The deadly plague mushrooms. The list of its victims grows longer. Yet, the mercurial president and his lap-dog lieutenants send out mixed messages, promising measures to keep us safer, then backing away from any corrective that might save lives.
I'm not talking about COVID-19 (the disease caused by the infamous coronavirus). I'm talking about gun violence, which has long been a pandemic in the United States. On Wednesday, a troubled employee of Milwaukee's Molson Coors brewery killed five of his colleagues on the sprawling campus before fatally shooting himself. According to The Washington Post, it was the first mass killing of 2020 — defined as an attack in which four or more people are killed. Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes said it was Wisconsin's 11th mass shooting (wherein four or more people are injured) since 2004.
Let that sink in for a moment. In the last decade and a half, one state — and far from the most populous — has had 11 mass shootings. Yet, the Milwaukee atrocity barely broke through news coverage of President Donald J. Trump's disastrous press conference on his administration's response to the recent coronavirus outbreak.
Even so, mass shootings draw more news media attention than the routine gun carnage that wreaks havoc on communities across the country. We have grown inured to the child shot dead by a stray bullet on a playground, to the crazed motorist firing at the driver who cut him off in traffic, to the estranged husband gunning down his wife.
In 2017, the last year for which authoritative federal data were available, about three-quarters of all homicides in the U.S. were committed with firearms, according to the Pew Research Center. And here's something we don't discuss: About 60 percent of firearms deaths are suicides.
For some perspective, consider these statistics: So far, there have been 60 reported cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. — with, luckily, no deaths so far (though that could quickly change). By contrast, nearly 40,000 Americans were killed by firearms last year, and there's no reason to expect this year to alter the statistics significantly.
We have panicked over COVID-19: Certainly, Trump's casual attitude in minimizing a possible pandemic — even as his medical experts had just told the public to expect more cases — did little to reassure us. We buy masks, hand sanitizer and household antimicrobial cleaners. We avoid shaking hands with business acquaintances, we cancel travel, we swear off ocean cruises.
But we don't vote out the politicians who cower before the gun lobby. When 20 little children and six adults were gunned down in Sandy Hook in 2012, I was certain that Congress would finally find the guts to stand up to the National Rifle Association and its power-mad allies. It didn't.
Now, we just shrug when Congress fails to pass the sensible measures that the overwhelming majority of Americans support, such as background checks for private gun sales. Instead, we hire security guards to patrol our sanctuaries during worship and teach our children to cower under their desks during active-shooter drills. We lay wreaths at the scenes of mass shootings.
While we have not conquered the opioid epidemic, we have found the will to bring massive lawsuits against the pharmaceutical manufacturers who blanketed the landscape with their addictive drugs. But gun manufacturers are protected against lawsuits, even though their deadly products do so much harm. Worse yet, the gun lobby — strangely enough — has even fought new technology for "smart guns," which could only be fired by authorized users. Why? What sort of madness would inspire that stance?
Recently, I listened to my fifth grader's school principal explain that the district is considering adopting a new approach for active-shooter drills. Instead of teaching the children to hide in a closet — the shelter-in-place technique is outdated, it seems — schools may be telling kids to run, to scatter or even to tackle the shooter. This is the instruction that could be given to 11-year-olds. As many psychologists have pointed out, that sort of training is likely to scare kids into nightmares while doing little to protect them from harm.
Trump, who is wrong about so many things, was misinformed when he suggested at his press conference that scientists are close to finding a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus. They are not. But they will find a cure for that coronavirus much faster than for the firearms madness that is killing so many of us.