Did you hear the one about the middle-aged white man who calmly walked into a busy Colorado Walmart on Wednesday night, pulled out a handgun, murdered three completely random shoppers, and then coolly walked away? I'm not trying to make some kind of warped joke about a deathly serious and uniquely American tragedy. I'm literally asking if you've heard about it — because in 2017 a story of random gun terror claiming three innocent lives barely breaks through the clutter of Trump-era media chaos, amid a culture that's practically thrown its back out from shrugging its shoulders so hard and so often about our national obsessions with violence and weapons.
It happened just after 6 p.m. in a typical suburban strip of big-box stores and fast-food joints in a Denver suburb. The killer was well-dressed and fled in a sporty red Mitsubishi Mirage. One of the shoppers, Hayne Rucker, told the New York Times of a mad dash from the checkout counter to the front door when the shots rang out, and said that thoughts of so many other recent mass shootings raced through his brain. "You can't get that out of your mind," he said. "When you're in a public place and you hear gunshots, that's kind of the first thing that comes to your mind: Here we go again. Looks like this time, we are potential targets."
We are all potential targets — a notion that is somewhat terrifying.
That is not to be confused with "terrorism" — which occurs a lot less frequently on U.S. soil than mass shootings and which, unlike these incidents in which a white "American" dude turns Aisle 9 into a shooting gallery, get a much more urgent response from Washington, the elite news media, and the twitchy Twitter fingers of our 45th president.
The Colorado Walmart carnage took place exactly one month after the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history, when a man firing his semiautomatic-weapon-on-steroids from the 32nd window of a Las Vegas resort into a crowded country-music concert below managed to kill 58 people and wound 546 over nine unbearable minutes. The grim, choreographed ritual that followed the Nevada bloodshed followed the oh-so-predictable script of modern American politics: The "thoughts and prayers" of countless National Rifle Association-endorsed political handmaidens, the timid calls for a relatively minor incremental gun-safety legislation — to be followed by the complete abandonment of even that small-bore action once the ADD-addled media have forgotten that a once seemingly unforgettable massacre has even occurred.
In the case of Las Vegas, the public still doesn't even have the slightest clue why the killer — a wealthy 64-year-old white man who gave zero advance inkling of his intentions, other than taking advantage of our porous laws to acquire his massive armory of lethal weapons — did what he did. Nor do people seem to care much. The national conversation has spoken, and what it has said is, essentially, "Whatevs."
This is what unconditional surrender looks like.
America's collective amnesia on Las Vegas, and our lack of national will to tackle gun violence, is an embarrassment, but for the fact that we've proved generally over these last 10 months that we are not a country that easily feels embarrassment. And the current state of inaction was sealed when we as a nation did absolutely nothing after a gunman walked into a Newtown, Conn., elementary school and mowed down 26 people, mostly kindergartners and first graders.
No one epitomizes the cynical post-Newtown state of affairs better than one of our own, Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey. The senator has mostly been a reliable vote for the NRA, but after the Connecticut massacre in late 2012 he did cross the aisle to work, briefly and unsuccessfully, with West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin on one of those small-bore commonsense measures, to expand background checks for gun purchases. It wasn't a lot, but it was something — enough to persuade Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York mayor and leading gun-control advocate, to spend, through a political action committee, a whopping $3 million to ensure Toomey's narrow 2016 reelection.
Bloomberg has a reputation as a shrewd businessman, but Toomey has to have been the dumbest investment he ever made. The Pennsylvania conservative has shown zero passion and minimal interest in even the smallest gun-sanity measures since he returned to Capitol Hill in January. His spokesman Steve Kelly insisted to me in an email that Toomey "is definitely looking for ways to advance his background check legislation" — an effort so quiet that it's failed to make the slightest footprint on the congressional debate. In an interview 10 days after Las Vegas, Toomey did say "we need to take a hard look" at bump stocks, the device that the Vegas killer used to make his legal semiautomatic weapons function like mostly not-legal fully automatic ones.
But it was clear from Day One that "hard look" wasn't ever coming from Washington. Many lawmakers, including some Republicans, said in the hours after Las Vegas that action on bump stocks was required. But then the NRA pulled off a stealthy end run by seemingly agreeing on the bump-stock ban — yet also insisting that this wasn't a job for Congress but for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, knowing full well that the ATF doesn't have the appetite or even the legal mandate for such a move. Then the whole issue seemed to vanish in the haze of America's complex and increasingly apathetic relationship with gun carnage.
What's so frustrating is the stark contrast between how our top leaders react to events like Las Vegas or the Colorado Walmart shooting and how they deal with violent events that cause similar levels of death and injury to innocent Americans — yet are classified as "terrorism" because they involve Muslims or perpetrators who aren't white males. When a cowardly loser from Uzbekistan in a rented pickup truck fatally mowed down eight people on a Manhattan bike path Tuesday, President Trump branded the killer "an animal" who deserved the "DEATH PENALTY" and — more important — he called for specific governmental actions, such as eliminating the diversity visa lottery through which the Uzbek man had come to America, and possibly expanding his travel ban.
Those aren't necessarily the smartest responses to the New York incident, but there's a broader concept at work: the idea that the government can see a problem and actually decide to do something about it. Our initial responses to the 2001 terror attacks — stepped-up security at airports or with airliner cockpits, for example — have been remarkably effective in preventing those types of attacks. Just imagine what similar resolve on Las Vegas-style mass killings might accomplish.
Shira Goodman, executive director of the gun-safety lobbying group CeaseFirePA, told me she was "disappointed but not shocked" by Washington's anemic response to the Las Vegas massacre, but she also said that in the wake of tragedy there's "a new kind of energy and anger and frustration — we feel we should be asking more and holding people's feet to the fire."
Goodman feels there's more hope on the state level, noting bipartisan support, for example, in Harrisburg for a bump-stock ban and an apparent increased willingness to debate other gun-safety measures. Still, the NRA has historically had the same kind of clout bottling up state legislation that it has wielded in the nation's capital. But Goodman and other activists believe that citizens tired of gun violence can make a difference simply by reaching out to lawmakers, and also by voting in elections such as Tuesday's Pennsylvania judicial races.
That makes sense. The reason that the NRA has dominated the gun debate in this country for the last half century hasn't been money — its donations are small potatoes compared with players like the billionaire Koch brothers — but the zeal of its individual members and their enthusiasm for showing up on Election Day. What if legislators grew to be as afraid of offending the large majority of citizens who support commonsense laws like background checks or restrictions on assault weapons as they are currently scared of the gun lobby? What if Americans started pointing fingers … instead of just an outstretched shrug?