January 29, 2023

It’s an uncomfortable pause, perhaps an unhealthy defense mechanism we’ve evolved. It’s a feeling we must await before deciding how horrified we should feel at an obviously horrific act.


Last July 4, a gunman opened fire at a parade in Highland Park, Illinois, killing seven and injuring dozens. Fast forward to now and within three days we faced two mass shootings in California, first in Monterey Park and then in Half Moon Bay.

As I write this, there may well be another. That’s America.

Like the tragedy in Illinois near my house Last summer – and so many others in between – the mass shootings in California made national headlines. The first reaction for many, especially those not directly affected by the violence, is to ask: Why? What was the shooter’s motive? Who inspired him? Who can we blame?

What answers could make a tragedy less tragic?

It’s an uncomfortable pause that might precede any expression of shock, perhaps an unhealthy defense mechanism some of us have developed. There’s a sense that we have to wait several bars before deciding how horrified we should feel at an obviously horrific act.

I was in Highland Park the day after the shooting and destroyed that community in a way that will never fully heal. I spoke to a mother who hid behind trash cans with her young daughter hoping to survive. The feelings there, among those who witnessed the shooting and those who lost people, were one of fear and horror. There, in that raw moment, there was no pausing, no assessment of the circumstances.

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About an hour south, in the city of Chicago, gun violence is commonplace, and every time a bullet destroys another body, the horror is preceded by questions: Was it a gang relationship? Was it a domestic dispute? As always, what was the motive?

As if there were a reason behind each of these disasters — like a missing detail about a shooting that killed 11 people at a Monterey Park dance club — that might soften the reaction of those outside of that community. As if motive would make a difference to the families and communities torn apart by an outbreak of violence.

Was it a hate crime? (How could it be fueled by anything but hate?) Was Sagittarius liberal or conservative? (Does it matter to the mourners?) Was it accidental or purposeful? (Does either answer help?)

According to the Gun Violence Archive, which defines a “mass shooting” as one in which four or more people are injured or killed, there have been about 40 mass shootings in America so far this year. Another mass shooting erupted Monday in California in the town of Half Moon Bay, about seven hours north of Monterey Park. Seven people were killed.

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At least 70 people have been killed and more than 160 injured in all of these mass shootings this month. More than 30 people have been injured in further mass shootings since the Monterey Park shooting on Saturday night.

We do not know the motive behind many of these attacks, just as we do not yet know the motive behind the tragedies at Monterey Park or Half Moon Bay. But we know without question that every victim had connections to other people, and those other people, their communities, and the victims who survived are all feeling the agonizing effects of gun violence.

We should feel every mass shooting like a punch in the pit of the stomach

Motive is important, but it shouldn’t be a fact that modulates our shock. We shouldn’t let cause excuse effect, but I’m afraid some of us have ended up there.

Rather than take the quick and senseless loss of life as a punch in the gut, we would like a group or ideology to point the finger and conveniently ignore this simple fact: In America, those with hatred at heart have an alarmingly easy time with guns to get.

Do you want fewer shoots? Adopt strict gun laws: We studied science. Our research shows that lax laws encourage violence.

Where that hate is coming from and who it’s directed at seems secondary to the fact that we’ve normalized easy access to tools that help the hateful cause mass bleeding.

The motive does not matter immediately after a mass shooting

When news broke of the Monterey Park shooting and we learned it was a predominantly Asian American community, social media lit up with people wondering if the killings were racially motivated. These questions were often preceded by expressions of grief.

Of course we want and need to know why crimes are committed. But at the heart of tragedy, motive is meaningless, and I would argue that the search for motive – that vacillating wait that we think might dictate how we should feel – distracts us from the deadly simple equation that our country can’t seem to solve: hatred + access to guns = mass shootings.

Almost 400 people have died since the July 4 shooting in Highland Park

Since the July 4 shooting in Highland Park, there have been more than 360 mass shootings in America, killing nearly 400 and injuring more than 1,400, according to the Gun Violence Archives.

These shootings took place in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, California, Illinois, Arizona, Texas, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Colorado, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Indiana , Nebraska, New Jersey, Wisconsin, South Carolina… Well, you get the idea.

In each of these states—every state, really, as gun violence permeates the nooks and crannies of this nation—lives are being torn apart that will never be right again. And in any mass shooting, there are two factors that always outweigh any motive: a person with enough hatred to kill and a gun that helped that person kill.

Take away one of those factors and you have a whole different story to tell.

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The same thing that always happens has happened again

We should be repelled by all mass shootings, whether it’s in Monterey Park or Highland Park or the Buffalo grocery store shooting or Half Moon Bay shooting or the dozens of mass killings that go largely unnoticed.

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A motive doesn’t bring back the dead or dampen the horror. We must not get so used to America’s murderous rhythm that we need to know more before we let it feel. After living violently in Chicago for two decades, I have to remind myself of this more times than I care to admit.

All we need to know when news of mass shootings breaks is this: the same thing that keeps happening has happened again. If we wait to react until we can blame something other than the hate in the shooter or the gun in their hand, we will never stop anything.

Follow USA TODAY columnist Rex Huppke on Twitter @RexHuppke and Facebook facebook.com/RexIsAJerk, or contact him at [email protected]

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