APTOPIX Texas Mall Shooting (copy)

From left, Melody Stout, Hannah Payan, Aaliyah Alba, Sherie Gramlich and Laura Barrios comfort each other during a vigil Sunday for victims of the mass shooting Saturday at a shopping complex in El Paso, Texas. 

This is the way it is. It has not always been this way, not really, at least that’s what people who grew up in a different time say, but at least since I was young, this is the way it has been. And for the kids who are growing up today, this is the way it has always been. Maybe this is the way it will always be.

There were mass shootings before, I know. We have databases now, charts and lists and timelines that rank the deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history over time and location and number wounded and number killed. The problem with these is that there is not a universally agreed-upon definition of “mass shooting” and some places count casualties differently. Also, the problem with these is that they must exist.

One thing that most of these lists agree upon is that the measurement of mass shootings in modern U.S. history starts in 1949, when a 28-year-old World War II veteran used a Luger pistol to kill 13 people in his Camden, New Jersey neighborhood.

The federal government defines a “mass killing” as an incident in which three or more people are killed in a single episode; it does not have a definition for “mass shooting.” In the era of Pulse and Las Vegas and Sandy Hook and El Paso, it is not so uncommon to hear a single-digit death toll and think, “Thank god there weren’t more” and then wonder how it came to be that you could process death this way.

However it is that it came to be that you process death this way, it is the same way that it came to be that the 1949 rampage falls somewhere in the middle of the list that ranks the deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history.

From 1982 through 2011 there were eight shootings that each left eight dead, and those are the smallest numbers on the list of the deadliest shootings. There are some nines, some 10s, and the numbers just keep getting bigger and then you’re at 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook in 2012 and weren’t things supposed to change after that? But the numbers keep going and you’re back to Virginia Tech in 2007 and 32 people were killed and nothing changed after that. And then it’s Pulse with 49 in 2016. And then it’s 58 and that was two years ago in Las Vegas and nothing changed after that. And those are the deaths. There are injuries, too.

This is the way it is.

It is true that we have had mass shootings for a long time. It is true that some of the early ones, like the clocktower shooting at the University of Texas in 1966, had double-digit death tolls. It is also true that mass shootings have gotten deadlier in the last decade.

It is true, too, that the numbers don’t matter to the people who die, to their friends, their families, their neighbors, their coworkers. The numbers are people.

And as the numbers grow, they inch closer and closer to you, and you don’t know if you’re more afraid for yourself or for your friends, your family, your neighbors, your coworkers.

I was in elementary school when 12 students and one teacher were killed at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. I was in high school when 32 were killed at Virginia Tech. I wondered when, not if, someone would show up to my own high school with a gun, and the answer came just three years later, when I was in college and a 15-year-old boy held my high school government teacher and about two dozen students hostage for more than six hours with two pistols, two knives and 205 rounds of ammunition, and there was mercy that day because he fired shots into the wall and the film projector instead of at the people in the room, and the town was left to process the unsettling relief that although he turned the gun on himself, he spared everyone else.

I wept with joy and sorrow when I learned a girl I’d just met months before had survived the 2012 Aurora, Colorado, shooting where 12 people were killed at a movie theater. I did the same when I learned a friend who works at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, was alive after five of his coworkers were gunned down.

And every time this happens, the religion I think I’ve lost kicks in and I pray for more mercy, for more lives to be spared next time, for there to not be a next time. And every time this happens, a few weeks, or days, or hours go by and there is a new reason to weep, and there is another next time.

This is the way it is.

We always look for a reason. Nothing can make this make sense, but we still want to know why. And sometimes the reason is racism, and sometimes it is mental instability, and sometimes it is misogyny, and sometimes it is money, and sometimes it is homophobia, and sometimes it is religious intolerance, and sometimes it is religious extremism, and sometimes it is something else and sometimes it is something we’ll never know. It is sometimes enabled by cultural forces. It is always enabled by access to firearms, legal or not.

We have always had evil and we have always had hatred. We have always had instability and we have always had intolerance. We have always had guns. I mean, not really, but as long as any of us have been alive, we have always had guns.

The solution isn’t getting rid of guns, and it isn’t even just implementing stricter gun regulations, but stricter gun regulations might be a start. It’s not just recognizing evil and condemning and discouraging racism, and it’s not just funneling more money into mental health services, but all of those things will help, too. At least, I think they would, but the thing is, there’s not much research available to tell us what will help. Because right now, the federal government allocates significantly less funding to gun research than it does to research tied to other major causes of death — 1.6% of what researchers would have predicted based on other causes of death, according to a 2017 study.

And as long as we are without researched findings, lawmakers will continue to introduce inadequate proposals and fail to recognize the ones that could start to fix this problem. They will continue to debate gun regulations and mental health funding and whether Congress should condemn the racist rhetoric that has been allowed to flourish more and more in recent years.

This is the way it is.

And I don’t have words of encouragement or hope, only desperation and heartache and fear, only pleading for some small action to change something, because this is the way it is. But this isn’t the way it has to be.

Jessie Opoien is opinion editor of The Capital Times. jopoien@madison.com and @jessieopie

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Jessie Opoien is the Capital Times' opinion editor. She joined the Cap Times in 2013, covering state government and politics for the bulk of her time as a reporter. She has also covered music, culture and education in Madison and Oshkosh.