The Year of the Gun

A version of this article was published in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel on December 13, 2009, under the title: Unrelenting Gun Violence Doesn’t Take a Holiday.

When Paul Michael Merhige shot six members of his own family after their Thanksgiving dinner, it marked America’s second consecutive holiday season marred by mass murder. The tragedy in Jupiter, Florida, which left four dead, including the gunman’s 6-year-old cousin, was one of five multiple-victim shootings over the long weekend, capping a horrific year of gun violence.

Merhige’s gruesome rampage was frighteningly similar to the 2008 “Christmas Eve Massacre” in Covina, California, when Bruce Pardo, dressed as Santa Claus, walked into a party hosted by his ex-in-laws and opened fire, murdering nine people, before setting the house ablaze and then killing himself. Among the survivors was Pardo’s 8-year-old niece, whom he shot in the face as she greeted him at the front door.

Were it not for an historic economic collapse, coupled with the political firestorm known as heath care reform, 2009 might be remembered as: “The Year of the Gun.” What else to call a twelve-month span in which there was an average of one high-profile mass shooting in the U.S. every third week?

The sheer volume of carnage was overwhelming, with many of the shootings coming in bunches. Earlier this year, eight separate incidents left 58 people dead in just one month’s time. Between late summer and early fall, a similar number of shootings resulted in 75 more casualties, nearly half of them fatal. Among the most haunting was a quadruple homicide in Lawrenceville, Ga., whose sole survivor was a 4-year-old girl. Found covered in blood from a gunshot wound in her chest, all she could say to first responders was: “My whole family is dead.”

The victims of these sensational headlines, however, amounted to only a fraction of the estimated 30,000 people killed by gunfire in our country this year — an average of 80 people (including 9 children) per day.

In the vast majority of these shootings, it was reported that the gunman acted alone. Technically, this may be so. But it is also true that the rest of us play a role in enabling these real-life nightmares to unfold.

The segment of our population that believes in the efficacy of gun control typically responds to these cases by calling for tougher laws – such as closing gun show loopholes and reinstituting a ban on assault weapons – as well as vigilant enforcement of statutes already on the books.

Fierce advocates of gun ownership frequently counter by quoting the Second Amendment, while advancing the notion that upstanding citizens can escape peril by outdrawing the bad guy. This, despite the fact that a homeowner’s firearm is exponentially more likely to be used to maim or kill a family member, than successfully ward off an armed intruder.

Yet if there is anything to be learned from this unrelenting bloodshed, it is that both of these blueprints for safely co-existing with guns are full of holes.

The primary reason for this – and one that is conspicuously absent from debates on the topic – is that it is impossible to predict anyone’s future mental health.

Registered or unregistered, borrowed or stolen, automatic or semi-automatic, handgun or rifle — none of it matters as much as the state of mind of the handler. And since one’s psychological condition, as well as the myriad factors that can influence it, can drastically change at any time, the standing of a “responsible gun-owner” is subject to the same rules as Russian roulette.

Not a comforting thought. However if we truly wish to end the onslaught of senseless shootings that occur each day across the nation, we need to confront this stark reality, once and for all.

Granted, we are still a long way from accomplishing many of the things that could temper the violence in our communities — such as providing quality physical and mental health care to all; reforming our
dehumanizing prison system; and meeting the specialized needs of our growing population of at-risk youth and traumatized veterans of war.

But while we continue to address these critical issues, there is one thing we could do to make it far more difficult for individuals like Paul Michael Merhige and Bruce Pardo to commit murder.

We could decide – together – to get rid of guns.

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© 2009 John J. Morlino, Jr.

John Morlino is a former social worker who founded The ETHIC (http://www.the-ethic.org) to promote peace, nonviolence and compassion. His social commentaries have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, the Orlando Sentinel and the San Francisco Chronicle.