On May 25, one year after George Floyd died under the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin, activists, mourners, and neighbours gathered to honour the anniversary — and ended up face-down on the street themselves. Not dying, but diving for cover, as gunshots rang out on the Minneapolis block that has since become known as George Floyd Square.
Chauvin will go to prison for Floyd’s murder, having been found guilty of murder in a court of law, but the sweeping civil unrest that followed the 2020 killing — and which still continues in some spaces unabated — is its greater legacy. Riots and looting left multiple urban neighbourhoods in ruins; more productive forms of protest led to tangible policy change. Punitive bail policies that target the already disadvantaged have been revoked; new laws have been passed restricting the use of chokeholds and no-knock warrants; more states are requiring the use of police body cameras and mandating the swift release of footage when an encounter with the cops results in violence or death.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
But at the same time, an unsettling rise in violent crime over the past year threatens to undermine the cause. Last weekend, multiple shootings occurred in various American cities — and media outlets leaped to declare a crisis. “Bloody weekend in America renews call to stop the shootings,” wrote The Times, which pointed out that the “mass shootings” had “brought total number killed by guns in the US this year to 7,601, with an additional 9,504 dying from suicides.”
“America has already endured 230 mass shootings and 13 mass murders in 2021,” said Axios on Monday. Today, the Gun Violence Archive — a non-profit organisation that tracks all shootings in the US — puts the total number of mass shootings so far this year at 232: the California Bay area saw its worst incident since the early 90s in San Jose on Wednesday. Indeed, since the Times story was published on Tuesday, the Archive has tallied up 257 more deaths caused by guns, bringing this year’s total to 7,858 — or, if you include suicides, 17,626.
Crime and policing have become so fraught, so politicised, that despite the need for urgent action, productive discussion on these topics is a rarity in America. And no issue better illustrates the unbridgeable divide than the debate over gun violence. At one extreme is the gun enthusiast, a card-carrying member of the NRA who owns dozens of weapons — as is his inalienable right, according to the second amendment — and mocks the sissy libs who want to take them away. At the other is the blue-state pacifist, who has never held a gun in his life but nevertheless would like to abolish them entirely, including taking them out of the hands of police. In between them is a landscape littered with bullet casings and dead bodies that both sides shamelessly use as props in an endless, seemingly unresolvable debate about who’s to blame: the guns, or the people using them.
“What’s clear, as the president has said, is that we are suffering from an epidemic of gun violence in this country,” said the White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre in response to events in San Jose, “both from mass shootings and in the lives that are being taken in daily gun violence that doesn’t make national headlines.” But if you look behind the headlines, the distinction she draws is blurred. CNN, whose headline read, “There were at least 12 mass shootings across the US this weekend,” included a pivotal disclaimer a few lines in: “CNN defines a mass shooting as an incident with four or more people killed or wounded by gunfire — excluding the shooter.” This definition also stems from the Gun Violence Archive, which interprets a mass shooting as any incident in which at least four victims (not including the shooter or shooters) are shot and either injured or killed.
But in shaping its coverage around this definition, the media elides distinctions that are vital to understanding the different ways that gun violence manifests — and arguably misleads readers who don’t realise how much nuance is being lost. The GVA makes no distinction between an incident of terrorism like the Pulse nightclub tragedy; a disgruntled employee “going postal” at his workplace (as happened in San Jose); or a drug-related skirmish in which two rival gang members start shooting at each other and the wounded are innocent bystanders who simply caught in the crossfire. They’re all lumped together under the “mass shooting” umbrella.
But for most people, whose awareness of gun violence centres on high-profile, high-fatality incidents in places like schools or churches, the words “mass shooting” evoke something quite specific: the image of a lone gunman — always male, usually white — firing into a crowd of innocent, unarmed people without warning. A mass shooting is Stephen Paddock raining down bullets from a Las Vegas hotel suite, as a crowd of concertgoers screams and scatters below. It’s Adam Lanza murdering innocent children and teachers at Sandy Hook elementary school with a bag full of semiautomatic weapons. It’s Eliot Rodgers’ incel massacre.
This type of shooting, also known as a rampage or spree killing, is rare as compared with other forms of violence; in 2020, a year in which roughly 20,000 Americans were killed by guns, there were no rampage killings in the US at all. Yet we tend to highlight these incidents above others in discussions about gun violence — or, as CNN did here, use language that evokes them — not just because they’re particularly horrifying, but because they’re easy to politicise. Defining “mass shootings” in an overbroad way allows us to insist that the problem is guns, not crime, and that the solution lies in gun reform, not law enforcement.
This is a narrative generally favoured by politicians on the Left, for whom gun control is a relatively easy issue on which to take a hardline stance without losing voters (whereas a tough-on-crime position can alienate those further Left.) It’s also the one preferred by the Biden administration, which actively steered the conversation in this direction in a recent press conference. When asked about the weekend’s violence, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said:
“Certainly there’s a gun problem. Between mass shootings that get a lot of attention, that we lower the flags, there are hundreds, thousands who lose their lives and that’s one of the reasons the president will continue to advocate for the Senate passing universal background checks.”
Passing major gun control measures was one of Biden’s bigger campaign promises, and universal background checks are just one part of that; the President’s gun reform wish list also includes more legal liability for gun manufacturers, banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and closing loopholes that allow people with records of domestic abuse and stalking to get their hands on weapons. He’s also proposed a gun buyback program and taken aim at kits that allow the creation of “ghost guns,” unlicensed firearms with no serial number, which are popular with criminals. Unfortunately, the background check measures have passed in the House but stalled in the Senate, where Democrats lack the numbers to push them through and can’t seem to convince any Republicans to cooperate across the aisle.
Psaki’s pivot away from rising violence and toward gun reform legislation is a politically savvy move — but it also pivots away from the truth. Even if you believe (as I do) that universal background checks are a great idea, focusing on this and other reforms that primarily affect the sale of licensed firearms is a way of avoiding the complicated nature of tragedies like the spate of shootings last weekend.
Many of these tragedies took place in communities plagued by continual violence, where murders happen so frequently that pop-up shrines to commemorate shooting victims are a common roadside presence, and where perpetrators frequently escape arrest because residents fear retaliation if they talk to the cops. Some were gang or drug-related, and several involved conflicts between multiple armed assailants who ended up hitting innocent bystanders when they were trying to shoot at each other. In Youngstown, Ohio, an altercation at a nightclub spilled into the street and exploded in gunfire that left two people dead. In North Charleston, South Carolina, fourteen people were shot, and one teenage girl killed, after a fight broke out at an “unauthorized concert”; the police are still looking for multiple shooters. In Minneapolis, another nightclub shooting allegedly began with a confrontation between gang members who both pulled guns and began firing.
And because this type of gun violence often involves illegally obtained firearms, gun reform legislation or more stringent background checks would have done nothing to take the weapons out of these killers’ hands.
The “mass shooting” narrative, in which the biggest threat is the ubiquity of the guns themselves, also obscures the tangled web of class, cultural and community factors that create these horrific tragedies — as well as the human cost to ordinary people who live every day with the endemic threat of violence. And the Left’s obsessive focus on more unusual forms of gun violence, whether it’s police shootings or rampage killers, misses the ugly truth that people in communities plagued by crime are far more likely to be killed by a neighbour than they are by a cop.
The prominence of a given death seems to depend more on the identity of the villain than the victim. When police shot and injured Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin last year, there were protests, riots, and strikes by multiple professional sports teams, as the whole country rallied around the idea that black lives matter. And yet, the two dozen black children killed in incidents of community violence since the start of 2021 don’t seem to matter to anyone; there are no protests, no namesake legislation, no hashtagged outpouring of rage and grief. Perhaps one of the strangest omissions in this narrative, considering the source, is that both the victims and the shooters in last weekend’s brutality were virtually all people of colour.
Of course, while the Left pivots towards guns-not-violence, the Right will pounce on its own pet issues. The phrase “black-on-black crime” will make an appearance, invoking ugly racial stereotypes while ignoring the anguish of the communities and families who live with such constant grief, fear, and loss. Policies favoured by the Left, from defunding police departments to bail reform, will be blamed for leaving more criminals on the street while giving law enforcement fewer means to deal with them. They will note that it’s not just shootings that are up, but crime across the board: car-jackings, muggings, brutal assaults in broad daylight. They’ll blame progressive lawmakers for empowering criminals to offend with no fear of arrest, from Chesa Boudin in property crime-plagued San Francisco to Jacob Frey in violence-ridden Minneapolis. They’ll be a little too gleeful when one of the police-free autonomous zones in places like Portland or Seattle devolves into chaos that results in someone’s death.
Nobody will offer policy solutions; everyone will point fingers across the aisle. The Blue Lives Matter crowd says, what can police do? Their hands are tied. Their opponents counter that their hands aren’t tied, they’re just sitting on them — on purpose.
The truth is buried somewhere here, but conversations like these will never reveal it. It’s all heat and no light, all the time. Yes, some politicians are trying to strike a balance on criminal justice reform: NYC mayoral candidate Andrew Yang recently suggested revisiting the city’s elimination of cash bail for non-felony offenders to address the issue of hate crimes, in which perpetrators have gone on to attack someone else as soon as they’re back on the street. He is an outlier, though — and even in deep blue New York City, the mayoral race has become dominated by the issue of gun violence. It’s not a coincidence that Yang’s fiercest opponent is Eric Adams, a more conservative former police officer who has promised to take a tough-on-crime approach to reducing shootings.
Meanwhile, America has settled into two separate, well-worn grooves, forever digging deeper instead of rising up and out in search of common ground. The Right will go on taking ghoulish delight in spiking crime rates, perhaps quietly hoping that it’ll get worse yet, so that come 2024 they can claim that Joe Biden’s America is indistinguishable from the dystopian nightmare of the sci-fi film The Purge — the kind of country where you’d have to be crazy not to have a few guns for self-protection.
And the Left will remain safely ensconced in their white upper-crust neighbourhoods, vowing to “save” their poorer, blacker neighbours from the racist rule of law, whether the neighbours want this or not (and they don’t: across the board, including in black communities, police abolition remains a largely unpopular proposal.) They’ll sneer back and forth about the Ferguson Effect, in which community distrust of police leads the cops to pull back from policing in vulnerable neighbourhoods, which in turn leads to a spike in crime rates (a real and dangerous phenomenon, or a myth that coddles cowardly racist cops, depending on your political sensibilities.) They’ll start another unwinnable war over the second amendment.
And in the meantime, whatever it is that’s causing Americans to kill each other at a nearly 20% greater rate than they were at this time in 2020 will continue to cost lives.
But unless the violence fits the narrative, most of us will never hear about it. Even as national media descended upon Minneapolis to await the verdict in Derek Chauvin’s murder trial, little mention was made of the countless lives lost or upended by violence in the city since last May. Since the death of George Floyd, at least 100 people have been murdered in Minneapolis. Nearly 200 have been shot. Among the dead are several children. The four-block grid now known as George Floyd Square remains closed off, guarded by security checkpoints to keep law enforcement out; possibly for this reason, it is something of a magnet for acts of violence, including drive-by shootings.
On March 6 of this year, when one man was shot and killed just steps from the same place where Chauvin killed Floyd, police reported meeting resistance when they tried to enter the scene. But when shots rang out yesterday, sending those who came to honour George Floyd’s memory diving for cover, it was a different story: according to witnesses, the police never showed up at all.