The saddest, most horrifying part of Friday’s mass slaughter in the municipal offices in Virginia Beach is this: The only thing really remarkable about this shooting is that it’s happened in our state.
It’s not as if we should be surprised by this sort of thing, because it happens with alarming frequency. The last time there was a shooting of this magnitude? Last November, when 13 people —including the gunman — were shot and killed at a nightclub in Thousand Oaks, California.
Do you remember that one? If not, you probably won’t remember this one, either, except for its proximity to us.
Before that, let’s see, there was the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh in October 2018 that killed 11 people.
Does anyone even remember the shooting at a high school in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in May 2018 that killed 10 people?
Or were we still too pre-occupied by the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people? We remember the name of that school but not the one in Santa Fe.
And those are just the shootings in the past two calendar years that killed 10 or more people — because we don’t have room to list all the other mass shootings that killed “only” less than 10 people at a time. Nor, apparently, does America have enough memory for that kind of thing.
And that list doesn’t even get us to the other big shootings that do stick in our memories — in Las Vegas, in Orlando, in Sandy Hook, and yes, in Blacksburg, and before that, Columbine. How many can we remember at a time? The threshold keeps rising — and this one will soon be forgotten, except by those family members whose lost loved ones. That’s a terrible thing to say but it seems to be true: Do you remember the Geneva County Massacre that killed 11 people in Alabama in 2009? No? There you go.
Friday night, after the death toll became known, every Virginia politician of note issued a statement. One that caught our eye came from Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax County, the minority leader in Virginia’s House of Delegates. Among the things she said was this: “Unspeakable acts of violence like Virginia Beach experienced today cannot be our new normal.”
And yet they are the new normal. We have a mass shooting that kills 10 or more people every few months. If you want to lower the threshold, then it happens even more often. If that’s not the definition of “the new normal,” then what is?
Here’s the point that Americans don’t seem to have sufficiently absorbed: The regularity of such mass shootings (outside a wartime setting) is a purely American phenomenon. This kind of thing doesn’t happen in Canada. It doesn’t happen in Great Britain. It doesn’t happen in Australia. It doesn’t really happen anywhere else — except here. Why is that? Hold that thought.
Mind you, mass murders happen everywhere — but not with this regularity. There are terrorist attacks, of course, but they are a different flavor of horror and depravity. Those are politically motivated, which certainly doesn’t excuse them, but does help us understand them. They are committed by people whose ideology has twisted their minds so that they see innocents as combatants to be gunned down. But how are we to understand the more random kind of slaughter? We can’t, really. But we can understand this: The last time 10 or more people were killed in a mass shooting in Great Britain? 2010. In Australia? 1996. In Canada. 1989.
These are countries very much like our own, yet they are clearly very different from our own. Why is that? Hold that thought.
Now think about this: This didn’t use to happen. We can have the usual debate about guns but we’ve always had guns in this country, but we didn’t always have spasms of random violence like this. What’s changed? Is it simply that guns are more powerful, more capable of killing more people at once? Or is it some sickness in our culture? Or both? Laws but change the former but what can change the latter? What lessons will we learn from the shootings at the Virginia Beach Municipal Building? Honestly, probably none. After all, we have yet to even deal with all the lessons that we supposedly learned from the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, and that was a dozen years ago.
In the aftermath of that shooting, then-Gov. (and now U.S. Sen.) Tim Kaine did some extraordinary. He ordered a study of what happened and what could be done to prevent another such mass shooting. Kaine put together an all-star commission. It was led by Gerald Massengill, the retired superintendent of Virginia State Police. It included a 20-year-veteran of the FBI and an expert in violent behavioral problems and a professor of psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University. It included Diane Strickland, a retired circuit court judge from Roanoke and an expert on mental health commitments. Kaine, a Democrat, cast politics aside when he put together the panel. He recruited Tom Ridge, the former Republican governor of Pennsylvania, and the first secretary of Homeland Security in the administration of George W. Bush. Some wondered whether the panel would really ask the hard questions. The 260-page report that the panel issued put those concerns to rest for most people. It was an exhaustive account that did not spare criticism. Nor did it echo what others had already said; a sign of intellectual independence. The panel’s report made 72 recommendations — on everything from the role of police on a college campus to how Montgomery County should operate its emergency services. In between, there were more controversial recommendations on gun laws, privacy laws and Virginia’s mental health system. How many of those were ever acted on?
We don’t know. Some were, but nobody really knows how many because 12 years later, there’s never been any kind of formal check-up to find out. On the 10th anniversary of the Tech shooting, we called on then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe to either reconvene the commission or appoint a new one to conduct an audit of those 72 recommendations. He did not. After the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, last year, we called on Gov. Ralph Northam to do the same thing. He did not.
Today, we again call on him to do so. The circumstances of a workplace shooting — which Virginia Beach was — are different from those of a school shooting. But at some level, they’re all the same.
Why does this keep happening? It’s time to stop holding that thought.