A day of living and dying in America

The Observer editorial board

Flags fly at half staff at the Capitol, in Sacramento, Calif., to honor the victims of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., Wednesday.
Flags fly at half staff at the Capitol, in Sacramento, Calif., to honor the victims of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., Wednesday. AP

What’s it like living in the country that has half the civilian-owned guns in the world?

Just follow the bullets.

▪ In San Bernardino, Calif., a man and a woman, both in their 20s, walk into a conference room Wednesday morning at a social services center. There, a group of county health department employees are having a holiday party.

The couple is married, police will later say. They’ve dropped off their six-month-old child with a grandparent. They are each dressed in tactical gear and carrying a pistol. They also are carrying assault rifles that were legally purchased – a .223-caliber DPMS Model A15 and a Smith and Wesson M&P15.

Those kinds of weapons were once illegal in the United States. The 1994 Assault Weapons Ban prohibited several semi-automatic weapons, including AK-47s and AR15s, and magazines that carried more than 10 bullets. The ban expired in 2004 when Congress, under pressure from the gun lobby, declined to extend the law, much less improve it to include more guns.

Back then, and after mass shootings since, assault weapon opponents have wondered exactly what value those guns bring to their owners. Here’s one: Because many of the weapons hold magazines with 30 rounds or more, they allow you to spray a higher number of bullets without having to reload. In San Bernardino, that meant the shooters were able to mow down 14 people, injure at least 17 others, and hop in their SUV before police even arrived.

It was the biggest mass shooting in the U.S. since 27 people died three years ago at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

But it was not the first mass shooting of the day.

▪ In Savannah, Ga., just after 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, a woman is killed and three men hospitalized after a shooting near downtown. Savannah-Chatham police say later they believe two shooters were involved in the incident, but there are few other details.

The Savannah homicide was the 354th mass shooting in the United States this year – San Bernardino was the 355th – according to a mass shooting tracker maintained on Reddit. That tracker uses a broader definition of mass shooting – four or more people injured by gunfire – than other databases.

At this pace of more than one mass shooting per day, we’ve already eclipsed last year’s total and will likely pass 2013, which had 363 mass shootings.

Given that the gun lobby thinks its distasteful to “politicize” mass shootings by talking about gun control, we’re not left with much time to debate guns, no matter which database you use.

▪ In Baltimore, three men are killed in three separate and unrelated shootings. The deaths Wednesday bring the city’s homicide count to 315, the highest in 20 years, while nudging the per capita rate to 50 killings per 100,000 residents. That’s the first time the rate has been so high, the Baltimore Sun reports.

Maryland, it should be noted, has some of the country’s toughest gun laws. But federal data show that more than 50,000 guns a year are diverted across state lines, with many more than that going undetected.

Without stricter federal laws, the underground gun network will continue to dilute laws in states that are trying to combat gun violence.

That’s because some states aren’t trying at all.

▪ In North Carolina, a new law in effect this week limits the background checks county sheriffs can perform on people applying for a pistol permit.

House Bill 582 allows sheriffs to look back only five years into a person’s history to determine if they have “good moral character.” Previously, sheriffs could look 20 years back into a person’s history for items that might raise red flags.

Democratic Sen. Floyd McCissick expressed misgivings about the bill when it was debated in July. “Anything that enhances the probability that a firearm will end up in the wrong hands is a bill that is going to trouble me,” he said.

The NRA cheered the bill’s passage.

▪ In Charlotte, a 25-year-old woman is killed late Wednesday in the Hickory Grove area east of uptown. Officers find Angel Marie Carlton near 10:30 p.m.. Paramedics pronounce her dead at the scene.

The cause of death is a gunshot wound, but police have offered few other details, the Observer reports. That means we don’t know if the gun involved in the shooting was obtained illegally, or if tighter background checks might have prevented the gun from being purchased legally.

So no, we can’t say for sure if better gun laws might have saved Angel Marie Carlton’s life, or if stricter gun control might have spared 1 life in Savannah, 14 lives in San Bernardino or the estimated 30 people murdered with guns each day. That’s the cloudy case gun proponents often put forth in the face of bullet-strewn days like Wednesday.

But research tells us that states with tighter gun laws have fewer gun deaths. Polls tell us that Americans are in favor of reasonable laws that provide tougher background checks, encourage states to share information on mental health issues of gun buyers, and close loopholes allowing “straw purchasers” to pass background checks before passing guns to those who can’t.

Common sense tells us that if we did any of these things, more people would have a harder time getting guns and using them. Common sense also tells us that if high-capacity “assault” weapons and magazines were against the law, a young couple in California might have killed fewer people with less powerful and lower-capacity pistols. Or they might not have tried at all.

Instead we watch, more numbly each time, as San Bernardino follows the Planned Parenthood shootings, which follow Charleston and Newtown and what were those others again? No matter. It’s just another day of living, and dying, in America.