Gun numbed: What is gun violence doing to our collective psyches?


If you look at the view from the window of the Mandalay Bay hotel room in Las Vegas, you realize that from that distance the shooter couldn’t have seen or identified the faces of the people he killed.

And yet, his carnage resulted in the worst mass shooting in modern American history: 58 people were randomly killed and about 500 wounded at the Route 91 Harvest festival concert that evening in 2017. All from a hotel room far above.

If you’d forgotten that historic event, perhaps it’s not surprising. In the wake of seemingly endless American gun violence and countless mass shootings, we’re numb. But a recent, and startling, poll released this spring by the Kaiser Family Foundation jogged my memory.

One in five Americans, the poll revealed, say they’ve been personally threatened with a gun, and over half of Americans “have either personally or had a family member who has been impacted by a gun-related incident, such as witnessing a shooting, being threatened by a gun, or being injured or killed by a gun.”

I thought those figures were surprising. I’d never been involved in a gun incident, and I couldn’t think of a friend or relative who had. Then I remembered Shevaun.

My friend Shevaun was at that concert in Las Vegas with her husband. Because she was seven months pregnant, they had paid for VIP seating so Shevaun could have a chair. Meanwhile, her husband moved between their seats and the area where many friends were standing. Fortunately, when the shooting started, he was by her side.

Shevaun crawled on her pregnant belly to safety. Her husband and her friends were safe. That doesn’t mean she wasn’t a victim. An elementary school teacher, Shevaun saw horrible things that day. Later, she told me in an interview that she was in counseling and beginning to remember things she had been repressing.

Every person at that concert carries trauma from that day. The loved ones and friends of those who were killed have been deeply affected. The 500 injured and their families, thousands of people, carry a new kind of fear in the pit of their stomachs.

So, if one in five Americans has been personally threatened by a gun, I envision a widening circle of trauma.

“Things fall apart,” wrote the Irish poet W.B. Yeats many years ago. “The center cannot hold.”

We are, in fact, a traumatized nation.

And yet, our lawmakers dither about effective gun control measures, often influenced by the enormous financial support of the gun industry and the NRA. In some cases, they move backwards. In Nebraska, my former home, the legislature just passed a bill to allow people to carry concealed guns without a permit or a gun safety course.

Common sense would allow us to raise the age for purchasing a firearm. We could make it easier to “red flag” those who are abusers, or mentally ill, from owning guns. We could once again pass an assault weapon ban. We could repeal the “stand your ground” laws that make it easier for people to kill others.

Most mass killings are committed by lone people who seem hollow inside and fill their void with an easily obtained firearm, easily obtained because legislators have abandoned their responsibility. What is the killer’s motive, we always ask, and often the motive is just a vague emptiness and anger.

Is that also part of our national trauma perhaps — a national emptiness and anger, a spiritual desert, that is eating away at our values and our sense of belonging to each other?

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