When America’s everyday violence comes crashing home

The toll from gun violence across the US is akin to that of a country at war

People are reunited with family members at a library after being removed from the scene of last week's shooting in Washington. AP
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Proximity and frequency are key factors in deciding which stories are considered newsworthy.

In Afghanistan, where I worked for a year as an editor, the countless blasts targeting civilians would sometimes get short shrift if they were in a remote location, even if lives had been lost.

Similarly, in a country where scores of Taliban fighters and Afghan troops were dying daily, the threshold for a war story was high.

If something happens every day, it is not new – so, by definition, not news. It is easy to grow dispassionate about horror when it is commonplace and far away.

Violence closer to home changes the calculus.

The thud of a rocket landing nearby or a blaring alarm from Nato headquarters warning of incoming “indirect fire” would always generate coverage, even if no one was hurt.

Working now in the US, my third stint here as a journalist, I find myself facing similar considerations in covering the news.

The scale of violence permeating this country at almost every level is so overwhelming, pervasive and numbing that it can be difficult to know what to cover. Just as in Afghanistan, US editors must filter the bloodshed.

This grim triage was brought home to me last week when my Washington neighbourhood was attacked.

On the scale of mass shootings in America — one in which four or more people are killed or injured, not including the gunman — this barely registered.

A child and three adults were wounded. No one died. It could have been so much worse.

If it had happened elsewhere in the US, it would not have been a national news story and I doubt I would have covered it.

My youngest child was in a playground just a short walk from the school the gunman targeted. A hail of bullets strayed for more than a kilometre, breaking glass at businesses I know.

The panicked parents and passers-by pictured fleeing the scene were my neighbours.

The gunman had set up what police called a “sniper’s nest” in an apartment overlooking a private school. It was filled with ammunition, at least three assault rifles and a sniper’s tripod.

He fired more than 100 rounds in sustained bursts of semi-automatic gunfire that shattered windows at the private school.

The man was from nearby Virginia, where it is legal to buy assault rifles and high-capacity magazines.

He killed himself as police entered his apartment. His motive is still unknown.

When I first worked in the US nearly 20 years ago, a mass shooting would dominate the news for days on end.

I was in Colorado at the time, a few years after the 1999 massacre in which two Grade 12 pupils murdered a teacher and 12 fellow pupils in Columbine, outside Denver.

In the years since, every imaginable institution in the country has been hit with a mass shooting.

Hospitals, high schools, elementary schools, universities, music festivals, night clubs, places of worship, businesses, supermarkets — all have been targeted.

So far in 2022, the US has reported more than 140 mass shootings. About 20,000 people are killed here in gun homicides each year. Another 25,000 or so use guns to commit suicide.

These are war-zone levels. The year I was in Afghanistan, which has a population of about 40 million, roughly 3,400 civilians were killed.

A police officer leads two women and a child from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, the scene of the 2012 mass shooting that killed 20 children and six adults. AP

My older child has already been taught the uniquely American lexicon of everyday violence. She’s had “active shooter” drills at school. She knows how to “shelter in place”.

School “lockdowns” in the US were routine long before the pandemic made us all familiar with the word.

I visited a military base in Kabul with a US official some years back. Soldiers there told him they were more worried about their kids’ safety at home than they were for their own lives in Afghanistan.

It seems nothing changes here when it comes to gun violence. For every incremental push for reform, gun activists push harder the other way.

Some parts of the country have almost no gun laws anymore, except age restrictions.

Several states including Georgia now let anyone over 21 carry a firearm — no background check or permit required, in most cases.

In the old days, when mass shootings still made national news, Republican politicians would get pilloried for sending “thoughts and prayers” after each slaying while refusing to consider gun reforms.

Nowadays even these platitudes have largely disappeared from the national conversation.

As spring turns to summer here in the US, we can expect more violence.

The country is already a powder keg after two years of pandemic isolation, record-high inflation and an internet where grievances are easily aired and amplified.

Add to this an endless supply of guns and ammunition, and it’s obvious we will be having to cover — or not — many more mass shootings in the months ahead.

Published: April 25, 2022, 8:28 PM