Last Thursday, a gunman opened fire on students and an instructor at a community college, seemingly indiscriminately, causing mass casualties. On Friday, witnesses reported a burst of gunfire outside a strip mall. When the dust settled, five people had been shot, including a 71-year-old man. Another mass shooting took place Tuesday outside an elementary school. Fortunately, it happened after the children had gone home for the day, but nonetheless, five more people were hit, ranging in age from 17 to 55.
The first case took place in Oregon, and you've probably heard a lot about it, whether because of President Barack Obama's impassioned speech about the need for greater gun control or because of the parade of Republican presidential candidates arguing precisely the opposite. The second two took place in Baltimore, and you probably haven't heard much of anything about them unless you live here, and maybe not even then.
Granted, the Oregon shooter caused worse carnage — nine people killed and nine more wounded — whereas of the 10 people shot in two incidents in Baltimore, only one died: James Gaylord, a retiree who spent his time talking to friends at McDonald's.
More to the point, though, the Oregon shootings fit a pattern of gun violence that still shocks us: a deranged young man, usually a loner, frequently white, who stockpiles an arsenal of guns and acts upon some strange delusion. We are so terrified by these incidents because they strike us as so random — mainstream, middle class America can picture itself in a community college classroom in Oregon or in a movie theater in Colorado or an elementary school in Connecticut or a church in South Carolina.
But when it happens on a street corner in Baltimore, we — even many of us who live here — are conditioned to gloss over it. The idea that these are things that happen to someone else, maybe even to someone who had it coming, has by now become deeply ingrained in us. Public officials have even been known to reinforce that idea, as in former Police Commissioner Anthony Batts' assurance after murders and shootings ticked up in 2013 that the violence didn't affect "everday citizens" and that "80 to 85 percent" of the victims were black men involved in the drug trade. No need to concern yourself with them, right?
Most organizations who track mass shootings limit their consideration to incidents that involve at least four fatalities, and consequently, Baltimore doesn't show up on any of their lists. But that's largely a matter of luck (or, to some degree, the city's excellent trauma care). Mass Shooting Tracker, a crowdsourced database, looks instead at incidents in which four or more people are shot, regardless of whether they die. Baltimore showed up on its list five times in 2013, one time in 2014 and eight times already in 2015. (Tuesday's elementary school shooting will make nine.) This year, only Chicago has had more mass shootings, with 13. As of Oct. 3, Baltimore had logged 724 total shootings for the year, up 81 percent from the same period in 2014, according to Open Baltimore data.
This is not a new phenomenon here. Back in 2001, gunmen opened fire at a Memorial Day cookout in East Baltimore, injuring a dozen men, women and children. Eight years later, in the same part of town, the same thing happened again — another 12 people shot, including a 2-year-old girl and a pregnant woman. Occasionally, a random shooting will be so heinous that it captures our attention — Raven Wyatt, the 5-year-old shot in the head and nearly killed by a teen boy who was supposedly under electronic monitoring, or McKenzie Elliott, the 3-year-old killed by a stray bullet while sitting on a porch in Waverly — but generally not for long, or to any productive end. Police are pleading for information related to Tuesday's shooting near Lockerman Bundy Elementary School, with a spokesman saying "there's a violent offender somewhere right now with a gun that he used to shoot five individuals." They've been pleading for information about McKenzie's shooter for more than a year, but no one is outraged enough even by that to come forward.
Maryland, unlike most states, has taken action to try to stem gun violence, but tellingly, the effort came in response to a mass shooting somewhere else — the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut — not the years of killings here. The gun control laws former Gov. Martin O'Malley pushed through in 2013 include elements that should help reduce the grim pace of shootings in Baltimore, but they will take time, and they won't solve the problem by themselves. There is no easy or quick fix to a culture of violence born of generations of entrenched poverty and segregation and fueled by the illegal drug trade.
But surely the first step is an end to our complacency and a recognition that the shootings here are every bit as terrifying and tragic as the ones that rivet the nation's attention.