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When will America find the will to stop mass shootings?: Mike Kelly

Second Amendment


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Of all the statements to emerge in the days following America’s latest mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, perhaps the most shocking came from the man who sold the gun to the alleged killer.

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“I just can’t believe it,” said Robert Donald, the owner of Vintage Firearms in Endicott, New York.

 Really, Mr. Donald?  You “just can’t believe” this took place?

There are many lessons from the latest mass shooting. But perhaps the most tragic is the most obvious: We could see this coming. We’ve seen it so many times before.

Payton Gendron, 18, who was charged with murdering 10 people and wounding three more at a Buffalo supermarket that caters mostly to African American shoppers, sent out warning signals beforehand that he was harboring some sort of plan to commit murder. He also trafficked in racist conspiracy theories and wrote a 180-page manifesto laced with the kind of anger that is associated with white supremacists and neo-Nazis. And authorities forced him to undergo a mental health screening because of his erratic behavior.

Someone should have been paying attention — not just lip service. Gendron’s parents? His friends? Anyone who linked up with him on the internet? The cops who investigated his threat of murder and suicide? Robert Donald, the 75-year-old gun dealer with nearly three decades of experience in the firearms trade who told The New York Times that he couldn’t understand why an 18-year-old would commit murder? 

Such questions will surely follow the criminal case against Gendron and why he took out his anger on so many innocent people. But on an even more basic level, with America awash in anger and guns, you don’t need a doctorate in sociology to know that this nation is ripe for more incidents of mass murder. There are too many guns and too many angry people. The nation’s patchwork quilt of gun laws is not working.

Someone should be paying attention to that, too.

America has become ground zero for mass shootings. That’s not a matter of opinion. The statistics support this.

But America is also ground zero for cluelessness.

Mass shootings, which are defined by the Washington-based Gun Violence Archive as any shooting with at least four victims by the same shooter, now occur at a rate that ought to be classified as a pandemic — more than one a day.

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On the same weekend as the Buffalo killings, more than 20 people were wounded in three separate shootings outside the arena in Milwaukee, where an NBA playoff game took place. One person was killed and five wounded at a church in Laguna Woods, California. Two were killed and three wounded at a flea market in Houston. 

That’s just a weekend footnote to the long narrative arc of mass shootings that have plagued America in recent years. Indeed, the litany of our bloodiest datelines are now part of our collective lexicon. 

There’s an elementary school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, a high school in Parkland, Florida, another high school in Columbine, Colorado. A bucolic university campus in Virginia. A packed movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. A gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. A synagogue in Pittsburgh. An African American church in Charleston, South Carolina. A Walmart in El Paso, Texas. A municipal office complex in Virginia Beach, Virginia. A music festival in Las Vegas.

And now, Buffalo.

Soon, there will be another bloodstained piece of America. Count on it.

But where is the shock? 

Put another way: What will it take for America to rise up and stop this death cycle?

Yes, President Joe Biden flew to Buffalo on Tuesday and delivered a heartfelt speech in which he declared the shootings at the supermarket to be “terrorism” and that the “poison” of white supremacy would not dominate America.

Here, in New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy, who is not exactly known as “Mr. Passion,” tore into the “expected and pitiful expressions of ‘thoughts and prayers’ from those held so powerfully in the grip of the gun lobby.” Said Murphy: “I think every single one of them knows where they can shove their ‘thoughts and prayers.’ ” He added: “It is well it is well past time for outrage and action.”

Meanwhile, law enforcement officials everywhere seem to be saying they will redouble their efforts to monitor the warning signs from the angry and armed. Good luck with that in a nation of 400 million firearms.  And politicians pledged to step up “background checks” and strengthen gun laws. Heard all this before? 

It’s become a common script now in America — a circle game of righteous rhetoric, pious finger-pointing and gut-level sorrow and rage from all corners of the national political landscape.

But the ending is always the same. The progressives run to their corner, the conservatives to theirs. Days pass. The blood is mopped up. The flowers wilt at the street memorials. The dead are eulogized and buried. America moves on. Nothing changes. And then the next mass shooting occurs. Repeat the cycle.

Our nation could stop this carnage — or at least limit it dramatically. But America does not have the collective will to rewrite this script with strict limits on the sale of rapid-firing, military-style firearms that are designed to kill large numbers of people. 

America can’t even unify behind a plan to vaccinate each other to prevent a deadly virus that has already killed a million of our loved ones in just two years. How can we expect to find any common ground to solve a problem in which angry men — yes, it’s mostly men — get their hands on guns designed for combat and then turn stores, churches and schools into blood-spattered slaughterhouses?

We now have a term for these crime scenes. We call them “soft targets” — meaning they are places where ordinary life unfolds, free of the structures of metal detectors, ID checks and other security.

In these soft targets, people buy clothes or food. They worship. They read books. They hold hands with their lovers. They dance and sing or lose themselves in a movie, a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.

But now mass murder has become part of ordinary American life. And our nation is not shocked enough to stop it.

To understand how devastating this has become for America and the freedom we claim to love so much, try to imagine that a private jet malfunctioned and crashed each day into a row of homes somewhere in America. Or that a defective gas pipeline burst each day into a fireball and destroyed a neighborhood. Or that a certain type of roof or other form of construction continually collapsed, killing dozens. Or that every day a factory produced contaminated steaks or chicken — again killing dozens.

You can bet America would respond — quickly.  

You can also bet that the response would not be bogged down in the meandering politics that have framed the debate over gun control.

I have written about this topic for years. The response is generally the same. Gun control advocates call for more gun laws. Gun rights advocates cite the Second Amendment as a basis for their desire to purchase any sort of gun they please while claiming that gun-toting criminals should be punished more harshly. 

There is no discussion. No common ground. 

We all know that the kind of gun Gendron fired in Buffalo — a Bushmaster XM-15, a semi-automatic version of the M16 rifle carried by U.S. soldiers for half a century — has become the favorite weapon of mass murderers. Yet our nation refuses to say that military-style guns should have no place in civilian life. 

We know that most mass murders are committed with guns that were purchased legally. Yet both sides in the gun debate can’t even find enough common ground to discuss whether it’s even possible to find ways to stop murders with legal guns that fall into the wrong hands.

And finally, despite the calls by political figures to limit the size of ammunition magazines that allow killers to fire without reloading, it’s still too easy to find such devices.   

In Gendron’s case, he reportedly used his father’s electric drill to reconfigure his XM-15, which was designed for a 10-round magazine, to handle a 30-round magazine.  

Such large-capacity magazines are illegal in New York State. But police say Gendron merely drove a few miles over the border to Pennsylvania, where such magazines are legal. 

Three days after the Buffalo massacre, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives issued a report essentially concluding that America has responded to the decades-long increase in mass killings by engaging in a gun-buying spree. Legal gun sales tripled since 2000, the 306-page report said. 

One factor behind the increase was the expiration of a federal law banning assault rifles such as the XM-15, which is similar to the popular AR-15.

In other words, once Americans had the chance to buy military-style guns, they pulled out their wallets and forked over the cash. The biggest increase in gun sales — especially with military-style rifles — occurred during the past three years, when some of the nation’s bloodiest mass killings took place.

America is armed to the teeth — with the types of guns designed for the Navy SEALs and other elite military units.

And yet, one of the lessons from the Buffalo shootings debunks one of the most basic assumptions of gun rights advocates — that the “only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is to have a good guy with a gun.”

The National Rifle Association has trumpeted this silly notion for years. If more law-abiding Americans carried guns, the NRA suggests, more murders would be stopped. 

In fact, an armed good guy was indeed at the Tops Friendly Market Store in Buffalo last Saturday. He was Aaron Salter, a retired Buffalo police lieutenant who worked at Tops as a security guard.

When Salter heard the gun shots, he followed his police training and ran toward the noise. He drew his own gun, pulled the trigger — and struck the shooter.

But the killer was wearing military-style body armor. Salter was not. Unscathed by Salter’s gunshot, the killer simply turned his gun on Salter and killed him.

The lesson here is really a set of questions: Why are we allowing civilians to buy military-style body armor and helmets designed for the battlefield?  And if we allow such purchases, what possible use can such equipment have in American life? You don’t need body armor to hunt deer. You definitely don’t need body armor to shop at a grocery store.

We saw similar types of body armor on some of the insurgents who assaulted the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as if they were pretending to be amateur commandos. But like gun sales and the proliferation of military-style weapons in mass murders, we have yet to have a reasonable debate over whether Americans should be allowed to own body armor.

This brings us back to Robert Donald, who sold that XM-15 to the alleged Buffalo killer, Payton Gendron.

When Gendron walked into Donald’s gun store several months ago and asked to buy the military-style rifle, Donald said, he followed New York’s gun regulations and performed a quick “background check.”

No warning signs emerged. Nothing about Gendron’s murder-suicide threat at his high school. Nothing about the mental health exam ordered for Gendron.

As far as New York State was concerned, Gendron had a clean slate.

So Gendron was allowed to buy the gun. 

It was that easy.

So were the killings in Buffalo. 

Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com, the author of three critically acclaimed non-fiction books and a podcast and film documentary producer. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: kellym@northjersey.com 

Twitter: @mikekellycolumn 





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