It was a quiet, normal Wednesday at the SunTrust Bank branch in Sebring, Florida right up until about 12:30 p.m. or so. A teller, Marisol Lopez, was behind the counter dealing with any customers. She and the other women inside the nondescript brick low-rise had one thing in common: They had full and seemingly happy lives to return to once the more mundane business of banking was done.
SunTrust employee Jessica Montague, just 31 and raising not just her three kids but seven stepchildren, was getting ready to celebrate her husband’s birthday that night. Her co-worker Ana Pinon-Williams — with her own large blended family of seven children — was making plans for a family trip to Mexico. A bank customer, Cynthia Watson, had just been married days earlier.
Those all-too-brief happy lives came to an abrupt end at 12:36 p.m., on January 23, 2019.
That’s when a 21-year-old white man strolled into the SunTrust branch with the 9mm handgun and the bullets he’d purchased just a few days earlier.
Despite the weapon, the young man — whose name doesn’t deserve to be glorified — wasn’t there to rob the bank. He walked in with only one apparent purpose: To kill people. Specifically (or you could say not specifically), he was there to murder random total strangers. Perhaps not coincidentally, those strangers that he ordered on the floor and then shot, execution style, were all women.
Say their names: Marisol Lopez, Jessica Montague, Ana Pinon-Williams, Cynthia Watson. (The family of the fifth woman has shielded her name under a new Florida victims' rights law.) I would say that these are the latest victims of the American scourge of mass shootings — except that, in this new era of gun terrorism, they of course aren’t even the latest.
If you watched TV news over the last week, it’s all but guaranteed that you never heard the names of these female victims or even the despicable shooter, even as the name of another alleged Florida criminal, a huckster named Roger Stone, was uttered thousands of times. But not only that — you also probably saw next to nothing about another mass gun murder of five Americans that took place just three days later, when a different 21-year-old white male killed his girlfriend, her parents, and his own parents. “Five” was apparently America’s unlucky number last week — in Houston a man being served with a warrant pulled out his firearm and wounded five police officers before he and a second suspect were killed. Thankfully, the cops lived.
When I called a local anti-gun-violence advocate — Shira Goodman of CeaseFirePA — to talk about the recent shootings, she mentioned one right here in Pennsylvania that I literally knew nothing about. It turns out that also last week, a (stop me if you’ve heard this before) 21-year-old white male pulled out a gun in a hotel bar in State College, killing two of the three people that he hit, before he fled and broke into the home of an 83-year-old man, a stranger, whom he also shot to death before turning the weapon on himself.
I was flabbergasted to hear the details. I watch way too much cable-TV news because of my job, and I couldn’t believe that such a deadly rampage in a college town where thousands of Pennsylvania parents pray nightly that their children will be safe is no longer even considered news in America in 2019. I don’t know how much of that to blame on the around-the-clock reality-show-style coverage of a reality-show president, and how much is to blame on the devil’s bargain America stuck on December 14, 2012, when the nation watched 20 kindergartners and 1st-graders mowed down in their classroom and shrugged its collective shoulders and did nothing. All I know is that this is a morally unbearable state of affairs.
And here’s one more thing I don’t get. The way these shootings are all happening — the almost robotic similarity of these young and male and alienated and isolated killers, the recurring links to domestic violence or repressed sexuality and the large number of female victims, and the fact that these killings happen in everyday locales like a bank or a motel bar — scream out one word to me.
I know regular folks — and you probably do too — who love movies but who won’t go out to a multiplex in this country because they think too much about what happened in Aurora. That’s terror — the fear that in a nation with more guns than people and more and more of those people willing to use them, without even an irrational justification, you could be the next random victim any time you leave your house.
And when I read about what happened in Sebring or what happened in Gonzales, Louisiana, a part of me can’t help but think about the Boston Marathon terror attack in 2013. Yes, that was textbook terrorism — targeting a beloved sporting event — and it was bombs that maimed many people in addition to those killed. And so that story deserved the massive news coverage it received, yet the three deaths over a week were fewer than the victims of a random killing in Sebring that somehow was considered neither terrorism nor particularly newsworthy.
That matters because the cluster of attacks that we have dubbed “terrorism” since 2001 prompted the largest national response of the last half-century, including the swift passage of new laws, the creation of a entire government department, and major changes in the way we travel. One remarkable outcome of all of that is that the most tangible goal — zero tolerance for hijacking aircraft — was achieved. Can you imagine setting a goal of zero tolerance for mass gun shootings, let alone making that happen? Me neither.
Our newfound national indifference to gun violence matters because — despite January’s flurry of violence — 2019 has dawned with more hope on the political front to combat gun violence than any year in the last decade, if not longer. Indeed, last year’s midterm elections saw more candidates — not just for Congress but for state legislatures in Pennsylvania and elsewhere — running against the National Rifle Association and for saner gun laws than any time since the assassinations of the 1960s. Many of them won.
When I spoke this week with CeaseFirePA’s Goodman, she’d just returned from a rally for gun-control measures in Harrisburg that had been attended by Gov. Wolf and some of those new lawmakers. Some of the statewide momentum for gun measures comes from a tragedy that did make the news — the October shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue that claimed 11 lives.
Goodman said the elections — and the rare passage in 2018 in the state capitol of a measure backed by the gun-safety lobby that could more quickly lead to domestic violence perpetrators surrendering their firearms — has created hope that even more bills could come to fruition this year. Heading the 2019 list for activists is an “extreme risk” measure that could make it easier to round up guns from those deemed a threat to commit murder or suicide, as well a new push for background checks at gun-show sales and tighter gun-storage laws for the home. These are the kind of bills that typically — with the NRA holding sway in Harrisburg for as long as anyone can remember — simply get buried by a committee chair and never even come up for a vote.
And if we’ve truly lost our capacity for outrage at moments like the slaughter of the innocents in Sebring, and if we don’t treat our frequent acts of domestic terrorism with the same level of seriousness that we treated our very rare episodes of terrorism involving Muslims, it will be far too easy for the NRA’s handmaidens to keep those bills bottled up again this year. In 2019, let’s remember what it’s like to feel outrage and then let’s put it to use. That’s our responsibility as a society to those lost souls named Marisol Lopez, Jessica Montague, Ana Pinon-Williams, and Cynthia Watson.