Overview

Mass shootings are predictable, says political commentator Marcus Johnson. So is the numbing pattern that inevitably follows.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

On May 14, 2022 at 2:30 pm local time, a shooter entered a building in an American city and took innocent lives. The name of the shooter is insignificant, while their race and gender are both significant and mostly predictable. This time the city was Buffalo, New York, but similar atrocities in a hundred US cities could serve equally well. In each case, the shooting serves as the prelude to a seven-act piece of socio-political theatre. Some of the acts are honest and well-meaning; others are cynical and grotesque.

But the net result of the cycle is always the same: nothing of substance changes.

Prelude: The shooting 

[SETTING: The United States]

An armed person, usually a white male, enters a place of business, or worship, or recreation, or commerce, or education, and begins firing. More often than not, the weapons have been obtained legally. Sometimes he acts on a personal grudge, sometimes on a generalized sense of grievance. Often there is some political motivation. People die. He is killed or captured. This happens so often that the news has lost its ability to shock. Sometimes a few people are killed, sometimes dozens. Immediately after the event, and at times even as it is ongoing, the media and public officials descend on the scene. 

Most run-of-the-mill American massacres end there. But if the death toll is large enough, or otherwise distinguishes itself in method, setting, or type of victim, the curtain rises on a seven-act play.

Act 1: The press conference

The official might say that the shooter “was a lone wolf,” a characterization meant to reassure the community that there is no larger political or cultural menace in play, and therefore no ongoing threat.

The mayor or police chief sets the tone at the press conference, either the day of the shooting or the next, filling in the blanks of a “mass shooting protocol” recently developed to guide mayors and city managers through the first 24 hours when the event comes to their town. The official might say that the shooter “was a lone wolf,” a characterization meant to reassure the community that there is no larger political or cultural menace in play, and therefore no ongoing threat. They are “assessing the shooter’s motives” and trying to track down the history of the weapon. Sometimes the shooting is ascribed to mental illness, the act of a deranged person. Just one of those terrible, unpredictable, thoughts-and-prayers events that you have to expect in a fallen world. At this point, the shooter is usually either arrested or dead. 

Act 2: The outcry

After the press conference comes the national fury. Gun control organizations mobilize online. Twitter becomes a hotspot for sharing details about the event and pushing public officials to introduce new legislation. Gun rights organizations face criticism of variable intensity during this period. It is in this fleeting moment that change seems possible. After such a heinous act, how could Congress fail to act? An upswell of public energy and a renewed effort to take on gun violence is met by faux conservative outrage that the tragedy is being “exploited.”

To keep things moving, this tends to be one of the shorter acts, measured less in weeks or months than in news cycles.

Act 3: The vigil

A day after the event, or a few, there is a traditional vigil, preceded or followed by a march or protest with state or national public officials in attendance. The pent-up frustration of those connected to the victims, whether by blood, community, or simply the shared experience of living in fear of these sudden spasms of murderous hate, is finally released. There are tears, there are cries of pain. Protesters and officials link arms, embrace.

A concurrent burst of political demands following the event marks the high point of public consciousness. Although the sound and fury may continue for some time, the story itself slowly begins to fade from view. 

Act 4: Demands and promises 

In Act 4, politicians are at their most forceful, commanding the undivided attention of C-SPAN. The shooter’s ideology and motivations face public scrutiny. Elected officials (generally Democrats) urge empty House and Senate chambers to recognize the vital need for change. Americans have had enough, they say. Sandy Hook was not enough, The Pulse nightclub was not enough, the Vegas music festival, Virginia Tech, El Paso and Parkland and Aurora and Virginia Beach and a hundred other locations whose names briefly designated not places but events (“Did you hear about Virginia Beach?”)—each of these fell somehow just short of enough.

Sandy Hook was not enough, The Pulse nightclub was not enough. A hundred other locations whose names briefly designated not places but events (“Did you hear about Virginia Beach?”)—each of these fell somehow just short of enough.

But this time, we are briefly assured, enough will be enough.

But this time, we are briefly assured, enough will be enough.

Politicians might condemn white nationalism at this point, though rarely: The Act 1 monologue about lone wolves and mental illness have already derailed any serious consideration of such larger contexts. They may even introduce actual legislation in Congress.

(If you haven’t seen this show before, spoiler alert: No matter how minor or attenuated the bill becomes, it will fail.) 

Act 5: Obfuscation 

The response of the public and the Democratic Party has been scrutinized and autopsied by conservatives. Time has been bided. Now comes the pivot to gun rights. The “good guy with a gun” soliloquy is a favored plot device at this point. No matter the scenario, no matter how deadly the shooting, the conservative response will reliably include the claim that more guns on the scene would have prevented the shooting. This typically culminates in an act of diversion that would shame a boardwalk magician, including fierce conservative attacks against gun control activists, with pro-gun organizations claiming that the right to every imaginable form of gun ownership is inalienable. Gun sales tend to increase during these periods as conservatives urge their base to stock up “before they come for your guns”—an eventuality they know very well is not in any version of the script.

Act 6: The fog of time

We are forgetting creatures. Even violent, dramatic events fade quickly from our collective consciousness. Gun rights activists count on that psycho-social reality after each mass shooting. Time passes. Weeks turn to months. Americans move on with their everyday lives. They go shopping at Walmart, go to concerts, eat at McDonald’s, go to church or school or the workplace, forgetting the Americans who were going about their everyday lives at Walmart, at concerts, at McDonald’s, at church and school and work before being gunned down. And the ones before them, and the ones before them. More time passes. Months turn to years.

A group of gun control activists keeps pressing on, but even this engaged core dwindles over time. The shooting migrates from front-page headlines and Facebook profile picture frames to anniversary remembrances to a cultural footnote.

Act 7: The outcome

After the pain, anger, and grief comes a sort of numb amnesia. Whatever political will existed loses steam. In a few cases, there is a symbolic outcome, and symbols can matter. After nine African Americans were gunned down in a racist attack in Charleston, state capitols in the south began removing Confederate flags. Sometimes the symbolism is small, such as a community slogan or hashtag. But in the political arena, where the rules are made, time has shrunk the promised legislation in Act 4 to a ban (or more likely a modest limit) on the sale of the very precise type of magazine used in the very specific war weapon used in this particular attack.

And even this feeble shadow of the promised bill will generally fail to pass.

The symbolic outcome rarely has any tangible impact on gun control. There is a sense that public officials have given up, that they’ve resigned themselves to believing there is nothing they can do to stop the next mass shooting. 

Finding ourselves once again in Act 7 of this all-too-familiar play, it’s hard to argue with them.

Prelude: The next shooting 

The cycle serves its purpose. Emotion is vented, action is demanded—then time-tested methods of preventing action are applied. Most frustrating of all is the knowledge that all of the actors, and even those of us watching from the balcony, know it is going to happen again. In a matter of days. Weeks. Months. The only question is the degree and the location. How many deaths this time? How many people are going to be needlessly taken away from their families because they had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Which community will be ripped apart, then left vulnerable by inaction?

Mass shootings aren’t forces of nature. They aren’t hurricanes, or earthquakes, or tsunamis. They aren’t lightning strikes. They are entirely predictable and entirely preventable. Other wealthy, industrialized nations have exceedingly few gun deaths. Japan has virtually eliminated gun deaths altogether. Such violence can be significantly reduced, if not entirely eliminated. It just takes the political will.


Related: The mating minds of mass shooters


For much of US history, Americans have taken pride in American exceptionalism—the idea that the US is fundamentally different from other nations, and that lessons learned and solutions applied elsewhere cannot be applied to the uniquely special American experiment.

America is an exceptional cultural and economic superpower. But the very concept of American exceptionalism masks a great dysfunction in the US. Individualism is one of the sources of America’s economic strength, but unchecked, unfettered individualism is also why so many Americans believe they have the inalienable right to shoot and kill others. American exceptionalism is the thin veneer over a dysfunctional federal government, held hostage by an extreme political party that represents a great many people. As a result, it cannot follow the example of other major nations worldwide in removing a deadly threat to its own population. So we end up exceptional in other ways, including the tolerated presence of a long-running seven-act piece of traveling murder theatre coming to a city near you.

In a sane world, this kind of gross negligence would be considered a human rights violation. After all, federal and state governments know that their citizens face a deadly threat and do nothing to prevent it. But in America, fealty to individualism and the right to harm others means that nothing will happen. No serious attempts at gun control, no major new gun regulations. Just thoughts and prayers, and the strangely soothing sameness of the seven acts.

In a nation where a routine trip to the mall or the grocery store can mean a gruesome death, thoughts and prayers are less than worthless. They are offensive, a slap in the face to the high value we claim to place on life. The lives of the victims of mass shootings mattered. Their families and friends will grieve their deaths for the rest of their lives. But to the culture at large, their lives had value only for the duration of a news cycle, if that.

In one major way, this timeline is wishful thinking. No mass shooting fully plays out from first shots to timid Congressional outcome before the next one occurs, and the next. The cycles are overlapping, the massacres continuous. As of this writing, 140 days into 2022, there have been 198 mass shootings since January 1, defined as events in which four or more individuals are shot (excluding the perpetrator). Every 17 hours on average, somewhere in the US, the seven-act play is starting again.

Children could be forgiven if they pointed and laughed at a flag flying from the top of its pole.

There’s a well-known trope that the rich and powerful are “above the law.” In the US, the national gun culture holds that exalted place. There is no federal law, no national regulation that can restrain it. Congress rarely even tries. That’s why the next mass shooting is going to happen. It’s why both the event and the tired pattern that follows are so utterly, numbingly predictable.

Marcus Johnson

Marcus Johnson is a political commentator and a political science Ph.D. candidate at American University. His primary research focus is the impact of political institutions on the racial wealth gap.