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Thousand Oaks and Our Peculiarly American Affliction

Thousand Oaks and Our Peculiarly American Affliction

It has become my habit to check social media when I first wake up, a consequence of this modern age. I wasn’t sleeping well, so this morning I checked my phone around 5 a.m., expecting to see continued analysis of the midterm elections and maybe a charming news item about Cardi B. I should have known better.

According to statistics from the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 307 mass shootings in the 312 days of 2018. They are a commonplace occurrence. This is a horrifying thing to say, but it is the truth. We need to say this truth over and over. We need to face this horror without looking away. We live in a country where there are relatively few restrictions on gun ownership and where our cultural tolerance for mass murder appears to be infinite.

Less than a month ago I visited California State University Channel Islands, not far from where the shooting on Wednesday night took place. I was greeted by a deeply engaged audience. We had a thoughtful discussion about sexual violence, justice, trauma and healing. Some of those students might have been at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, Calif., Wednesday night, doing what college students are supposed to be doing — dancing and hanging out with friends, having fun. As I read the news Thursday morning, my chest tightened. I read quotes from students from that campus describing the sparks and the smoke they saw. I felt resignation creeping in.

Over the past two years there has been increased security at my events, armed guards. Sometimes they are there because I have received a threat. Sometimes they are there because I am a black woman with opinions and the threat is already implied. Every time I go on stage, I look out into the audience and wonder if there is a man with a gun in the sea of faces. I am not scared of him. I am resigned to the inevitability of him pointing that gun at me, at the crowd, and pulling the trigger. I don’t want to be this resigned. I don’t want you to be, either.

In an interview, the father of one of the young women who escaped the carnage at the Borderline Bar said his daughter did what he has taught her to do in the event of a mass shooting. It took me a moment to realize what he was saying. We are raising generations of children who are prepared for this kind of crime.

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A victim from the Thousand Oaks shooting is being treated in this image taken from video.CreditRMG News, via Associated Press

It is a peculiarly American affliction that this epidemic of gun violence doesn’t move us to take any real steps toward curbing gun violence and access to guns.

It is painfully obvious that there is no shooting appalling enough to make American politicians stand up to the National Rifle Association and gunmakers. A congressman was shot and critically wounded. Children at Sandy Hook Elementary were murdered. Revelers at the Pulse nightclub were murdered. Concertgoers in Las Vegas were murdered.

Our leaders think and pray their way through the horror. The politicians who rely on N.R.A. donations feign concern and continue taking that money. American voters keep these people in office, perhaps, because it isn’t their loved ones being murdered. Yet. And even if it were, I don’t know that their votes would change. Instead, people treat the Constitution like a fast-food value menu, choosing which amendments are sacrosanct (the First and Second) and which are disposable (any of those giving civil rights to anyone but white men).

The script following these shootings is too familiar — flags at half-staff, hollow words of sympathy — but what chills me is the relatively calm eloquence of the survivors speaking to reporters. How they don’t seem particularly surprised to have survived a mass shooting. That they are able, in the immediate aftermath of trauma, to articulate their experiences. They can do this because they have seen it done.

How do we change this script? How do we convince enough people that we are well past the time for radical action?

We must elect politicians who will ban assault weapons and at the very least enact legislation requiring federal, rigorous background checks for gun owners. But really, that’s not radical. It’s the bare minimum, and by the grace of that kind of legislation in California, the shooter was able to use only a handgun. This massacre where 13 people died could have been much worse.

In late September, I went to a gun range with my brother, who is a gun enthusiast. We spent about an hour shooting guns as he explained the merits of the various weapons. We wore safety goggles, and though it wasn’t my first time shooting a gun, he went over the safety protocols. Before we could even enter the range we watched a safety video. From the moment we entered the facility until the time we left, we were reminded of the danger of these weapons. Each gun was heavy in my hand, hot. Before long, the space around us was thick with the stench of oil and gunpowder. We were shooting at targets, metal and paper. There was a certain satisfaction when I shot well. I understood the appeal of holding that kind of power in the palm of my hand. I also understood the responsibility of holding a gun. I was awed by it. I was not so enamored that I want to own a gun myself. Yet.

Today I held a 4-month-old baby. He is cute and strong and wide-eyed. He still smells sweet and new. I held him and for a few minutes I forgot about everything terrible. I forgot about the man with a gun and the 12 other people he killed and the people he injured. I forgot about the man with a gun who walked into a yoga studio and started shooting. I forgot about the man with a gun who walked into a grocery store and started shooting. I forgot about the man with a gun who walked into a synagogue and started shooting. And then I looked at this baby’s tiny face and his wide, gummy smile. I remembered everything terrible. I understood the responsibility of holding a child. I was awed by it. I realized that as horrifying and commonplace and inevitable mass shootings are, we cannot do nothing. Stare into the horror. Feel it. Feel it so much that you are moved to act.

Roxane Gay, an associate professor at Purdue University, is the author of “Hunger,” and a contributing opinion writer.

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