I was grilling some burgers and hotdogs for my family on Thursday, and I ran up to the supermarket because I needed more buns, some potato salad, and other things that I never remember I ran out of the last time I had a cookout. I drove the three blocks to the market, hopped out of my car and was greeted by the sight of a middle-aged white man strapping a shotgun on his back and walking into the market just ahead of me. My initial reaction was irritation. Why is this guy bringing an apparently loaded firearm into the grocery store at 6pm on a Friday? Is he trying to intimidate people? Trying to make a political point? I wanted to go to the store manager and register a complaint, but I found it hard to call up my rational objections to carrying loaded guns in public places (objections that are easy to call to mind when looking at photographs of open-carry demonstrations, etc.). My visceral response to a shotgun in a place it does not belong made rational thinking of any kind difficult. My short list of last-minute items escaped me. It took me several minutes in the produce section to remember I was supposed to be in the bakery.
I got home flustered, told the story to my visiting parents, and tried to get back to the business of feeding my family. My father–a gun-owning Texan–couldn’t understand why someone would take his gun into a store and had a hard time believing that it is entirely legal to do so.
That evening, after eating dinner and cleaning up the kitchen, I opened up my laptop and saw that, not long after I was standing in a grocery story in Virginia behind a guy with a shotgun, two bags of potato chips and a six pack of malt liquor, a man in Washington had carried his shotgun into a building at Seattle Pacific University and opened fire. The man killed one student and injured three others before being pepper-sprayed and tackled when he paused to reload. The gunman was carrying a lot of ammo, and, if he hadn’t had to reload, it could have been a lot worse.
The shootings in Seattle were only the beginning of the weekend. On Friday, a man in Georgia staged a full-frontal assault on the Forsyth County courthouse. The shooter in this case was an arms dealer who sold guns and other weapons (free from background checks and other regulations) at gun shows. He was due at the courthouse to answer weapons and drug charges, but he showed up with tear gas, smoke grenades, tire spikes, plastic handcuffs and plenty of ammunition. A sheriff’s deputy–whom he shot multiple times–was able to prevent him from entering the courthouse, and the gunman died in a firefight with police after turning the street outside the courthouse into a war zone.
The weekend was not over. On Sunday, a man and woman in Las Vegas walked into a pizza parlor, shot two policemen dead, took their sidearms and ran into a nearby Wal-Mart. They killed another person in that store before exchanging fire with more police and eventually killing themselves. Witnesses report the man and woman screaming “This is a revolution.”
All of this was only two weeks after a young man filled with racist and misogynist ideology went on a killing spree near UCSB in Isla Vista California.
We are only 18 months out from the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. In that massacre, a gunman shot and killed 27 people, including 20 first-grade children.
Only 6 months before that, in July of 2012, a gunman opened fire in a theater in Aurora, Colorado, killing 12 people and injuring 70. If his tactical rifle had not jammed, it would have been much worse.
About 6 months before that, in January 2011, a gunman at a supermarket in Tuscon, Arizona, killed 6 people and injured 13, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords whom he had come to assassinate.
7 years ago, in April 2007, about an hour from where I now live and teach, a student at Virginia Tech killed 32 people on campus before killing himself.
We are 15 years out from the 20 April 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado. Two young men killed 12 other students and 1 teacher before killing themselves. Back in 1999, it seemed as if there were no comparisons for the Columbine massacre. The intense planing and horrific body count set Columbine apart from other public shootings (like the school shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas in which two adolescent boys killed 4 girls and a teacher). Today, both the cold-blooded planning and the number of dead in Columbine are beginning to look ordinary. A regular event. Unexceptional. (And this much-too-long list contains only a few of the mass public shootings since Columbine).
This weekend of exceptional violence, of school shootings and attacks on civil authorities, sent me thinking back over the past 15 years and the number of mass shootings I couldn’t even remember (West Nickle Mines Amish School. Red Lake Senior High School). My own minor encounter with the shotgun in the market evoked this public history and our present moment of public shootings and public displays of weapons, and it framed them, for me, as a physical, embodied experience. Occupying public space with a stranger and his gun is unpleasant and unsettling. It makes you forget what you are doing, makes you check for exits you don’t know about, makes you worry about the narrow front entrance and shopping carts blocking the aisles. It makes you second-guess yourself and call yourself paranoid (“he’s just a jerk making a stupid point, nothing to be afraid of”) while it leaves you with nagging anxiety (“because what if…”). When the guy in front of you at the market has a shotgun slung across his back, you can’t know if he’s there to buy potato chips or to kill as many of us as he can.