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Columns Tom Baxter

Like a virus we can’t shake, mass violence is mutating

By Tom Baxter

The gunfight at a Columbia, S.C., mall over Easter weekend was typical of a lot of the mass shooting events which have been happening around the country lately.

Fewer victims are dying than in the mass shootings of previous years because fewer of them are targets. They just happen to have been in some public place where they became collateral damage in a beef between people they don’t know. In Columbia, nine people were shot and five were injured in the crush of people trying to get out of the Columbiana Centre mall, but nobody was killed — unlike a similar shooting in Pittsburgh a few hours later in which two teenagers were killed.

There are more wounded these days and more shooters. Police arrested one man, Jewayne Price, in connection with the Columbia shooting, and two more are being sought. Price’s attorney said Sunday he was defending himself after receiving threats on Facebook and being approached by two men, one of whom opened fire on him. After paying a $25,000 bond he was placed under house arrest and ordered to wear an ankle bracelet.

That might seem to be a mild response to a shooting in which so many people were hurt, but it’s unclear if he would have been charged with anything if the shooting had occurred in Georgia. Price was charged with unlawful carrying of a pistol, not shooting it. There may be some catch in the bill Gov. Brian Kemp signed last week which would have ensnared Price, but in general, the law makes it legal to carry a gun without a permit.

None of this is to say there aren’t still embittered loners hoarding small arsenals and plotting the day they, too, can make as big a splash as the Las Vegas shooter or the Columbine kids. Another one could surface at any time, but the pattern of mass violence is changing in ways that have consequences for law enforcement and lawmakers.

As the Columbia shootout illustrates, mass violence has become more normalized, both in how it’s treated in the media and responded to by the government. It’s like a virus that becomes less deadly — although this is deceptive — even as it becomes more contagious.

There are a lot more guns now than there were a decade ago when the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting stoked the political debate over gun control, and a lot more of them are owned by women, Blacks and Latinos. Gun sales soared during the pandemic, from about 14 million in 2019 to nearly 23 million in 2020.

As they have grown more numerous, guns have become more fungible. Gun thefts are said to be a prime motive for an uptick in automobile break-ins. We don’t yet know the details which led to the arrest of a 21-year-old College Park man for the triple murder of an older couple and their grandson at a Coweta County shooting range, but we do know that something like 40 guns were stolen from the range, a strong suggestion that guns were the object of the crime.

Most of the people who’ve purchased a firearm for the first time since the pandemic keep their weapons in a safe place and have no intention of using them carelessly,  but there are still enough loose guns to create a black market fueled by theft.

It’s too soon to say how these changing patterns will affect the political debate over guns. Kemp has made the signing of the bill making it legal to carry a concealed weapon without a license a capstone in his campaign to swamp David Perdue and win the Republican primary next month without a runoff. How the new law plays in the general election campaign will depend in part on how much more mayhem the easy commerce in guns generates in the coming months.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll conducted in January showed a whopping 70 percent of Georgians opposed allowing concealed weapons without a permit, but that doesn’t mean their opinions about guns will be decisive in how they vote. It will depend in part on how often they’re reminded.



Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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