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Mourners attend a vigil for victims of the shooting at a TOPS supermarket in Buffalo on May 15.BRENDAN MCDERMID/Reuters


Again a fusillade of shots rang out in an American city. Again shrieks of pain, then shock, then outrage, then mourning, then reflection. Again the questions about the prevalence of guns, the pervasiveness of hate, the persistent feeling of helplessness.

Again and again and again – and now after the death on Saturday of 10 people, most of them Black, in a Buffalo supermarket that stood as a symbol of neighbourhood rebirth – Americans ask these questions. Those beyond the country’s borders look across the seas and across an 8,900 kilometre frontier and wonder how often this will happen, how long until the next episode, how this trinity of tragedy – guns, hate, violence – can be tolerated.

“This is a horrible, horrible, unspeakable tragedy, going beyond all of our imagination and our thinking about how safe you can be to be in America and be African American,” Stephanie Barber-Geter, president of the Hamlin Park Community and Taxpayers Association, which represents 62 blocks of the city, said over the telephone shortly after the gunfire ceased, but as the metaphorical echoes of the shots ricocheted up and down her street.

“We need to start the healing process – inside the store, outside the store, in the neighbourhood – and deal with the whole ripple effect,” she said. “Things like this make us freeze and ask: Why?”

The ritual of recovery from these episodes is so well-trodden that it is almost a libretto, and it was followed precisely in Buffalo over the weekend: The identification of the gunman (this time an 18-year-old with delusions that he was saving his race from replacement by minorities). The discovery of a hate-filled manifesto (like Mein Kampf, it was all set out in advance, even what the shooter would eat beforehand). Statements of rage and wrath (“An act of barbarism,” said New York’s Governor Kathy Hochul, born in Buffalo). Vigils (Saturday, Sunday, almost certainly additional ones this week). Funerals (with unbearable grief over unfulfilled promise).

And this: the inadequacy, inability and ineffectiveness of government to stop this violence, random but remorseless (more than 20,000 victims of gun violence last year, with increased rates of fatal shootings in two-thirds of the largest American cities).

“As if the horror of the act and the fear in which all of us must live is not enough, our Congress and state legislatures – the bodies that could make laws that would make doing something like this more difficult – are paralyzed by the gun lobby, unable to take action to stop or even slow the carnage,” said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh Law School expert on civic violence.

”Even minimal sensible actions, such as background checks for firearms purchases, favoured overwhelmingly by the American public, cannot gain enough traction in Congress to become law. Instead, we see gun laws across the country becoming friendlier to gun ownership,” he said.

Police officers at the scene of the mass shooting.MALIK RAINEY/The New York Times News Service

The burst of gunfire came just a day after President Joe Biden, speaking in the Rose Garden of the White House, urged American cities to use funding from the US$1.9-trillion COVID-19 stimulus package to strengthen public-safety efforts. “Taking action today is going to save lives tomorrow,” he said. “So, use the money. Hire the police officers. Build up your emergency response systems. Invest in proven solutions.”

The President was speaking out of twin fears – first, that crime, which customarily surges during the summer, will become rampant in the months ahead and, second, that Republicans, who already have blamed Democratic mayors and Mr. Biden’s administration for a 5-per-cent rise in murders last year, will ride the issue to victory in November’s midterm congressional elections. (Overall, the rate of murders is about a third less than it was in the early 1990s).

And yet the struggle to control the proliferation of guns has been going on since 1968, when both the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy were slain. “The gun situation has been bad for decades but it is out of control now,” former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee and a long-time advocate of gun control, said in an interview. “We have all these nuts running around thinking they have an unbridled right to use guns and shoot people.’’

Every unhappy city stained by mass violence – Sacramento, Pittsburgh and Corsicana, Tex., along with Buffalo this year alone – is unhappy in its own way, but the unhappiness runs especially deep in Buffalo. It’s a city that sits just across the Niagara River from Canada and that has been a peripheral part of the neighbourhood of Fort Erie, Niagara Falls, Welland, Hamilton, Burlington and Toronto for generations.

The Tops Friendly Market that was the site of the carnage was part of a valiant rebuilding effort on Jefferson Avenue, a predominantly Black broadway that since the late 1960s has struggled with poverty. The supermarket was an emblem of hope, planted by a grocery chain that itself had endured financial distress, and is frequented by neighbours who include Mayor Byron Brown, who is Black, and students from Canisius College, a Jesuit institution about to inaugurate its first Black president.

The security guard who fired at the shooter before being killed himself, Aaron Salter Jr., was a Canisius graduate.

“As this goes, so goes all of us,” John Hurley, the current president of the college, which sits one kilometre from the supermarket, said only hours after the rampage. “You think that we are different here, that we are immune from this, but clearly we’re not. It’s devastating for that reason. It’s right down the street from our college, and we are deeply invested in that street and in the neighbourhood.”

That neighbourhood now is a scene of tragedy, and the supermarket a symbol of disrupted hope.

“This is a store that we have laboured to keep in this neighbourhood,” said Ms. Barber-Geter, the president of the civic association and whose home is seven blocks from the supermarket. “It is the centre of our neighbourhood. Then this happens. You wonder if the store will survive. Will Black people in the neighbourhood be willing to go back?

“Out of the blue,” she said, “a stupid human act ruins everything”

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