Rejecting 31,000 gun deaths as a fact of life

There are so many violent tragedies every day — I'm thinking specifically about the deaths of young people, and particularly those by gun — it's impossible to process it all, much less give our hearts to it. If we tried, our heads would burst.

I remember hearing Joe Ehrmann, the life coach and minister who once played football for the Baltimore Colts, say the nation suffers from an "empathy-deficit disorder." He believes human beings need more than ever to be trained to be empathetic, perhaps because self-interest is so powerfully innate.


He's right about that, of course. But even those who have learned empathy have only so much in the tank.

When tragedies happen to others and are reported to us — and they are always reported to us, in this all-news-all-the-time Information Age -— we don't weep. We can't.


We're more likely to open our hearts to other people's tragedies when they have personal meaning, when these horrible stories leave us muttering, "There but for the grace of God …"

That's why the shooting deaths of Stephen Rane and Dayvon Green at College Park last week must have touched so many: the parents of promising young men, and their grandparents and aunts and uncles; Stephen's and Dayvon's peers, young adults enrolled in colleges and universities on the presumption that higher education leads to good things, not to murder and suicide; the teachers who influenced them and got them on their way in life — Stephen, from Centennial High School in Howard County to the University of Maryland as an undergraduate in English; Dayvon, from Morgan State University to a graduate program in engineering at College Park.

So many of us look at that tragedy and see lines that lead back to where we live. You think of the promising young people you've known — your kids and their friends, playmates and teammates and classmates — and you allow yourself a moment for quiet grief for the waste of young lives and the loss of potential. You imagine the inextinguishable pain of the parents and shake your head.

Dayvon apparently had been treated for mental illness, and specifically schizophrenia, according to The Washington Post. He came to own firearms and used one of them on his roommates, Stephen, who was 22, and Neal Oa, a junior economics major. Rane died; Oa escaped with a wound. Then Dayvon turned the gun on himself.

Because there is so much violence around us on a grander scale — if not domestic mass killings, then foreign wars and acts of terror — the tendency is to let the College Park tragedy pass as just another one of those awful things that can be neither predicted nor prevented.

We've become so accustomed to violence like this we accept it as normal. We expect it.

And, in fact, when it comes to gun violence in the U.S., what happened in College Park approaches the tragically common — a gun used in a murder or in a suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 31,672 firearms-related deaths nationwide in 2010. About two-thirds of them were suicides.

This happens because we accept it.


You have to start with that understanding.

We decided as a nation — and, more significantly, as individual states — to have lax gun laws that allow relatively easy purchase and ownership of all kinds of firearms and ammunition. As gun violence continued, and as the bodies piled up in mass killings, we accepted this as a fact of life in the United States, buying into the twisted logic that tragedy was the high price of freedom or simply a measure of societal depravity. Some of us just came to accept that the nation's compromised political establishment would never do anything to upset the gun lobby.

There are background checks in place, and they have likely saved lives. But there are still so many guns, and so many loopholes in federal and state laws, that we now find ourselves trying to close the gates after a massive flood has altered the contour of the land.

Newtown reset the nation's focus on the easy access to powerful firearms that make mass killings possible. We can do something about that.

But there remains this other problem, the one that has been with us for so many years: 85 guns deaths a day, and trends indicating that annual fatalities from firearms will soon surpass deaths from traffic accidents.

What happened in College Park was no Newtown, but it was more like the day-to-day gun violence we have come to accept as normal: murder and suicide by gun 31,000 times a year.


So many things need to happen. Laws need to change. People need to become more vigilant. The system for identifying and assessing domestic threats needs to become as smart as the one we use for foreign terrorists. Anything is possible. But nothing is possible unless we shake our acceptance of the violent normal and open our hearts to the everyday tragedies of others.