Our American Atrocity Dilemma

Merriam-Webster defines “atrocity” as a “a shockingly bad or atrocious act, object, or situation.” In a different era, the word “atrocity” was used mostly in wartime situations, be it Babyn Yar in Kyiv, the Katyn Forest massacre in Poland, the Andersonville Prison during the American Civil War, or My Lai in Vietnam.

But since 1999 following the first modern mass school shooting at Columbine HS, I’ve been using words like “atrocity” and “massacre” to describe everyday American places: Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, the Pulse night club in Orlando, the FedEx facility here in Indy, Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, and now Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

America, obviously, has a gun problem, as well as a mental health dilemma. School massacres have gone from about 25 annually in 2000 to 236 in 2021 and more than 135 so far this year.

Since the pandemic hit in 2020, Americans have bought 40 million guns. Pew Research reports that the U.S. murder rate rose 30% between 2019 and 2020 – the largest single-year increase in more than a century, according to data published this month by the CDC. There were 7.8 homicides for every 100,000 people in the United States in 2020, up from six homicides per 100,000 people the year before. According to the FBI, there were 21,570 murders last year, up 29% from 16,669 in 2019 and the highest annual total since 1995.

A majority of the of these school rampages were done with AR-15, a gun designed for military combat. The 18-year-old Uvalde terrorist legally purchased two AR-15s, though he wasn’t old enough to buy a beer.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board observed: The recent proliferation of mass shootings suggests a deeper malady than gun laws can fix. Firearm laws were few and weak before the 1970s. Yet only in recent decades have young men entered schools and supermarkets for the purpose of killing the innocent. That a teenager could look at a nine-year-old, aim a gun, and pull the trigger signals some larger social and cultural breakdown.

The leading cause of death among American children is now guns, according to Axios. Indiana ranks 7th in the U.S. with 8.7 deaths per 100,000. Nearly two-thirds of the 4,368 U.S. youths up to age 19 who were killed by guns in 2020 were homicide victims (car crashes killed less than 4,000).

How should we respond?

A recent CBS News poll found 54% of Americans want laws covering the sale of guns; 30% believe gun laws should be kept as they are, and 16% want them to be less strict. A Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted entirely after the Uvalde massacre found 88% support requiring background checks for all gun sales (22% of guns are acquired without one); 75% back a national database; 67% favor banning assault rifles; 84% back blocking gun sales to those documented to be mentally ill.

Gov. Eric Holcomb said Wednesday that the focus should be on school safety, even though the Uvalde and Buffalo atrocities were perpetrated with security guards on the premise. “We have the means and we have the financial wherewithal to make sure that our schools maintain their integrity. That means one port of entry. That’s why we make sure they have wands, if needed,” he said. “You might call it hardening them when children are in the classrooms. We’re not going to, I believe, in the State of Indiana, take steps to restrict individuals who lawfully can purchase a gun, for sport or defense for themselves.”

There are some common sense policy and manufacturing steps. If I lose my cellphone, it’s useless to anyone who finds it. Why can’t we make guns requiring a fingerprint? Or banning gun purchases for those under age 21? Or prohibit those guilty of domestic violence from legally purchasing a gun? Or require background checks for those buying ammunition?

While the new Indiana congressional maps have created nine uncompetitive districts, there is a race for the U.S. Senate.

Republican U.S. Sen. Todd Young reacted to the latest Texas atrocity, saying, “I am deeply saddened by the horrific shooting at an elementary school in Texas. Our nation mourns the innocent lives taken in this senseless tragedy, and my heart breaks for everyone who lost a loved one. They deserve answers on how and why this terrible event took place. All children and teachers deserve a safe and welcoming environment in our schools. While we don’t yet know if it could have had an impact in this situation, enforceable red flag laws give local law enforcement a better chance at stopping senseless attacks.”

His Democratic opponent, Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., said, “Todd Young has done nothing since Sandy Hook. Young has done nothing since Pulse, Parkland, Indianapolis, Buffalo, and now Uvalde – and thousands of Americans have lost their lives. As we grieve the loss of our students and teachers in Texas, Todd Young is sitting in his office collecting donation after donation from the NRA to keep the status quo – all while wishing for thoughts and prayers in hollow statements. Senator, it’s time to act or get out of Washington for those – like me – who do want to stop this violence and save our loved ones’ lives.”

It’s time for this debate, as we await the next (inevitable) American atrocity.

– The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com