fantasy, almost none are ever ended by "a good guy with a gun"). Some take place in a women's clinic in Colorado, others in a black church in South Carolina, others in a school in Connecticut.
It's not the shootings that are the same, it's the aftermath.
In the two years since I moved to the United States, I've covered more stories about guns than about anything else. I attended the memorials in Roseburg and San Bernardino. I travelled to a town in Georgia where there's long been a symbolic law on the books requiring every household to own a firearm. I wrote about an attempt by the government to ban a particular kind of rifle bullet – an attempt that failed.
I have yet to write about a significant, successful gun control measure. To be sure, some jurisdictions have tightened their restrictions in recent years – and California, the site of the latest mass shooting, has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation. But in the three years since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting – a rampage in which 20 children and six adults were killed – there have been more measures to loosen gun restrictions across the country than to tighten them.
(It is a cynical talking point, repeated often in the wake of every new massacre: If the killing of 20 children wasn't enough to shock the country into action, there's probably nothing that will.)
Mass shootings tend to act as the public, shocking apex of America's gun debate, but the debate itself more centrally involves a complex web of money, politics and crippling inertia.
In the days following the San Bernardino shooting, a journalist named Igor Volsky began listing the politicians who had offered "thoughts and prayers" to the victims – juxtaposing their statements with the amount of money they had received from pro-gun groups over the years. Mr. Volsky's argument was clear – myriad American politicians are essentially being paid by the gun lobby to respond to mass shootings with thoughts and prayers ... and little else.
In the last two years, the NRA spent about $30-million on political contributions, ad campaigns and lobbying, according to OpenSecrets, a site that tracks political spending. That makes the lobby group one of the biggest spenders in the United States (to say nothing of myriad similar groups, such as the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which tend to receive far less attention).
But the existence of these lobby groups also serves another important function – insulating the companies that actually make the weapons. In the wake of mass shootings, activists tend to focus their wrath on the NRA and its ilk, rather than manufacturers such as Smith & Wesson.
At the same time, ironically, high-profile mass shootings have traditionally been a reliable predictor of a surge in gun sales. Worried that the latest incident might prompt increased gun restrictions, consumers tend to rush to the stores while they still can (even though such restrictions almost never materialize). Indeed, one of the biggest multi-year gun sale surges in American history began in 2009, right around the inauguration of President Barack Obama. With the exception of a slight dip in 2010, it is a surge that has not subsided. There are now more civilian firearms in the United States than there are people.
There exist, of course, all manner of proposed solutions to America's gun crisis, ranging from the obvious to the innovative – stricter background checks; the closing of loopholes related to certain sales at gun shows; mandatory liability insurance for gun owners.
However, the likelihood of any such measure passing should be measured against one recent illustration of just how hard it is to restrict gun access in America: In the wake of the San Bernardino shooting, Democratic lawmakers tried to pass a proposal that would ban people on the anti-terror "no-fly" list from buying guns. The proposal failed – Republicans argued, in effect, that the list was not accurate enough, and so might unfairly deprive people from their Second Amendment rights.
Coming, as it did, just a few days after another high-profile shooting in Colorado, the San Bernardino rampage appears in some ways to make a watershed moment. On Saturday, The New York Times published its first page-one editorial in almost a century, arguing that it is "a moral outrage and national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency."
But Columbine was supposed to be a watershed moment. Virginia Tech was supposed to be a watershed moment. Sandy Hook was supposed to be a watershed moment.
At the memorial in San Bernardino last Thursday night, some of the speakers seemed nervous, ill-prepared. At the start of the week, none could have guessed they would be standing before thousands of heartbroken Californians, eulogizing 14 dead and struggling to explain two killers' nihilistic murder spree.
It had been the same way in Roseburg – another poor, blue-collar town visited first by a killer and then by the attention of the world. Nobody was ready, nobody knew the right things to say.
There was one thing, however, everybody knew not to say. In all the speeches, hardly ever did anyone bring up the tools that allowed the killers to carry out their massacre. It must have seemed, perhaps correctly, an inelegant intrusion of the political into a moment reserved exclusively for the sharing of grief.
But one wonders if an elegant moment will ever arrive, given a frequency of massacre so high, the sharing of grief seems never to end.