Tom Petty said many wise things during his all-too-short lifetime — none more so than, “The waiting is the hardest part.” No one takes it on faith, or to the heart, that America can find true justice in the anticipated verdict on the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin — hence, the call-up of the Pennsylvania National Guard — but let’s be honest: A national culture of violence and broken politics already had us at the end of our collective rope. Did someone forward you this email? Sign up to receive this newsletter weekly at inquirer.com/bunch, because no matter what comes next, the struggle will go on.
In 2020′s pandemic year, record gun sales. In 2021, tragically, Americans are using them.
No one can say they didn’t see this coming. It was just over one year ago — amid the initial shock of a fast-moving global pandemic and the United States on lockdown, with deeper fears and paranoia beginning to set in — that, along the silence of empty streets, hordes of people lined up down city sidewalks to get into gun stores.
On March 18, 2020, The Inquirer reported that 30 people — some of them wearing protective masks, maybe for the first time — were waiting to get inside the Philadelphia Gun and Archery Club in South Philly (that famed archery hotspot) to purchase a deadly weapon or to stock up on ammunition amid the uncertainty of the pandemic.
“I’m looking to get an AR-15,” Joe Lynch, a 46-year-old longshoreman from South Philadelphia, told the newspaper, voicing concern over a report that police would stop enforcing lower-level crimes because of the coronavirus risk. “It’s a crazy city we’re living in.”
It turns out it’s a crazy country, too. Lynch was becoming part of a record year in America, as the people of a nation that already had more than one gun for every individual — or about 46% of the entire world’s total — went off the deep end, with federal background checks recording just under 40 million additional firearms purchases in 2020. The rate spiked even higher with the January 6, 2021, insurrection on Capitol Hill, with 4.3 million gun sales that month.
The playwright Anton Chekhov, when asked about his craft, said famously, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” In 2020, America hung up 40 million new pistols — or semi-automatics — on the wall, so it’s not surprising in 2021 that the nation is having what a critic might call second-act problems.
The gun-murder rate was already rising sharply in Philadelphia and other large cities when a spate of mass killings — of the variety that had mostly vanished from the headlines during the depths of the pandemic — shook the country, beginning with a Georgia killing spree that took eight lives, including six women of Asian descent, and the murder of 10 people in and around a Boulder, Colorado, supermarket.
Two of those 40 million guns that were sold in 2020 went to a 19-year-old teenager in Indianapolis, even though his family had warned the FBI that he was at risk to commit “suicide by cop” and a firearm he’d previously owned had been confiscated. Last week, the man went on a shooting rampage at a FedEx facility where he’d once worked — killing eight people, including four members of Indiana’s Sikh community — before turning a gun on himself.
This weekend, the shootings across America were so fast and furious it was hard to keep track of them. I went to sleep Sunday night not realizing that the mass shooting in Shreveport, Louisiana — which seriously wounded five people at a road-work delay — was a different event from the mass shooting in LaPlace, Louisiana, where it turns out that “a child,” according to police, wounded nine other kids at a 12-year-old’s birthday party. In Columbus, Ohio, a drive-by shooter killed one person and injured five others during a vigil in the parking lot of a Dollar General for a man who’d been murdered at that spot one year before. To save space, I’ll spare you the details of the triple murders in an Austin apartment complex and in a Kenosha bar.
“If more guns made us safer, we’d be the safest country in the world — but it’s clear as day we’re not,” Shannon Watts, the founder of the anti-gun-violence group Moms Demand Action, told me in an email interview. “As our communities continue to re-open, I’m terrified by the fact that we saw record gun sales last year.” She said we can’t continue to accept 100 firearms deaths every day — that it’s imperative the 50-50 Senate pass expanded background checks and other gun safety laws.
But the flood of new gun and ammo purchases during the pandemic is clearly going to make the mountain of reducing gun violence in America even steeper than it already had been. Jennifer Carlson, an associate sociology professor at the University of Arizona who spent much of 2020 studying the surge in weapons sales, said in an online Q-and-A the uptick was driven by rising fear — and a flood of first-time time buyers who were not just conservative white men. Said Carlson: “I heard lots of reports of more women, more people of color, and more people from the LGBTQ community purchasing guns.”
Other academics are already finding a not-super-surprising correlation between the spike in gun sales and unwanted deaths. The University of California Firearm Violence Research Center said gun violence related directly to the sales surge rose 8 percent last spring, while a team at the Brookings Institute said George Floyd racial justice protests that began in late May may have triggered even more purchases, with steeper increases in jurisdictions with higher rates of racial animus. This was all before January 6, which accelerated fears of societal breakdown.
Clearly, action in Washington would help. That would take the media acknowledging that current Republicans will never help on gun safety and Democrats, including President Biden, acknowledging only an end to the filibuster would bring background checks or a return to the ban on assault weapons that was effective in the 1990s.
But with so many guns already in the hands of so many Americans, restrictions now on sales may be too little, too late. We may keep seeing these headlines that Biden himself called “a national embarrassment” until we better address some of the anxieties that caused those folks to line up at gun stores in the first place. We could start with mental health: Team Biden, to its credit, did get $2.5 billion to bolster services in the COVID-19 relief bill, but that feels like a drop in the bucket, especially as surveys showed Americans had more pandemic stress than comparable nations. With 400 million guns already out there from coast-to-coast, the most realistic approach may be getting people not to use them. Right now, that’s not happening.
Yo, do this
Like the Beatles appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show, the 2014 drop of Season 1 of the podcast Serial was a pop-culture revolution, and nearly seven years later every new podcast from the Serial crew, bought out not long ago by the New York Times, feels a little like a new Fab Four LP. The Improvement Association, from Zoe Chace, is a super timely look at voter fraud through the lens of the only place in America where it’s recently happened — Bladen County, North Carolina — and what the real issues are. You might not be shocked to learn that race relations are at the heart of voter suppression.
Have I mentioned that Philadelphia is having a pop-culture moment in 2021? Just days after the yin of the North Philly-drenched Concrete Cowboy comes the yang of HBO Max’s new Sunday night series Mare of Easttown (yes, THAT Easttown!), for which Academy Award-winner Kate Winslet prepared by eating turkey gobblers from Wawa and washing them down with “wooder.” The naming choice of a more upscale township in Chester County — for a working-class community that’s 100% Delco — is the only clunker in the first episode, which sets up a murder mystery amid detective Mare Sheehan’s mid-life cynicism and an unrelenting portrait of middle-class survival in the Philly ‘burbs.
Ask me anything
Question: In honor of 4/20 will PA legalize marijuana? — Via Larry David (@thephillyguy) on Twitter
Answer: Even though a plurality of you wanted my opinion on the new European soccer league (it stinks), I feel compelled to answer the 4/20 question on this important day. The sad reality is that even though a recent poll showed that 59% of Pennsylvanians support legal recreational weed, the other 41% includes the only Pennsylvanians whose opinion really matters: GOP legislative leaders in Harrisburg. The vast majority of these Republicans back the minority viewpoints that marijuana is a dangerous “gateway drug.” or that stoned drivers are a risk. Plus, why give a win to a Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the leading advocate for legalization? So the short-term prospects are bleak.
Regular readers know I’ve been spending most of my so-called “free time” this past year researching and writing a forthcoming book (May 2022, inshallah) on what’s gone wrong with the American way of college and how that became the driver of our angry, divided politics. A critical turning point in this saga came in the 1960s and ‘70s when panicked conservatives (most notably Ronald Reagan) decided mass higher education gave kids too many ideas about protesting for racial justice or peace, which led to constantly rising tuition, which led to massive student debt and working-class resentment, which led to ... well, you know the rest. But here’s the thing: It’s 2021, and conservative lawmakers still want college kids to shut up.
In Minnesota, where students have been at the vanguard of protests — blocking an interstate highway bridge, for example — over last year’s Minneapolis killing of George Floyd under the knee of Officer Derek Chauvin, a Republican lawmaker just introduced a bill that would punish demonstrators convicted of a crime by yanking any state-backed student loans (as well as any other government benefits). That probably won’t become law as long as Minnesota has a Democratic governor, but Florida — led by GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis — this week took the lead in criminalizing what’s supposed to be your 1st Amendment right to protest. The measure that DeSantis calls “an anti-riot law” grants civil legal immunity to people who drive through protesters blocking a road and, according to pro-civil liberties groups, could also lead to the arrest of peaceful protesters. Today’s GOP would rather silence people than make their lives better. Stay tuned.
Inquirer reading list
In my Sunday column, I relished the chance to show a national issue through the prism of Philadelphia, as I looked at the question of whether America’s past highway construction was racist (spoiler alert: it was), how a road project divided and in many ways devastated the Philly neighborhood of Nicetown, and whether a $20 billion set-aside for such communities proposed by President Biden could help.
Over the weekend, I looked at the ways the American police state is fighting back against the racial reckoning demanded by 2020′s protests and the current Derek Chauvin trial in Minneapolis, especially under the “thin blue line” flag in Brooklyn Center, Minn., where protesters and journalists have been pepper-sprayed and roughed up. And I questioned the need for National Guard troops to again patrol Philadelphia.
It’s not an everyday event when The Inquirer yells “Stop the presses!” — for good, after 192 years. Don’t worry, neither the print newspaper nor Inquirer.com are going anywhere, but the actual printing has been outsourced to South Jersey, ending the jobs of about 500 people who’d been working from a facility near Conshohocken since 1992. This sad, poignant moment was captured beautifully by writer Anthony R. Wood and photojournalist Tim Tai. Please help The Inquirer serve Philadelphia for another 192 years. Subscribe today.