Our Jihadis and Theirs
The Real (Armed) Dangers of American Life
Consider this paragraph a holding action on the subject of getting blown away in America. While I write this dispatch, I'm waiting patiently for the next set of dispiriting killings in this country. And I have faith. Before I'm done, some angry -- or simply mentally disturbed -- and well-armed American "lone wolf" (or lone wolves) will gun down someone (or a number of people) somewhere and possibly himself (or themselves) as well. Count on that. It'll be my last paragraph. Think of it as, in a grim way, something to look forward to as you read this piece on American armed mayhem.
National security officials and politicians have been pounding home the message that the "greatest threat" to Americans is an extreme and brutal jihadist movement thousands of miles away and the videos and social media messages its followers produce that make it seem close at hand. With that in mind, let's take a look at a few of the dangers of armed life in these United States, a quick survey of national insecurity in a country armed to the teeth.
I'm sure you won't be surprised to learn that, in the first half of 2015, there's been a plethora of incidents to draw on. There's the killer still on the loose in northern Colorado who shot at people in cars or out biking or walking late at night. There's the suspected serial killer who dumped seven bodies behind a strip mall in New Britain, Connecticut, and may now be in jail on unrelated charges. There's the ongoing trial of James Holmes who blew away 12 moviegoers and wounded 70 in a multiplex in Aurora, Colorado, in 2012. There was the mass killing of seven people in February in the tiny town of Tyrone, Missouri, by Joseph Aldridge, an armed recluse who then killed himself. And don't forget Sudheer Khamitkar, who shot to death his wife and two young sons and then himself in Tulsa in April, or Christopher Carrillo, who murdered four of his family members and then turned his gun on himself in a Tucson home in May. And many others.
In such a list, there should be a special place for a phenomenon that, though largely untabulated, has been gaining attention in recent years as ever more Americans "carry" in ever more places. This means ever more loose guns lying around. I'm talking about the mayhem committed by toddlers (or perhaps they should be thought of as American lone wolf cubs). Toddler shootings range from the two year old who killed his mother in a Walmart in Idaho with the gun she was packing in her purse as 2014 ended to the three year old who discovered a gun in a purse in an Albuquerque motel room in February and wounded his father and pregnant mother with a single shot. Such a list for this year would have to include the Florida two year old who found his father's gun in the family car and killed himself with it in January, the three year old who picked up an unattended gun and killed a one year old in a Cleveland home in April, the Virginia two year old who found a gun on top of a dresser and killed himself in late May, and the four year old who, at about the same time in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, picked up a shotgun at a target shooting range and killed his 22-year-old uncle. Toddler killings have been commonplace enough in these pistol-packin' years that they now significantly outpace terror killings in the U.S.
The Big Leagues of Violence
While we're at it (before we get to the really big stuff), there is the crew I think of as American-style suicide killers. They lack a political or religious ideology like the suicide bombers of the Middle East, but they are on missions for which killing yourself as well as others is the imagined end. Think of them as informal American jihadis, in touch with no ISIS social media types, watching no inflammatory terror videos, but all riled up anyway, often deeply disturbed, armed, and on suicide missions in the American homeland.
I'm referring to a remarkably commonplace kind of killing that, as far as I know, no one has taken the time to record or count up: men who kill their girlfriends or wives (and sometimes others in the vicinity) and then take their own lives. Here's an almost random list of just some of the reported cases I stumbled across for 2015: In January, in the appropriately named Nutley, New Jersey, a 38-year-old man shot his 37-year-old girlfriend and then killed himself; in January, in Lincoln, Nebraska, a 49-year-old man shot his 44-year-old girlfriend, called the police to report the killing, and then killed himself; also in January, a 29-year-old man shot his 27-year-old pregnant girlfriend six or seven times in a hotel for the homeless in New York City's Times Square before taking his own life; in February, in Wading River, New York, a 44-year-old man shot and killed his 43-year-old girlfriend and her 17-year-old daughter before taking his own life; in March, in Chicago, a 23-year-old man shot and killed his 24-year-old girlfriend, then himself in the mouth, committing suicide; in April, a 48-year-old Fort Worth man, who had a winning $500 lottery ticket and refused to share the spoils with his 46-year-old girlfriend, shot her and then himself after they argued, then called the police to report the crime before dying; in April, in Cleveland, a 48-year-old man shot and killed his 19-year-old girlfriend and then repeated the act two doors down, murdering his 47-year-old ex-wife, before turning his gun on himself; also in April in Montgomery, Alabama, a man shot and killed his girlfriend, subsequently killing himself; similarly in April, a 35-year-old doctor shot and killed his 39-year-old girlfriend in Fayetteville, North Carolina, followed by a 32-year-old doctor in New Jersey, and then, when police approached him, committed suicide; in May, in San Diego, a 52-year-old man shot his 28-year-old girlfriend and her 63-year-old mother to death before committing suicide. As June began, in Cleveland, a 30-year-old man shot and killed his 24-year-old ex-girlfriend and her grandfather, badly injuring her grandmother, then killed himself. And so it goes, and mind you, this is just a starter list for such acts, which seem remarkably commonplace.
Moving on to bigger things, one kind of killing has been much in the news of late: police shootings. The figures the FBI has traditionally compiled on them have proven to be way too low, so others have entered the fray. The Washington Post, for instance, recently began compiling a database of "every fatal shooting by police" in the U.S. in 2015 (deaths by Taser not included). Their figure so far: at least 385 for the first five months of 2015 or approximately one of every 13 non-suicide gun deaths so far this year.
"About half the victims," the Post reports, "were white, half minority. But the demographics shifted sharply among the unarmed victims, two-thirds of whom were black or Hispanic. Overall, blacks were killed at three times the rate of whites or other minorities when adjusting by the population of the census tracts where the shootings occurred." A Guardian study adds this detail: "Black Americans are more than twice as likely to be unarmed when killed during encounters with police as white people."
According to the Guardian, a recent Bureau of Justice report found that over the last eight years an average of 928 Americans have died annually at the hands of the police. (FBI figures: only 383.) In other words in those years, there were 7,427 police homicides, the equivalent of more than two 9/11s. Compared to other developed countries, these figures are staggering. There were, for instance, more fatal police shootings in the United States in the month of March 2015 (97) than Australia had between 1992 and 2011 (94). Similarly, there have been almost three times as many police shootings in California alone in 2015 (72) as Canada experiences annually (25).
And when it comes to armed dangers in a country in which there are estimated to be between 270 and 310 million guns or, on average, nearly one firearm for every man, woman, and child, we haven't even made it to the major leagues of death yet. Take, for instance, suicide by gun. In the last year for which we have figures, 2013, there were 21,175 such deaths and they seem to be rising. Deaths by firearm in this country totaled 33,636 in that year and seem to be rising as well.
And just for the heck of it, maybe we should throw in one other kind of weapon (even if it generally lacks the intentionality of firearms): cars, trucks, and other vehicles. Many traffic deaths could certainly qualify as assaults, however unintentional, with a deadly weapon. In 2013, there were 32,719 such deaths, essentially equaling death by gun in America.