by R. Anthony Arnold
Gun violence is a story of little numbers, and of the stories that hide behind them.
At 11 a.m. on Memorial Day, the 72 hours prior, the United States produced those gun violence statistics.
But those numbers are too big, right? So here’s a smaller one.
Of the dead, 10 of them were children. Of the injured, there were 7. In just 72 hours a classroom of kids were either killed or injured from routine gun violence.
The incidents happened in the usual places like Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, and my hometown of Indianapolis. But, have you heard of Vaughan, Mississippi? Probably not. It’s an unincorporated area in Yazoo County.
On May 27th, at four in the afternoon, 2 people lost their lives there, when somebody shot them. Details at the time were a bit scarce, in part due to the fact that Vaughan is a part of the country not typically connected to gun violence, but also because there was an active manhunt going on for the shooter. We may learn more when the manhunt is complete, assuming it’s successful.
When compiling the numbers of those injured and killed, one might be struck by how unspectacular they are. Staring at a computer screen with my calculator nearby, figuring out the number of people who had been killed or injured over the last three days by gun violence, it all became rather mundane and boring.
But there came a realization that it is just the number “1” over and over again. One person was killed. One person was injured. Sometimes broken up by a larger number here and there. But by and large it’s just the number “1” repeated time and time again. A little number that hides so much.
The story of gun violence in America isn’t one of spectacular outbursts of violence. It’s about all the incidents you’ll never hear about, in the places you can’t name, but that contain the same tragedy and pain. They come with the same questions attached, and they demand the same level of urgency and outrage.
On May 29th, in New York, a man with “a long felony sheet died after a brutal attack with multiple gunshots and repeated stabbings.” That’s from the NY Daily News. Maybe you read that and you think “No great loss. It was probably just revenge for something he had done before.” And who gets too worked up about “street justice,” right?
But, what about this story from Indianapolis? In the early morning hours of May 30th a 17-year-old was killed. Strangely, both he and his family were from another state. Were they visiting for Memorial Day, on a day when we celebrate and honor the dead?
At a neighborhood block party, in celebration of a man’s 80th birthday party, a 24-year-old was killed. A witness said that “a dozen shots rang out.” Was this a targeted killing? Or just another random and senseless act? Either way, there’s an irony to a young man being killed at a party celebrating just how long another man has lived.
Police killed a man after exchanging gunfire in Sedalia, Missouri.
Was there protesting? Did they really have to kill him? Could they have acted with more patience, and less urgency? Was lethal force really required? All these questions will go unanswered, because it’s Sedalia.
Then it happens. While trying to discover these stories, a particularly tragic event takes place.
In Grand Rapids, Michigan, 13-year-old Gabriel Hojnacki and his friend were playing with a gun. The grandfather of the shooter, George Gross, said he was at work, and that he stored his gun in an unlocked dresser in his bedroom. The gun discharged, shooting Gabe. He later died at the hospital.
Words like “discharged” make it sound so clinical. So dry. But what those words cover up is the immense violence inflicted upon the body of a boy, a child who could have been our own. The shredding and the bleeding and the pain. Was his death mercifully fast? Did he die before he knew what had happened?
Or did he suffer? Did he realize, perhaps dimly, that his life was leaking out? Did the paramedics and trauma surgeons work feverishly to save him, before realizing that nothing further could be done? Either way the deed is done, and young Gabe is dead.
You can send your well wishes and your prayers to either the family, or your God. But none of it will bring Gabe back, will it?
What about the other child? Lost in the sure to come outpouring of grief and anguish for young Gabe is the mental, emotional, and psychological trauma that must come with accidentally killing your friend while playing a foolish game. Will he be okay? Likely not. Perhaps there should be an effort mounted that will make sure this child gets the care and support he will most assuredly need in the days, weeks, months, and years to come.
In these stories we see the number “1” for the lie that it is. When a child dies, there’s far more than one person impacted. A community grieves, trying its best to pick up the pieces. Another child suffers, facing an uncertain future. When a celebration of life turns into a murder scene, it reminds us that even our happy moments carry with them the possibility of unchecked violence. Even a possible revenge killing carries with it many questions.
It’s remarkable how the same number, repeated time and time again, conceals so much. These insights into how gun violence plays out. Behind each number are stories that will never be told.
What might have been, had so many of these numbers been a “0”, instead? Imagine zero gun deaths, zero people shot. Every time we add a number to the list, we’re removing infinite possibilities. Every needless injury and death harms us all in imperceptible ways, making our society a little worse off.
Instead of the potential gains to our society, we’ve replaced them with pain and confusion.
Why me? Why here? Why now? What’s next? Question after unanswerable question.
Since Texas, we’ve been having a “conversation” in America. We’re very good at having “conversations.” Some would say that we love talking about problems and causes, more than we love actually solving them. The people tasked with the job of coming up with and implementing solutions are certainly like this.
You can’t fail if you don’t try, right?
Our conversation has recently turned to the catastrophic series of failures that led to police not doing much of anything while an angry young man proceeded to kill our children. We’re going to stay laser focused on the police in this case, until we get the pound of flesh we’re looking for. At which point we’ll move on, because we always move on.
Reforms will be suggested. New policies will be drawn up. Perhaps the most bare minimum of steps will be taken. Some people will lose their jobs, and others will be shamed and flogged. Because somebody must pay for this horrifying act. And while I’m not a person who’s particularly prone to those feelings, I certainly understand them in this case.
But maybe pause, and ask yourself this:
How many of the people I've mentioned would have been saved by better policing? Would a red flag law have saved Gabe?
So much time is being dedicated to stopping the next school shooting, and for good reason.
But in the 90 minutes it took me to write this article, four more gun incidents were logged. Random shootings in Chicago. A murder in Grand Rapids. And not a single one of them would have been stopped by anything that’s being discussed.
All those little numbers that occur with tragic regularity would have happened, anyway.
So, what are we really trying to stop?
If we’re simply content with preventing the very worst, then okay. Though allow me to point out that a faster police response in Texas merely would have lowered the death toll, not stopped it. But maybe, if we’re lucky and determined, we can stop our schools from being terrorized.
But, what about all the other victims? What about the people who won’t ever have their stories told, or vigils held in their honor? Are they not worthy of being saved? Do their lives have meaning to us? Or are they zeroed out, forgotten in death, because they had the double misfortune of not just being killed, but of being killed in a manner that doesn’t make the news?
I desperately want us to take our gun problem seriously. But, in order to do so, the conversation cannot just be about the children tragically murdered in schools. It must be about the children murdered in homes, the women murdered by their partners, the people killed due to a heated argument, and yes, even the criminals murdered in the streets.
What should we give up to save a life? What would you be willing to sacrifice to save one person you love?
By the time this piece has been edited and published, who knows how many more incidents will have been added to the leger.
By the time you read it, it will undoubtedly have grown again.
I could do this every day, trying to tell the stories of all those little numbers, and I still wouldn’t have time.