It is overwhelming. It is challenging not to be numb to the devastation. It is hard to even imagine the amount of carnage that has happened this year, every week; hell, every day. But we are living in the world the NRA has long planned for and worked for: a world of unlimited access to guns.
Jacksonville, Florida was the primary – though not the only scene – of the carnage that occurred this weekend. A 21 year-old white man in a neighboring county traveled to Jacksonville with a kevlar vest, a jacket to carry his ammunition, a black face mask, a handgun, an AR-15 with swastikas written on it with white-out, and a determination to kill Black people. He tried to commit his killings at the HBCU school, Edward Waters University and was turned away by a campus security officer who asked him to state who he was before he was allowed entrance. The shooter refused to do so and so he left, drove several blocks down the street, stopped at a Dollar General and went in and killed three people before killing himself. The guns he had were legally bought.
There is something that is so striking to me in this story. He went to Edward Waters in hopes of killing as many young Black people as possible, but when simply asked who he was and told he could not enter until he identified himself, he complied with the security officer and left the campus. Now, I have searched and have not been able to confirm this, but from years of having studied and worked on college campuses I do not remember one single security officer who was armed. Like I said, I cannot confirm this, but there is a chance that the man so determined to kill Black people complied with the instructions of an unarmed security officer before he committed his own private massacre.
I cannot wrap my mind around why he chose to obey a possibly unarmed security officer and only several minutes later, walked into a Dollar General store and, for no reason at all save his racist hatred, killed three innocent people. But one thing that did change about the shooter was his clothing.
On Saturday, just when the man was likely changing his clothes before he entered the Dollar General, I finished reading a book by a former gun industry executive called, Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry That Radicalized America, by Ryan Busse. Busse details his long career for Kimber Guns, a career that grew out of his love for hunting and conservation – something that used to characterize the mission of the NRA. But Busse saw from the inside what all of us have seen from the outside: the NRA has become obsessed with unlimited access to all guns for all people. The power of the NRA is simply not as great when it only caters to the needs of hunters. The NRA needed more people to buy guns and to do that they needed the guns to become cultural symbols.
In 2001, the entire gun industry sold 1.5 million guns. The Assault Weapons Ban was in effect until 2004, when President George W. Bush caved to the NRA and refused to extend the act another ten years with the mere stroke of his pen. Busse points out that assault weapons were still legally made and sold during the ban, but escaped being banned if they did not combine two or more extra features. They just were not made widely by the industry and were rarely purchased. But in the four years from the end of the ban to just before President Bush left office the sales of assault weapons increased to almost 7,000 weapons per day.
Now the assault weapon can be seen on shirts, hats, tie pins for members of Congress, some of whom also menacingly pose with them with their entire family for Christmas cards. It has become a symbol of freedom and patriotism for far too many. And while Busse writes that assault weapons were once dismissed by gun industry executives who wanted to make guns for hunters, assault weapons have been engineered by the NRA to become a cultural movement. This is a culture that deifies weapons of war for people who Busse dismissively calls “couch commandos”: wanna-be weekend warriors who want to look like Rambo or one of a rising number of Youtube stars who fuse together weapons of war with patriotism and freedom while attracting scantily-clad women. This is the new cool for couch commandos. And beating just below the surface of this culture is the heartbeat of racism and the lack of any true moral compass.
As with any cultural movement, the movement to make assault weapons “America’s Rifle” is not just about guns. It is a lifestyle. I saw the very brief video footage of the shooter putting on his outfit in the parking lot before he went into the Dollar General and the guy looked pathetic. He needed all of the outfit to summon the courage to go inside and kill people who never suspected that day that they would run into a lost, murderous, coward who one minute obeyed a security officer and then, five minutes later, needed a vest, a mask, and a jacket to kill them solely because they were Black.
And because he, like any lost, murderous, coward in the United States, has unlimited access to guns.