El Paso residents place flowers at a makeshift memorial for the victims of the Saturday mass shooting at a shopping complex in El Paso, Texas, Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

El Paso residents place flowers at a makeshift memorial for the victims of the Saturday mass shooting at a shopping complex in El Paso, Texas, Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Life in public-shooting-era America: ‘You can’t just not go’

More than thirty people have died in less than a week in mass shootings across the U.S.

Ohio: A bar district where friends gathered for drinks on a warm Saturday night.

Texas: A Walmart stocked with supplies for back-to-school shopping on an August morning.

California: A family-focused festival that celebrates garlic, the local cash crop.

READ MORE: A town known for garlic grapples with grief after shooting

Two consecutive summer weekends. Less than seven days. More than 30 fellow human beings gone in moments, in public places exactly like those where huge swaths of the American population go without a second thought.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps no longer. Have we crossed into an era of second, third, even fourth thoughts?

“I don’t like to go out, especially without my husband. It’s really scary being out by myself,” preschool teacher Courtney Grier, 21, said Sunday outside a grocery store in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where a gunman killed 12 in a city building in late May.

But, Grier says, “You still have to go to the grocery store to get dinner. You can’t just not go.”

That might be an apt slogan for America, circa 2019: You can’t just not go.

Civic life, particularly the public portion of it, has been a foundation of American society since the beginnings. That may have ebbed in today’s nose-in-your-device world, but events like festivals, going out for the evening and in particular shopping remain enduring communal activities. Now those three venues have given us lethal and very public shootings in the space of less than a week.

Add other daily-life institutions that have been visited by mass shootings — houses of worship, movie theatres, malls, a newsroom and, of course, schools — and the question becomes more pressing: Are these loud, sudden events starting to fundamentally change America in quiet, incremental ways?

The sites where bullets flew and people fell this past week are not simply places where random people gather publicly and informally. More importantly, if you’re an American, they’re places like the ones where people like YOU gather publicly and informally — particularly in the summer, when so many are not as hunkered down by weather and obligation.

These aren’t only mass shootings (Gilroy, in fact, with three dead other than the shooter, technically isn’t a “mass shooting” by some of today’s metrics). They are also mass public events that make us deal with something that other places have faced for yearslong stretches: assessing daily life’s danger while moving through it with loved ones.

The chances of an American being caught up in a public mass shooting remain incredibly rare. Nevertheless, the sometimes-toxic cocktail of the events themselves, social media echo chambers and the distorting factors of the 24-hour news cycle can be impactful.

READ MORE: 9 killed in Ohio in second U.S. mass shooting within 24 hours

El Paso’s 20, Dayton’s nine and Gilroy’s three have caused online outpourings around many questions, some more political than others. But variations of these two keep cropping up: Are regular places safe anymore? Should we assume that they are?

There are, loosely, two types of reactions that sometimes overlap. One is to back off some, to take more precautions. One is to be defiant. That’s the approach that retired Marine Richard Ruiz, a Gilroy native, says he’s seen in Gilroy in the week since the garlic festival shooting.

“The thing that has changed in Gilroy is our focus,” said Ruiz, 42. “No one is showing signs of being worried or fearful in public. We’re emboldened. We want to go out more.”

In Squirrel Hill, the Pittsburgh neighbourhood where a shooter killed 11 people at Tree of Life Synagogue last fall, a commitment to doing exactly that has helped ensure that civic life remains vibrant. There is little visible change except for the “Stronger than Hate” signs in some shop windows that encourage two things — a return to normal life and a commitment to never forgetting.

In Dayton, Nikita Papillon, 23, described the site of the killings that happened across the street from her Saturday night as the kind of location “where you don’t have to worry about someone shooting up the place.”

But does “that kind of place” exist anymore? And if not, how does that impact American life in ways that defy measurements and metrics?

From Britain, which grappled with a spate of Irish Republican Army attacks from the 1970s through the 1990s, to Afghanistan and Iraq, where public explosions and attacks have been commonplace during the past two decades, the world’s citizens have grappled in many ways with balancing regular life and increased vigilance.

In Israel, during the second uprising against the government’s long-running military rule over Palestinians, Palestinian militants carried out a series of suicide bombings and shootings in Israel, targeting cafes, malls and public buses. Between 2000 and 2005, many Israeli Jews stopped riding public buses and avoided crowded public spaces. Others fought to maintain normal routines.

Avraham Sela, a professor of international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says many Israelis became scared to visit public places, though he says that, in the end, Israelis “never allowed our lives to be dictated by those fears.”

The United States is hardly at that point. But the conversations that now take place — Should we go? Should we take the kids? What’s that noise? — reflect a society that, no matter people’s political beliefs, is starting to process what’s taking place in its midst.

This year marked two decades since two student gunmen killed 12 schoolmates and a teacher at Columbine High School outside Denver, a watershed moment in mass shootings. Sam Haviland, who was a junior at Columbine in 1999, knows other survivors who are fearful in public places or avoid them completely. After years of post-traumatic stress, she chose a different path.

“I decided that I didn’t want to live in fear and that I can’t control it, and so I’ve just come to terms with the fact that I may not be safe in public,” said Haviland, now director of counselling for Denver Public Schools. “The number of shootings since then has just reaffirmed for me that, you know, it’s a real possibility that shootings — that I might even survive another shooting.”

Back in Virginia Beach, a couple sitting together at an outdoor shopping centre offered differing views of how to navigate the changed landscape around them.

“If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen,” said Jerry Overstreet, 27, who served in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan and now operates heavy machinery at a coal terminal.

But Jasmine Luckey, 25, a social worker, is now “super alert,” she says: When she goes to any major public events, she knows where the exits are and often leaves early.

“It just puts me on edge, and I don’t want to be on edge,” she said. “I want to be able to raise children in a place where they can freely leave my side for a little bit and not worry about them getting shot.”

READ MORE: Sister: El Paso shooting victim, 25, ‘gave her life’ for son

___

Ted Anthony, director of digital innovation for The Associated Press, writes about American culture. Follow him on Twitter at @anthonyted. Contributing to this report were AP journalists Ben Finley in Virginia Beach, Daisy Nguyen in San Francisco, Dan Elliott in Denver, Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem and Danica Kirka in London.

Ted Anthony, The Associated Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Brooklyn Elementary was able to get its expanded garden ready this spring. Photo by Comox Valley Schools
Comox Valley school garden in full bloom after setback

Along with COVID delays, Brooklyn Elementary project had lumber stolen in 2020

CVSAR search the Puntledge River following a report of an abandoned kayak. Photo, CVSAR Facebook page
Comox Valley Search and Rescue spends four hours searching for no one

Overturned kayak a reminder for public to contact officials if they have to abandon a watercraft

Little Brown Bat, Cori Lausen image
Puntledge River bats being studied

Project will use ultrasonic data to collect information on species and habitat

A 30x40 ft boat/car shop in the Little River area near Wilkinson Road was fully involved by the time firefighters arrived on scene. Photo by Comox Fire Rescue
Comox firefighters battle ‘showy’ shop fire Saturday night

Smoke could be seen throughout the Comox Valley

People watch a car burn during a riot following game 7 of the NHL Stanley Cup final in downtown Vancouver, B.C., in this June 15, 2011 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geoff Howe
10 years ago: Where were you during the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup Riots?

Smashed-in storefronts, looting, garbage can fires and overturned cars some of the damage remembered today

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

(Black Press Media file)
Dirty money: Canadian currency the most germ-filled in the world, survey suggests

Canadian plastic currency was found to contain 209 bacterial cultures

(pixabay file shot)
B.C. ombudsperson labels youth confinement in jail ‘unsafe,’ calls for changes

Review states a maximum of 22 hours for youth, aged 12 from to 17, to be placed in solitary

Eleonore Alamillo-Laberge, 6, reads a book in Ottawa on Monday, June 12, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Parents will need to fight ‘COVID learning slump’ over summer: B.C. literacy experts

Parents who play an active role in educating their children this summer can reverse the slump by nearly 80%, says Janet Mort

The border crossing on Highway 11 in Abbotsford heading south (file)
Western premiers call for clarity, timelines on international travel, reopening rules

Trudeau has called Thursday meeting, premiers say they expect to leave that meeting with a plan

The B.C. government’s vaccine booking website is busy processing second-dose appointments, with more than 76 per cent of adults having received a first dose. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C.’s COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations stable for Tuesday

108 new confirmed cases, 139 in hospital, 39 in intensive care

Cowichan Tribes man Adrian Sylvester is worried that he was targetted by a trailer hitch thrown from a vehicle. (Facebook photo)
Cowichan Tribes man worried he was target of trailer hitch

Adrian Sylvester says no one has reported a missing hitch after one nearly hit him

Most Read