We have learned this week that the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., was at the heart of a community where “everybody knew everybody,” as one of the survivors of the mass murder there on Sunday put it. Everyone in that small Texas town was affected by the carnage. And weren’t we all?
I was raised in a First Baptist Church in Albert Lea, Minn., a small congregation where everybody knew everybody. When I heard of the attack by the gunman in Sutherland Springs, I tried to imagine such a scene in my old red brick church, its great arched stained glass windows shattered by bullets, the ushers in their Sunday suits sprawled in the aisles bleeding from their wounds, the oak pews splintered in the hail of bullets, my Sunday School teacher dead with a look of disbelief on her round, kind face, a ribbon of blood sliding under the pews down the slanting polished oak floor of the sanctuary. Twenty-six of us dead? Unimaginable.
Unimaginable then, when there was only one U.S. mass murder in the entire decade of the 50s, according to researcher Grant Duwe, but not now. Why?
The reason, in part certainly, is that the technology of weaponry makes it possible for an individual with a gun to spray a crowd with bullets, as in Sutherland Springs and, recently, in Las Vegas.
Duwe, research director for the Minnesota Department of Corrections and author of the 2007 book “Mass Murder in the United States: A History,” wrote in October in Politico magazine that the moving average number of victims in mass public shootings is trending up since the ban on assault weapons expired in 2004. But he adds that there isn’t sufficient research to determine the reason. He confirms, though, that while mass shootings are not more frequent they are becoming more deadly. Duwe’s book provides the following numbers of mass shootings in recent decades: 70s, 13; 80s, 32; 90s 42; 2000s, 28. Duwe defines mass public shootings as “any incident in which four or more victims are killed with a firearm within a 24-hour period at a public location in the absence of other criminal activity, ... military conflict or collective violence.”
Acording to Duwe, the U.S. has “relatively little rigorous research on mass violence, likely due to the virtual absence of research on this subject.”
He added, “The few studies we do have tell us that mass public shootings, while horrific, are, fortunately, quite rare. This apparent paradox—rare yet ‘routine’—likely reflects the out-sized impact that catastrophic mass murders have on our perceptions of public safety. But until we make the investment to find solutions, we won’t really know why these tragedies happen or how to prevent them.”
Funding such research is a place to start for Congress in reacting to the Sutherland Springs slaughter beyond words of condolence. But the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision on gun rights offers other opportunities for action on sensible Constitutional gun controls.
The Supreme Court decision made clear that “nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” The decision added that “like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.” The background of the Sutherland Springs shooter reminds us that those guilty of domestic violence have no business owning guns.
The decision also noted the validity of the “historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of ‘dangerous and unusual weapons.’” Surely the weapons that allow the efficient mass murder of innocent citizens must qualify for that definition.
It’s time for Congress to acknowledge the strong public support for action on gun control expressed in opinion polls such as the NPR/Ipsos poll following the Las Vegas shooting last month. In that poll, 91 percent of Democrats, along with 76 percent of independents and 70 percent of Republicans, said they are for banning assault-style weapons. A similar divide marked support for other types of controls.
Americans of all tribes, denominations or whatever identity we may claim are united in our sense of horror and grief after these recent mass shootings. We’re all First Baptists, we’re all Las Vegas concert goers and vulnerable school children. We’re all Americans who want what the Constitution allows: reasonable gun controls to help stop the killing.