On a sunny July afternoon, James Oliver Huberty drove his black Mercury Marquis to a McDonald’s restaurant in San Ysidro, near the border with Mexico, carrying a small arsenal and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.
He shot at cooks and counter people, at restaurants and employees hidden in a storage area, at a mother and her child, at three boys riding their bikes in the parking lot.
21 people were killed in what was, at the time, the worst mass shooting by a lone gunman in US history. I covered the murders for United Press International. Today, the 1984 San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre, as it became known, barely makes the top ten.
In the bloody years since then, there have been more than 130 mass shootings, according to a database maintained by the news website Mother Jones that counts incidents in which four or more people have been killed.
Those are the decades in which the nation’s gun laws have generally grown more lenient, guns are more readily available, and Washington’s lawmakers are markedly less responsive. For the majority of Americans who prefer stricter safety regulations, such as bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
It’s hardly a coincidence.
There have been mass shootings at military bases, church nightclubs, restaurants, office parks, post offices, college campuses, and elementary schools. at a Saturday night ballroom in Monterey Park and, less than 48 hours later, at a nursery and farm near Half Moon Bay.
In fact, it’s almost easier to name the places where mass shootings take place It didn’t, although doing so might be motivating and might amount to daredevils for some sick people.
“Tragedy after tragedy,” said California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who was at a meeting with victims of the Monterey Park rampage when he was informed of the shooting Monday. A punch in the gut followed by another.
It’s unimaginable, said officials in Half Moon Bay, a small ocean oasis 30 miles south of San Francisco.
But it really isn’t. We immerse ourselves in a kind of mental bubble wrap, rationalizing that such atrocities could never have happened. here. But we learned long ago that it can happen anywhere, anytime. None of us are truly safe the moment we set foot in public.
News reports over the past 48 hours have almost invariably indicated that California has some of the strictest gun laws in the country, which means that they are somehow failing to work. this is not true.
California’s gun-related death rate dropped significantly as the state passed safety legislation, while rates rose in states like Texas and Florida, which have moved in the opposite direction in an ostensible contest over where they can be most mixed in their reverence for firearms.
But California is not, as some might prefer, an island. An assault-style weapon banned in California can be obtained with just a short trip, across the border at a gun show in Arizona or Nevada.
The solution is uniform federal gun safety laws, but that, of course, would require bold action by Congress.
Which seems very unlikely.
After some outrageous mass shootings this past summer, all lawmakers could have managed with some tinkering — expanding background checks for gun buyers ages 18 to 21, prompting states to pass so-called red flag laws to keep firearms out of reach. Dangerous and misleading.
It was the first major gun safety legislation passed by Congress in nearly 30 years, and its excitement spoke to the helplessness of the moment.
Polls show that most Americans favor stricter gun laws and that large majorities support common sense measures such as creating a federal database to track gun sales and banning gun purchases for people with mental illnesses.
However, Congress is unimpressed, in part because the pro-gun lobby routinely outweighs gun safety advocates. People who oppose gun controls are often deeply, individually, and relentlessly involved in this issue. People who want to end gun violence may also be passionate, but they tend to be spotty in their political engagement and limited in their attention span.
Robert Spitzer, a professor of political science at the State University of New York at Cortlandt, summed up the dynamic in a 2018 interview, before many tragedies.
“It’s only when mass shootings happen that the public really pays attention,” said Spitzer, who has written several books on gun policy. But the feelings do not last long. Most people turn their attention back to other things, as does the media, and soon it’s back to business as usual.”
At the same time, lawmakers have generally become less reliant on broad support and more religious to their political bases, as gerrymandering — the purposeful drawing of congressional boundaries in favor of one party over another — has eliminated much of the competition between parties.
There are 82 swing congressional districts, according to Cook’s Political Report with Amy Walter, a nonpartisan guide to campaigning and elections. This is half the number there were in 1999.
Charlie Cook, the report’s founder, writes that “the smaller number of swing counties means fewer members need to balance and support compromises.” In fact, he said, “There are more Republican congressmen in danger of losing the primaries than there are in the general election—and then they constantly look over their right shoulder.”
And there, with a ready ballot, are some of the gun safety law’s staunchest opponents. Even as the death toll rises, they are unrelenting in their opposition.
For some, a certain number of lives lost is the price of freedom.
For most people, this is a very high price. But until the political dynamic changes — until gerrymandering stops and voting against gun control becomes a responsibility rather than a reason for lawmakers to stay in office — that is a price that our society and countless innocent people will continue to pay.