As we set off fireworks and start the grills — or just wilt in front of the AC — this steamy Fourth of July, we need to be honest with ourselves about all that freedom we’re whooping and crackling about.
That innocent shoppers, students, revellers, worshippers, learners, dancers and workers are being slaughtered by random gunfire is neither normal nor free.
And as a society, we should continue to be defined by what we are willing to accept as a normal condition of American life.
On Sunday, after 30 people were shot at a gathering in South Baltimore, the mayor Brandon M. Scott raised this explicitly, saying: “We want this mass shooting to be treated just as [if] it happened in rural America.”
“When it happens in Baltimore, Chicago or DC, it doesn’t get that same attention,” Scott said Monday. “These Black American lives, children’s lives, matter just as anyone else.”
The barrage of gunfire was a gut-wrenching end to an annual community day in a working-class part of Baltimore, one of America’s cities where gunfire is not uncommon — and too often labelled “urban” in an attempt to distance people from accountability for the conditions we allowed over decades of policy decisions.
We the people.
“We are not free if we are in a war zone,” pastor John D. Watts said after gunfire terrorised Baltimore’s Brooklyn neighbourhood where his congregation often works, killing an 18-year-old woman and a 20-year-old man.
So on this Independence Day, it’s time to talk about our freedoms — and the lack thereof.
Watts and other folks from Kingdom Life Church Apostolic have been coming to Brooklyn Homes for about three years now, to talk with people who are struggling, to mentor young men who feel left behind as gleaming developments grow around their neighbourhood but never in it.
An entire block was littered with shell casings on Sunday, and many of the neighbours who usually sit on their porches were locked inside, living with a fear they have grown used to. Baltimore Police, Scott said, have seized 1,345 illegal guns this year.
The freedom from that fear is becoming rare in all corners of the nation.
Because today, the places where innocent people are hit by gunfire are spreading past barriers of economics, politics, race and class. To so many places, we look like a nation at war.
In America, under the tyranny of a culture that celebrates gun ownership over the unburdened pursuit of happiness, we are no longer free to feel safe:
• At a country music concert (Las Vegas, October 1, 2017; 62 dead, 413 injured)
• At a Fourth of July parade (Highland Park, Illinois, July 4, 2022; seven dead, 48 injured)
• In a grocery store (Buffalo, May 14, 2022; ten dead, three injured)
• In a dance hall (Monterey Park, California, January 21, 2023; 11 dead, nine injured)
• At a newspaper office (Annapolis, June 28, 2018; five dead, two injured)
• In a church (Sutherland Springs, Texas, November 5, 2017; 26 dead, 22 injured)
• In a synagogue (Pittsburgh, October 27, 2018; 11 dead, six injured)
• At a nightclub (Orlando, June 12, 2016; 49 dead, 53 injured)
And, of course, we are not free from atrocity at schools, airports, military bases, movie theatres, restaurants, hospitals, swimming pools, medical offices or even someone’s driveway that we may have accidentally pulled into.
Among the saddest — and most accurate — graduation memes I have seen circulating on social media is a Photoshopped celebration titled “When you finally graduate from high school in the USA”, with children throwing Kevlar vests instead of mortarboards into the air.
Hold on to that body armour, children. America outside the classroom is not much safer. Just last month, after all, a high school graduate and his father were killed, and five others were wounded by a shooter who opened fire at a commencement ceremony in Richmond.
We have absolutely failed the vision of our Founding Fathers for a peaceful, safe and prosperous nation if we are willing to apply rules conceived of when a breakaway people in revolt deployed muskets, flintlock pistols and hunting rifles to today, when high-tech killing machines can be bought with ease.
This is played out in Maryland, where concealed-carry permits — and the number of guns — tripled after a Supreme Court ruling last year that expanded the Second Amendment.
“More permits means more guns out in public, and that means more guns left in cars, and that means more guns subject to theft,” state senator William C. Smith Jr told my Washington Post colleague Erin Cox. “There’s just going to be more guns … around. That’s just a fact.”
Maryland governor Wes Moore signed laws in May restricting gun-carrying to try to counteract that, but the National Rifle Association immediately challenged those laws in federal court. Baltimore itself filed suit last year against a maker of untraceable parts used to build “ghost” guns.
It is political and policy gamesmanship fought with manipulation and manoeuvres, but the real losses come in bloodshed and tears every day, in every state of the nation.
And it is the people who live in neighbourhoods too often racked by gunfire who pay the price for a nation’s failure to address real problems.
“The support of all the people is important,” said Watts, whose congregation continues ministering in Baltimore’s Brooklyn area. “But they are afraid.”
And we should be ashamed.
Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post’s local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. Before joining the Post, she covered social issues, crime and courts
• Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post’s local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. Before joining the Post, she covered social issues, crime and courts