After back-to-back mass shootings, America grows numb

Washington (AFP) –


When a gunman entered a California music bar this week and started firing, some of the patrons ran out of back doors, they smashed windows to escape, they hid.

Unlike some mass shooting victims, they were not paralyzed by fear. But their quick action was not necessarily instinctive.

Several of those at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks on Wednesday had been through a mass shooting before -- when a gunman opened fire on a crowd of country music fans in Las Vegas last year, killing 58.

"Unfortunately, these young people have learned that this may happen," Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean said following Wednesday's shooting by a Marine combat veteran that left 12 dead in Thousand Oaks.

Even in a country that has become accustomed to gun massacres, the idea that some Americans have lived through not one, but two attacks is startling.

"It's insane is the only way to describe it," California's Democratic Governor-elect Gavin Newsom said.

"The normalization, that's the only I can describe it. It's become normalized."

The southern California slaughter came on the heels of another massacre, when Robert Bowers, who openly spewed extreme anti-Semitic invective, allegedly burst into a Pittsburgh synagogue and killed 11 Jewish worshippers.

The Gun Violence Archive, which tracks mass shootings in which at least four people were shot or killed, said the Thousand Oaks assault was the 307th mass shooting this year.

In other words, a mass shooting takes place somewhere in America almost daily.

- 'Fatalism' -

Back-to-back shootings have left many Americans feeling jaded to the horror, said Gregg Carter, a sociology professor at Bryant University in Rhode Island.

"A constant bombardment of bad news is unhealthy for us both mentally and physically," he told AFP.

"Americans are turning themselves off emotionally to mass shootings as a self-protection mechanism."

A sort of switch-off can be seen in the media too.

Whereas a mass shooting used to dominate the news cycle for a week or more and garner saturation cable news coverage, such incidents nowadays are receiving much less air time.

This "public fatigue or fatalism" is partly due to a barrage of other big events crowding out the story, and partly it's because political debate about how to address the problem is stuck, noted Robert Spitzer, political science professor at the State University of New York, College at Cortland.

Guns rights are enshrined in the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution and Republicans are loathe to discuss any sort of gun control, often reacting to gun violence by offering "thoughts and prayers" to the victims but little else.

"However, the gun issue is more on the minds of voters than ever, and there is good reason to believe that support for stronger gun laws is a winning issue for candidates this year," Spitzer told AFP.

The mother of a young man who survived last year's gun massacre in Las Vegas, only to be killed by the California gunman, made an impassioned plea for gun control.

"I don't want prayers, I don't want thoughts, I want gun control and I hope to God nobody else sends me more prayers. I want gun control. No. More. Guns," said Susan Schmidt-Orfanos, whose son Telemachus was a 27-year US Navy veteran.

- Half-mast -

Another somber reflection of America's mass shooting crisis can be seen around Washington and across the country, where flags on government property are flying at half-mast.

In a flag-obsessed nation, the frequency with which the Stars and Stripes now flutters in mourning is hard not to notice.

When it was lowered Thursday, barely a week had gone by since it was raised again following the mass shooting in Pittsburgh.

A look at past presidential proclamations ordering the flag down shows it has been at half-mast for 19 days so far this year after mass shootings, compared to 15 days for all other reasons combined.

Fear is growing, Carter said, pointing to a Gallup poll after the Las Vegas shooting found that 40 percent of Americans are "worried" that they or a family member will become a mass-shooting victim.

But, he noted, gun murder rates are actually falling overall, and mass shootings still represent only a tiny portion of US homicides.