Mass killing in Chesapeake, Va., hits country weary over gun violence

Mass killing in Chesapeake, Va., hits country weary over gun violence

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Over 10 days, people across the country woke up to a version of the same news on three different mornings: another high-profile shooting and a new death toll. Three, last week, on a college bus. Five, on Saturday, inside a nightclub. Six, on Tuesday, in a Walmart. And now, on a uniquely American holiday of thanks, the nation must once again reckon with the reality that its uniquely American crisis can end a life at any time, in any place.

“We are not free,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, “if we’re worried that no matter where we are, we are at risk of being shot.”

Watts, known in part for tweeting out the details of nearly every mass shooting, had hoped that this week would provide her a break. She spent Tuesday finding ingredients for stuffing and making airport runs to pick up her children flying home for the holiday. Then she saw the news from Chesapeake, Va., and shared it. But when she noticed the shooting still hadn’t started to trend on Twitter, a sense of dread swept over her. She worried people were looking away.

“We aren’t numb – we’re traumatized,” posted Watts, who had been inspired to launch her gun violence prevention group a decade ago, after 20 first-graders were slaughtered at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.

“When you are constantly exposed to gun violence, whether you’re a survivor or someone who has experienced this in their community or even secondhand, watching it on the news, it impacts us,” she said later. “The violence bleeds into our consciousness.”

America is enduring a historic stretch of gun violence that spiked at the start of the pandemic and has yet to subside. Bullets killed more than 47,000 people last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And though a Washington Post analysis of data from the Gun Violence Archive shows the pace of mass shootings — where four or more people are wounded in a single incident, not including the shooter — lags slightly behind last year at this time, 2022’s total could double 2018’s.

School shootings, meanwhile, have never been worse. The number of incidents, deaths and children exposed to campus gunfire are all expected to set records.

The epidemic’s relentlessness has left many Americans exhausted.

On Nov. 13, police say, a 22-year-old student at the University of Virginia fired at his schoolmates after returning from a bus trip to D.C., where the group had watched a play and eaten together. All three of the young men who died played on the football team.

Six days later, in Colorado Springs, authorities allege that another 22-year-old, this one wearing camouflage and a bulletproof vest, opened fire inside an LGBTQ nightclub, killing five and wounding at least 18 others.

And there was the shooting late Tuesday in Chesapeake, where authorities and witnesses said a Walmart employee fired in a break room, killing six co-workers and wounding others before taking his own life. Then came the familiar responses: demands for change from gun-safety activists, dismissiveness of those demands from the National Rifle Association and, from Virginia’s Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, a call to save the debates for some day in the future.

After each mass killing, gun rights activists suggest that what the country really needs to protect itself is even more lethal weapons, a persuasive refrain to millions of gun owners. That’s despite the fact that armed guards have repeatedly failed to stop school shootings, and years of research has shown that the mere presence of a firearm in a home substantially increases the danger to the people who live in it.

Regardless of the disagreements, only more carnage awaits, as the recent past has made clear.

Less than a month before the Chesapeake shooting, a man with an AR-15-style rifle and more than 600 rounds of ammunition killed two people at a St. Louis high school. And Thanksgiving marks the six-month anniversary of the shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Tex., where 19 children and two teachers were killed.

Then there are the shootings that go mostly unnoticed but that, nevertheless, devastate millions of people each year.

This month, a man fatally shot three people, including his wife, in rural Pennsylvania and then was killed as he fired on troopers. Just more than a week later, a 3-year-old boy died after he accidentally shot himself with a gun he found in an apartment in Utah. A day after that, a Maryland man was accused of gunning down his former girlfriend and her three children.

“What keeps me up at night is the question of whether this country is just learning to live with this,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who has long fought for gun-safety reform. “We have to maintain our sense of outrage at this. And I know that becomes harder and harder.”

Zoe Touray understands that, too.

Touray, 18, survived the massacre at Oxford High School in Michigan on Nov. 30, 2021. As time has passed, she has noticed how many people have forgotten the shooting at her school and the four teenagers whose lives it took.

“It bothers me that people sometimes forget we had tragedy because maybe it was ‘smaller’ than others,” she said. “But in reality, they all have a huge impact.”

Touray recently started a group, Survivors Embracing Each Other, in the hope of supporting more victims. She hosted her first event on Saturday, in Uvalde, just hours before the Colorado Springs shooting 850 miles away. Dozens of kids competed in limbo competitions and played with therapy dogs, munched on wings and made tie-dye shirts.

She learned about the nightclub attack the next morning, on her way to spend the day with a 10-year-old girl who had escaped from Robb. They were supposed to go to an arcade together and eat pizza. Touray had to turn her phone off.

Back in Michigan on Wednesday, she also had to avoid news about the Walmart shooting. She and her former schoolmates had planned to light lanterns together in honor of their friends killed almost exactly one year earlier.

For many people, this trio of widely covered mass shootings felt like a single, inescapable event, with the anguish of one lingering into the next. That was especially true for Johnny de Triquet.

As a U-Va. alumnus, he was stunned to learn that his alma mater’s idyllic campus had been the scene of such terror. As a 38-year-old gay man, he was horrified again last weekend after the killings in Colorado that led the suspect to be charged with a hate crime. And then, finally, as a native of Chesapeake, he was devastated by the attack in his hometown, a bastion of “Southern hospitality” where he and his partner were traveling to from New York City for the holiday.

“You never know what may happen — who’s going to act crazy, in any kind of situation,” he said. “And we end up with a tragedy the next day on the news.”

For millions of Americans, the fatigue and frustration stem both from the rate of gun violence and from how little people in power have done to address it.

The public might never learn why the shooters in Charlottesville or Colorado Springs or Chesapeake pulled their triggers. Investigators haven’t divulged what made them so angry or if anyone could have intervened before blood was shed. They were different people from different places, each with different backgrounds and circumstances, motives and hatreds. But they all had one thing in common: access to guns.

The NRA on Tuesday insisted America’s Second Amendment protection of gun ownership had nothing to do with any of the killings.

“These are heinous acts by deranged criminals,” Amy Hunter, an NRA spokeswoman, wrote in a statement to The Post. “Rational Americans know that these crimes have nothing to do with the constitutional and the self-defense rights of the law abiding.”

Yet America is the only high-income nation on Earth that contends with such extraordinary levels of gun violence, and experts say the only clear difference between this country and those is the number of firearms in this one — more than 400 million, by some estimates — and laws that are less effective at regulating them.

“There might be some diseases that don’t have a cure. What do you do? But there are things about gun violence that are time-tested, and perhaps wouldn’t prevent every act of gun violence, but with the law of averages and big numbers, we would prevent a lot of them,” said David Chipman, a former agent at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and one-time nominee to lead the agency. “Our political people in power are unwilling to do that.”

Youngkin was criticized online after calling the shooting at U-Va. an “event” on Twitter and making no mention of the word “gun.” In his first tweet about the Walmart shooting, he condemned “heinous acts of violence,” but again, did not note that the act was committed with a gun.

Pressed about potential gun-control reforms by reporters on Wednesday, Youngkin said he was open to discussing it, but — as conservative politicians often do — he insisted now is a time for mourning, not solutions.

“Today is not the day. It’s not the day,” he said. “But it will be. And we will talk about it.”

Chesapeake area residents described tears and “heartbreak” when speaking to The Post about the deadly shooting at Walmart on Nov. 22. (Video: John Warner, Joy Yi/The Washington Post, Photo: Carlos Bernate/The Washington Post)

Murphy said he suspects elected officials, both in state capitals and in Washington, won’t be able to avoid the issue much longer.

“I think this country has made the decision that they aren’t going to live with this,” he said. “There were lots of reasons Democrats did fairly well in this last election. But clearly, gun violence was a motivating issue. Of those that showed up for the midterms, the vast majority of them wanted tougher gun laws. And those folks all voted for Democrats. So I think Republicans are beginning to realize that their political future is at risk if they don’t start joining us in these efforts.”

This summer, with the help of 15 Senate Republicans, Congress passed a gun-control bill for the first time in decades, and though the legislation didn’t include the sweeping changes that activists have long demanded, Murphy said it was a significant victory that he believes will lead to more.

But for a senator whose career has been shaped by the Sandy Hook massacre, Murphy has accepted that nothing will end mass shootings in America.

On Tuesday, a former Olympic boxer in Miami was arrested after police discovered that he planned to commit a mass shooting. He made a $150 deposit for a AK-47 semiautomatic rifle at a pawnshop and posted threats online, writing on Instagram that he was “willing to shoot with a actual gun.” He would go through it “for righteousness sake.”

His target, according to police? A local gym that had revoked his membership.

Gillian Brockell, Peter Jamison and Gregory S. Schneider contributed to this report.

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