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‘Don’t be numb to this’: Battling despair over gun deaths

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Increasingly it feels like America is at war with itself.

In New Orleans, just days into the new year, a 14-year-old girl was shot to death, along with her father and uncle. A few days after, in a Virginia classroom, a six-year-old boy pulled out a gun and shot his first-grade teacher. That news was eclipsed by a mass shooting at a California dance studio last weekend that left 11 people dead. A day later and a few hundred miles away, a farmworker opened fire in a beachside town, killing seven coworkers. Three more were killed and four wounded in a shooting at a short-term rental home in an an upscale Los Angeles neighborhood early Saturday.

Just keeping track of all the shootings has become overwhelming, with the locations, circumstances and the names of the victims running together into a seemingly endless trail of bloodshed and grief.

And many Americans are deeply pessimistic that anything will soon change. When President Joe Biden signed a bill last year to fight gun violence — the first such measure to pass Congress in a generation — a substantial majority supported it. But 78% said they believed it would do little or nothing at all, a survey by the Pew Research Center found.

The sheer number of killings and the glacial pace of the political response “breeds a sense of powerlessness and despair,” said Pedro Noguera, the dean of the school of education at the University of Southern California and a sociologist who has studied gun violence for more than two decades.

“I don’t think anybody feels good about where we are at – even gun enthusiasts,” he said.

But if all that might make you think America has gone numb to gun violence, Zeneta Everhart would disagree. Fiercely.

Everhart’s then-19-year-old son, Zaire, was working his part-time job at a Buffalo supermarket last May when a gunman stormed in, looking for Black people to kill. Ten died in the attack. Zaire was shot in the neck but survived.

“I don’t think that the country is becoming numb to it, but I think that the country is frustrated,” she said. “I think that people are tired.”

“You know, we don’t want to hear about this. We don’t want to hear about our children dying by gun violence, and we don’t want to hear about our seniors” who were killed in the California studio attack. “How awful. How heartbreaking.”

But that makes Everhart and others even more determined to find ways to stem the violence.

The month after the supermarket shooting, she and other victims’ relatives went to Washington, D.C., testifying before a House committee about the need for gun safety legislation. Two weeks later, Biden signed the gun violence bill.

That success, and her son’s continuing recovery, keep her energized.

But in a country where attitudes about guns and violence are often contradictory, charting a course of action makes for uneasy calculus.

Overall, 71% of Americans say gun laws should be stricter, according to a 2022 poll by the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. But in the same poll, 52% said it is also highly important to protect Americans’ right to own guns for personal safety.

Last year’s gun violence law was designed to incrementally toughen requirements for young people to buy guns, deny firearms to more domestic abusers and help local authorities temporarily take weapons from people judged to be dangerous. Most of its $13 billion cost would go to bolster mental health programs and for schools.

This year, though, the number of shooting deaths are already deeply discouraging.

The nation’s first mass shooting last year happened on Jan 23. By the same date this year, the nation had already endured six mass shootings, leaving 39 people dead, according to a database compiled by The Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University. It tracks every attack in the U.S. that has claimed at least four lives, not including the shooter’s, since 2006.

“Unfortunately, I think we have become immune to it,” said Mark Gius, a professor at Quinnipiac College who studies gun violence and public policy. “It’s become a part of life.”

Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime was killed when a gunman rampaged through a Parkland, Florida high school in 2018, knows too well how overwhelming the violence can be.

The immediate instinct to these shootings, he said, is to think “Here we go again.” But it doesn’t end there.

“It’s not that Americans don’t care. It’s that we’ve let it go too far,” he said. “America is paying attention. People are more engaged on this issue than they’ve ever been.”

For years, he’s been pushing in Congress and Florida for legislation known as “Jaime’s Law,” which would require people buying ammunition to undergo the same background checks required to buy a gun. The bills have stalled repeatedly, but he’s not giving up.

While mass killings like Parkland grab much of the attention, more than half of America’s roughly 45,000 annual firearm deaths are from suicide.

Of gun killings, the vast majority leave only one or two people dead. Many of those deaths get no attention, beyond from the authorities and the people left behind.

“That’s the sad thing,” said USC’s Noguera. ”It almost takes being directly impacted to understand how dangerous the situation is right now.”

It has created a situation where even people who detest guns can find themselves wondering if they should buy one.

“It’s understandable,” he said. “People think: If the state can’t protect us, then we must protect ourselves.”

Eight months after the Buffalo supermarket attack, doctors have been unable so far to remove all the bullet fragments lodged inside the body of Everhart’s son, some of them dangerously close to vital organs. But his survival motivates her to keeping pushing government for change, and she urges others not to give up fighting when they hear about yet another shooting.

“Don’t be numb to this,” she said. “This should hurt you. You should feel something.”


Associated Press video journalist Robert Bumsted contributed to this story. Sullivan reported from Minneapolis.