In March, when the face of a mass-shooting suspect in Boulder, Colorado, flashed across CNN, my dentist shook his head: No, not again. “I hope he’s not Middle Eastern and it’s not some racist thing,” he lamented. The moment someone who looked like him — had an Arabic surname like him — was alleged to have opened fire at a supermarket, killing 10 people, his worries began anew.
I thought about this after the race of the Indianapolis FedEx mass shooter was disclosed as Caucasian. White privilege, it turns out, also means never having to say, “I hope he’s not white,” because non-Caucasian America is far less likely to make us a monolithic race, the kind of people who indiscriminately gun down civilians with easy-to-obtain semi-automatic weapons. And the truth is, they would have every right to do so. Guns and mass killings remain the burden of the white man. People who look like me commit mass shootings more than any other ethnicity.
As a nation, we try to minimize this fact by comparing the numbers to the proportion of the entire white population. We go further and desensitize — really, almost sanitize — homicide, often defining mass murder by one person using a semi-automatic weapon as “senseless” and the suspect, “deranged and angry.” Only when we find out he’s not white do we begin using “terrorist” and “extremist.”
The truly warped among us — those who insist that owning weapons of mass human destruction is their “God-given right,” the ones who refuse to make America safer by supporting stiffer background checks, waiting periods and red-flag laws that legally prevent dangerous men (and nearly every mass shooting in America since 1982 has been perpetrated by males) — pivot on all these points and shift the conversation. They start in with “white guilt,” and keep going. They paint those of us calling for an end to the carnage as race-obsessed libflakes who’ve never had the privilege of holding a hand-crafted wood buttstock between our pectoral and shoulder. (I have, by the way. My father got his first .22 as a child in Sparks, Nevada, and took me duck and pheasant hunting in my youth; I still don’t want my kids to grow up in a world where it takes seven minutes to purchase an AR-15.)
These multiple-mag nuts pay no mind, for instance, that in 1607, the Jamestown settlers were the first to introduce guns to America. Or that more than 51 percent of Caucasians live in a household with two or more guns, compared with 28 percent of the rest of the population.
People who look like me commit mass shootings more than any other ethnicity.
The National Rifle Association’s 76 directors, the people who make decisions for more than 5 million members, at last count was 93 percent white and 86 percent male. The NRA is against any law that restricts the access to or the purchase of any firearm. The NRA has spent millions to lobby mostly white lawmakers to not propose legislation that a majority of Americans agree would keep us all safer and less likely to die in a mass shooting.
The widow of a former colleague, who died in a mass shooting, told me last year to avoid the term “gun control” for fear of NRA reprisal. “‘Gun safety’ and ‘gun-violence prevention’ is what we’re using now,” she said. “The last time I said ‘gun control,’ someone posted my home address on one of their sites.” Think about that. A woman whose husband was murdered by a mass shooter who, with his background, should never have been able to legally purchase a long gun — a 12-gauge Mossberg 500 pump-action shotgun — has to reinvent vocabulary and hone talking points because folks that bizarrely call the NRA “America’s oldest civil rights organization” have become numb to children slaughtered in their own classrooms.
And it’s not just the NRA.
It’s also our lawmakers. White Americans account for 77 percent of voting members in the new Congress, even though just 60 percent of the population is white. For all our efforts toward diversity, this gap hasn’t narrowed in 40 years, when 94 percent of members of Congress were white, compared with 80 percent of the U.S. population. Because people who look like me don’t have the courage to stand up to the gun lobby and limit the purchase of semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines, they directly control whether more people — the majority of whom are people of color — die by gunshot in this country. White guilt? No. That’s white shame. That’s white supremacy, steeped in all its tone-deaf arrogance.
The problem with moral certainty around this issue is that it leads people to stake out the most absurd, extreme positions in order to defend their concept of responsible gun ownership. Any proposed law to restrict assault-weapon ownership by anyone automatically becomes “Biden is taking our guns away; this is how it starts.” For the real zealot, when the president announces executive orders on stemming gun violence in the wake of a rash of mass shootings, it becomes more of an attack on constitutional liberties than a needed measure to stop the killing. And now, it really does come down to a binary choice: You are either for the prevention of further gun violence, or you don’t care who gets shot and when. That’s it. Those are the choices.
Which side are you on?
About the author: Mike Wise has covered sports, society and culture for The New York Times, The Washington Post and ESPN. He is currently writing a biography of 1964 Olympic gold medal-winning runner Billy Mills.