MAY 17, 2021
JUST BEFORE DAWN on the morning of October 12, 1970, a 13-year-old boy named Todd McKinney was delivering The Washington Post to customers along his route in the town of Annandale, Virginia, a dozen-odd miles southwest of the White House. As he walked away from one door, a shotgun blast came from a second-story window. Struck in the back, McKinney stumbled to the next house, pulled himself up the front step, and called for help. He died before the homeowner could open the door.
Todd McKinney was a friend of mine, the president of our eighth-grade student body at Edgar Allan Poe Intermediate School, located a few hundred yards down the road from where he was killed. He was an exemplary young man, beloved by his classmates and teachers. Had he lived, he would have gone far.
The shooter was a first-year college student living with his mother and stepfather. I am not sure whether his name is important, and, following the model of Seamus McGraw’s new book, From a Taller Tower: The Rise of the American Mass Shooter, I’m not going to name him. What is important is that the shooter was reportedly obsessed with his car, a powder-blue 1963 Mercury Comet, and was convinced that someone was out to steal or harm his prized possession. He awoke to a noise at 4:00 a.m. and went outside to investigate. Then he loaded his shotgun and waited at the window. McKinney arrived shortly afterward.
Even in 1970, a political machine dedicated to firearms worked to downplay McKinney’s killing. By the day of his death, about 12,500 Americans had died by gunshot that year, and nothing was done to halt the slaughter — good reason for a young neighbor of McKinney’s to remark to a New York Times reporter, “There might be a temporary outcry for a week or so. Then it will die down with all the apathy and the lobbying by the gun people.”
That’s just what happened.
Nine months later, a psychiatrist described the shooter as being overly fond of material possessions. The judge ordered the shooter to sell his car and donate the proceeds to charity. He added, “Perhaps society has some part to do with this tragedy — the mass media implant false values of materialism.” The judge also ordered the shooter to write an essay reflecting on his actions, to which the shooter obligingly responded, “To me at this time and because of the change in my life I know the most important things are not material things.” In the end, he was sentenced to four months in a state prison farm, less than a friend of mine would later spend for possessing half an ounce of marijuana.
The shooter still lives in Northern Virginia. And the “mass media” is still being blamed for a problem that lies elsewhere, deep within the workings of that vast machine that excuses gun violence as the result of a few nutjobs who ruin it for good people with guns. Those bad apples add up: in 2019, a fairly representative year, 14,414 Americans were killed by someone else with a gun, another 23,941 or so dead by their own hands. Injuries by gunshot that did not involve death added twice that aggregate number to the total count, according to a longitudinal study by medical researchers at the University of Pennsylvania.
Calculated another way, 329 Americans were killed or injured by guns every day between 2009 and 2017.
McKinney’s killing forever changed the many people who knew him. His parents left their jobs and moved across the country to Colorado to escape the memories. They are no longer living. His girlfriend finished high school two years early so that she, too, could leave the area. Other classmates, among them the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Michael Vitez, have gone on with their lives, but they remember — those who are still with us, that is, who have not fallen victim to illness or suicide, as so many of our classmates now have. Some put aside dreams: the aspiring actor who became an IT specialist; the musicians and dancers and artists who went to work for the government as HR staffers, secretaries, accountants. Says Vitez, “I was a little kid. I still remember his empty desk in English class the next day. I just put my head down and tried not to think about it.”
For my part, I transformed from a Boy Scout just about to earn an Eagle badge into a near delinquent, convinced that I would someday be gunned down. Drugs and alcohol followed. They probably would have anyway, but McKinney’s death sped it up. Others reacted differently, but McKinney’s story still resonates among my classmates half a century later.
Homicide by firearm has felled more than 1.5 million Americans since 1968. Go deeper into history, and the number mounts, augmented by death after death from mostly forgotten incidents, such as a 1903 shooting at an oompah concert in Winfield, Kansas, that left nine people dead and dozens more injured by the actions of a single gunman. In 1949, another gunman killed a baker’s dozen of his neighbors in a 12-minute stroll through Camden, New Jersey. Three were children.
Despite those antecedents, in From a Taller Tower, McGraw traces the modern phenomenon of mass shootings to 1966 and the Texas clocktower where a former Marine whom he does name, Charles Whitman, took an arsenal of rifles to the observation deck and shot down 16 people. Just why Whitman acted out as he did remains a topic shrouded in conjecture; at the time, some commentators put forth the idea that Whitman suffered from a brain tumor. If so, the affliction did not stop him from amassing a huge collection of guns and ammunition and then methodically putting it to work.
Ever since that time, shooters have been vying to add their names to the wall of infamy that Whitman built: self-aggrandizing killers study the numbers and declare that they’ll do their predecessors one or 100 better. “For more than fifty years now, from the massacre at the University of Texas in 1966 to the mass murder from the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas and beyond,” McGraw writes, “we as a nation have stood largely silent as these atrocities have been committed. We have failed to stop them or even to take significant steps to make them less likely.”
And so it is that a single 64-year-old man, an outlier among the usually younger cohort of mass killers, could bring more than 20 guns to a room high above those streets of Las Vegas, spray 1,057 rounds into a crowd of concertgoers and passersby below, and thereby kill 60 people and wound another 867. That’s an astonishing count, but you can bet that someone, somewhere, is even now pondering how to raise the score.
Chris Murphy, a United States senator from Connecticut, explores the question of this race for infamy in his 2020 book, The Violence Inside Us, a book informed by the horror of the mass killing at an elementary school that left 20 children and six adults dead. As a sick byproduct, that killing also produced a conspiracy theory that holds that the shootings were staged, a false-flag exercise conducted so that the government could have an excuse to “take away our guns.” There is no illness painful enough to adequately punish anyone who holds to such views, but one hopes that Alex Jones and his followers will suffer horribly in some fiery pit or its moral equivalent for their bad faith.
The American penchant for gun violence, Murphy holds, can be attributed mostly to the fact that guns are so easy to procure and carry. My home state of Arizona is one where background checks are minimal if conducted at all, there are no restrictions on concealing a weapon on one’s person (18 other states also allow concealed carry without a permit), and guns can be bought at abundant shops, swap meets, and yard sales alike. It is also, infamously, the state where Representative Gabby Giffords was shot and left for dead in 2011, alongside six Tucsonans who did die, one of them a federal judge about to retire, another a nine-year-old girl. LARB editor Tom Zoellner writes about that bloodletting in A Safeway in Arizona, an event fast receding in memory as other killings crowd it out of mind. Some of the commentary on the King Soopers shooting in Boulder included the thought: “Now a grocery store.” But we crossed that threshold a decade ago.
The aftermath of such events has become a national routine bordering on ritual. Politicians and gun lobbyists offer thoughts and prayers. The rest of us, that Virginia judge among our number, dismiss the killings as a “tragedy.” They do not constitute a tragedy, of course: as Aristotle will tell you, a tragedy unfolds when someone imagines themself to have some power equal to that of the gods, and the gods respond to this hubris by striking the offender down.
To call a killing a tragedy, then, is to linguistically blame a victim, giving the shooter a pass. To call a killer a “monster” is just as lazy: since monsters are by definition different from the ordinary run of humankind, blaming murder on a monster outside the confines of Beowulf is merely an exercise in avoiding acknowledgment of our complicity.
Our country now privileges an extremist view of the Second Amendment, it seems, over any other in the Bill of Rights. A gun owner myself, I have argued, in yet another nonstarter, that since we can’t seem to regulate the sale of guns, we might take a different tack and regulate ammunition, which is not specifically mentioned. A gun owner should be able to buy a fixed quantity of ammunition — 250 rounds every quarter, let’s say — under a system that strictly accounts for such sales, paying a social-insurance deposit of $1,000. Bring back 250 casings or some other proof that the bullets were used for legal purposes such as deer hunting, and the deposit is refunded, less some reasonable handling fee. If nothing else, the scheme might cut down on the number of lead slugs that fly over our heads every New Year’s Eve.
Yes, I know. It’ll never happen. But in all events, as Carol Anderson writes in her forthcoming study, The Second, the amendment in question has been the privilege of white men from the outset, with the “well-regulated militia” clause referring not to National Guard units but slave patrols. In many states, in order to suppress revolts by enslaved people, it was illegal for anyone other than those white men to own or carry a weapon — and many states specifically prohibited Black people from using a firearm unless employed as a hunter and actively out on the chase. That racial disparity comes with an odd sidebar, for it’s estimated that even though white men make up just 35 percent of the American population, between 2009 and 2015 they accounted for 80 percent of suicides by handgun.
That the original Second Amendment is an instrument of racial discrimination — and remains thus — does not require much evidence beyond what the television brings us every night, with police and self-styled militia members granted open season on Black targets. It speaks volumes that, as sociologist Jennifer Carlson writes in Policing the Second Amendment, 32-year-old Philando Castile had a license to carry a weapon but, without provocation and having informed him of the presence of a gun, was shot down by a Minnesota policeman all the same — and without a word of protest by the National Rifle Association, which screams loudly at the suggestion of even counting the number of guns in the hands of its white membership, let alone enacting safety regulations.
It is no coincidence that the NRA, once a responsible hunters’ organization that stressed gun safety and training, started on its present course of defending the indefensible in 1977, the tail end of an era defined by civil rights advances and Black Power in the cities. That spirit reverberates today in Black Lives Matter, a movement that disturbs many a white man’s sleep and makes him itch for the mythical protection of his guns.
Whether counted in single deaths by homicide or suicide, or by mass shootings, we have no handle on the true cost of our obsession with weaponry. It’s not just the deaths, of course. To them must be added the material cost of the dead, billions of dollars in forgone productivity and taxes paid, a grim and admittedly heartless amortization, but one that has meaning. Moreover, we pay a tremendous psychological cost.
Scarcely an American has not been touched in one way or another by gun violence, and I suspect that almost all of us suffer, to some degree, from traumatic stress. Just ask the wounded Edgar Allan Poe Intermediate School class of 1971.
Banner image: “Houston Gun Show at the George R. Brown Convention Center” by glasgows is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image has been cropped.