Communities directly affected by a mass shooting don’t just get to move on when there’s another one.
I was a junior in high school when I first imagined dying in a mass shooting. It was 1999 and two young men had murdered 12 of their fellow students and one teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, 1,500 miles from my hometown of Buffalo, New York. A few weeks after the slaughter, a schoolmate burst onstage at an assembly. He was wielding a Super Soaker and wearing a trench coat, the Columbine killers’ signature clothing item. He thought it was funny. Those of us who’d spent that spring mapping out escape routes in our heads were less amused.
On the eve of my 40th birthday, I’ve been thinking about that episode a lot. Columbine stood out in 1999 because it was then the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, the killers ending more than ten lives at once. Once a grim milestone, it now seems relatively small in scale. While roughly as common as they were in the 1990s, mass shootings have become deadlier and more prominent in the age of social media: Gunmen killed 60 people in Las Vegas in 2017; 49 at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in 2016; 32 at Virginia Tech in 2007; and 26, including 20 first graders, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012. Back when I was in high school, these shootings didn’t seem so sickeningly normal.
I was sheltered enough then that I didn’t think about dying every day. Like lots of other kids, my anxiety spiked when I read about Columbine or heard about it on TV, but I didn’t really believe that something like that could happen where I lived or went to school. People frequently die of gun violence in Buffalo—a fact I was only dimly aware of as a teenager—but I invented all kinds of reasons why my classmates and I were exempt from the kind of random mass killing that had taken place at Columbine: New York has tougher gun laws than the rest of the country; my high school was small and close-knit; and, like most sheltered adolescents, I simply didn’t believe that people my age could die. As one high school friend put it, “I definitely didn’t internalize Columbine as a real risk for us. That was something crazy people in other places did.”
For a long time, it felt as if my friend was right. Our city was scarred by everyday violence, but for decades it escaped large mass shootings of the kind that happened at Columbine. Earlier this month, I was grabbing lunch at a diner in Providence, Rhode Island, when I overheard some customers chatting about a local shooting. “Not too many people get shot who haven’t put themselves in harm’s way,” one guy tut-tutted, expressing a belief many Americans still hold. It’s comforting to believe you can avoid violence by being smart and doing right, even when there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary.
Buffalo’s luck ran out in May, when it became the latest American city to experience a deadly mass shooting, this time at a Tops grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Ten people were killed, victims of a targeted, anti-Black hate crime. No decent person would suggest that the victims had “put themselves in harm’s way” by shopping for groceries in the middle of the afternoon. But whether an act of violence feels random and haphazardly cruel or personal and targeted only really matters to those left behind. It makes no difference to the dead.
One of the cruelest aspects of the way we live now—always bracing for the next horrific headline, believing this kind of violence is inevitable because we are told over and over again that it is—is the way all of these massacres, no matter how shocking or deadly or racist or cruel, soon become old news to everyone but those most directly affected. Occasionally they reappear in headlines on anniversaries, or as benchmarks to help contextualize the latest mass shooting. Even the phrase “mass shooting” has acquired a leaden deadness; it’s become so common that it has lost the power to shock and horrify. Before those who lost children and parents and spouses and friends can even keep food down again, the rest of us have already moved on.
“5/14,” the date of the Tops massacre, has become the equivalent of “9/11” for Buffalonians—a grim shorthand for a community-altering event that few outside of Buffalo would immediately comprehend. When I first heard about the shooting, I cried for two days. My sister-in-law used to shop at that Tops; it’s a mile and a half from my parents’ place. There were vigils and rallies and fundraisers. President Biden showed up to denounce the “poison” of white supremacy. Then we tried to move on. We have come to believe that those not directly affected by a particular mass shooting have to move on; it’s the only way to grasp a few moments of peace before the next one.
The respite was short-lived. Ten days after the murders in Buffalo, an 18-year-old man killed 19 children and two adults at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. In both cases, the shooter was an 18-year-old man, the weapon of choice was a legally purchased AR-15-style rifle, and communities of color were the target. The killer in Buffalo was a young white man who targeted Black people; the killer in Uvalde was a young Latino man who targeted Latinos and was likely inspired by the massacre in Buffalo.
It’s impossible to stop thinking about something that never stops happening.
Six months on, residents of Buffalo and Uvalde are feuding over how much of the money raised by various victims’ funds is going to which victims. Some Uvalde families believe that only those who lost children should be entitled to compensation. At a recent meeting in Buffalo, survivors of the Tops massacre made the opposite argument. Several argued that the people who died were at peace now, while they still had bills to pay and trauma-related symptoms that make it difficult or impossible to go back to work. Some former Tops employees shared stories of forcing themselves to return to their workplace, which now doubled as the scene of a shattering crime. Most couldn’t make it through an hour. Many of the children who watched their friends die in Uvalde have found it difficult or impossible to return to school. They suffer panic attacks, scare easily, and have trouble sleeping. Hundreds of U.S. parents have lost the power to give their children safe and normal childhoods.
In Buffalo, survivors have complained of being promised substantial financial assistance from a $2.9 million victims’ fund, then fobbed off with gift cards and meal vouchers. Worse than the inadequate disbursement policies of a particular fund is the abandonment of a community by the institutions meant to serve and protect it. In Uvalde, where the cowardice and incompetence of local police and other law enforcement officers may have cost children their lives, Governor Greg Abbott announced the opening of a center meant to provide the community with long-term mental health services. The mother of a little girl who survived the massacre told The Washington Post that no staffers were there when she stopped by the center to request gas vouchers. “It’s so frustrating,” she said. “Like, I know how this system works. And as an educated person, I see how they’re trying to take advantage of all these families…I knew it was gonna happen. Resources here are so limited. They were limited prior to this. And it was obvious to me this morning that there was no one that could help when we needed it.”
Adding to their trauma is the fact that survivors are now pitted against one another in a Hunger Games-style competition for artificially meager resources. A state government that cares for its people would fully fund its schools and mental health services, ensure families have a basic income, and provide free therapy to traumatized children that parents don’t have to drive for miles to access. A responsibly run charity would seek guidance from the community it is ostensibly serving and be open and transparent about its resources and who can expect what.
Instead, the thousands of people in this country who have been traumatized by a mass shooting—who were there when it happened, who were shot but survived, who lost children and parents and spouses and friends—get thoughts and prayers. They get to talk to high-profile reporters for a few days or a week. Their kids get therapy every other week, sometimes for as little as 15 minutes per session. Maybe they get a couple of gift cards or a meal voucher. After every mass shooting, we vow to support the victims, yet more often than not, what they end up getting is staggeringly inadequate. Meanwhile, the rest of the country moves on. And all these communities are left with is the pain of being associated with the worst thing that ever happened there: “Buffalo” now evokes a brutal hate crime more than football or chicken wings or snow.
On December 14, the Sandy Hook parents, with the exception of those who couldn’t bear to go on living, will have survived a decade without their babies. November 14 marked six months since the Buffalo massacre. The six-month anniversary of the Uvalde shooting falls on Thanksgiving. This year, I am thankful for my friends and family, and the fact that we survived another year in a violent, fraying, heartless country ruled by people who would rather let children smear blood on themselves and play dead than ban assault rifles.
The day this essay was commissioned, there was a mass shooting at the University of Virginia that left three young men dead. Two other students were injured, one by a bullet that went through his back and lodged in his stomach. He is expected to survive, which in this country counts as luck. Two days after I submitted a draft, a 22-year-old man shot up an LGBTQ club in Colorado, killing at least five people and injuring 25 others. The morning after I submitted a final draft, a gunman killed six people and himself at a Walmart in Chesapeake, Virginia.
What is a life worth? What about the lives of three people, or ten, or 12, or 60? We have reached a point where we can’t process the unique horror of any single massacre, let alone deal with the social fallout, before the next one comes along. And until we meaningfully restrict access to guns in the United States, there will always be a next one. That sense of inevitability has led to a pervasive hopelessness that compounds this uniquely American trauma. It is daunting to mourn each life lost, each family broken, each childhood marred, each marriage strained and severed. But that’s what we need to do, and we need to do it while fighting to dismantle the anti-democratic institutions preventing us from ending this carnage. We have to stop moving on from what those who lost loved ones, the use of limbs, or the will to live can never move on from. We have to confront the true cost of these killings: to victims, survivors, society, and every human being with a soul.