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Charleston, South Carolina, June 20, 2015.

In Memoriam

An American Summer

At least 4,080 people killed by gunfire. More than 9,000 wounded. The real story of the season was not the shootings that drew the most headlines.

There were the devout Bible students executed in a Charleston church and the two young women shot from behind while enjoying a silly sex comedy in a Louisiana theater and the 1,433 everyday, anonymous, quickly forgotten gun deaths during the weeks in between. There were the dog-days headlines from cities about murder tallies usually not seen until year’s end. Summers have traditionally been the high season for gun violence in the United States. But the summer of 2015 felt especially bloody, even before a gunman gave this country a killing designed to go viral, the attack timed to interrupt a live broadcast.

The total numbers, the numbers that matter, are these. Between the start of Memorial Day Weekend and the end of the Labor Day holiday, an estimated 4,080 people were killed by guns in America. Another 9,032 were wounded. That’s according to preliminary data from the Gun Violence Archive, which tracks incidents of gun violence through media reports and police blotters. (An earlier version of this post, published on Friday, September 4 and based on data through August 28, showed rolling tallies of more than 3,700 dead and nearly 8,200 injured.) The totals amount to 257 more people killed and 1,424 more wounded than during last summer, which because of the way the the starting and ending holiday weekends fell on the calendar was one week shorter than the summer of 2015. 

Statistically, then, this summer’s increase in firearms casualties has not been huge. What has seemed potentially significant is the effect on perceptions. David Chipman, a former ATF agent, believes that “people have been blown out of their detachment and denial.” If there is a lasting shift (and time will certainly test his assertion), it will owe in part to the way the summer of 2015 mixed together horrors too-familiar and new: Innocent churchgoers standing in for innocent school kids, a Tennessee Naval Reserve facility instead of a Texas army base, a movie theater shooting sequel, a workplace rampage that in a depraved twist was documented with not one but two cameras. Americans may have come to expect an Aurora or Newtown or Fort Hood on a semi-annual basis, but there yet remain varieties of brutality for which we aren’t prepared, have not already pre-processed.

There are of course other ways to view the 2015 shootings that have made the most-read and most-watched lists. For example: As the product of racism, pure and simple, or a “mental health problem,” or the perils of gun-free zones. Dylann Roof, John Houser, Mohammad Abdulazeez, and Vester Flanagan were all able to buy guns through licensed dealers — never mind that Roof’s purchase only went through because of a loophole in the law and “cascade” of clerical errors, nor that the other shooters all exhibited warning signs that might have disqualified them from gun possession under a background check system better designed to account for the role of substance abuse and anger management in violent crime. If you believe America already has all (or more than) the gun regulation it needs, then for you those four shootings fit neatly into a standing argument against reform.

“People have been blown out of their detachment and denial,” says a former ATF agent. Time will test his theory.

And so this summer may also go down as a reminder of the downside of the public tendency to fixate on mass shootings while ignoring other types of gun violence. The fact that only two of the past three months’ high-profile killings even qualify under the most widely used definition — four or more people shot dead, a public setting, a lack of gang or other criminal context — also gave fresh fodder to a group of activists who have been pushing for an updated criteria. To the pseudonymous record-keepers behind the crowd-sourced Mass Shooting Tracker, “a shooting is a shooting,” and a mass shooting is any that produces four or more victims, whether deceased or wounded. Using that standard, the numbers — and it’s the numbers, remember, that matter — are these: more than 125 incidents since Memorial Day, or more than one every 24 hours. In the aggregate, those shootings left 58 people killed and another 571 injured. In a single incident in Fort Worth, Texas, six people were sprayed with bullets, and the counts climb from there. Seven shot at a party outside Cincinnati in Madisonville, Ohio. Eight in Modesto, California. Nine in the Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York.

The dubious distinction of the shooting producing the highest number of casualties this summer seems to belong to an outburst of violence on the evening of Saturday, August 8 in Blytheville, Arkansas, a town of around 15,000 residents near the Mississippi River. Adeline King, 19, was killed and 11 others were wounded after King said hello to her sister’s ex-boyfriend, angering his new girlfriend. Few witnesses came forward to provide details to the police, even though there were reportedly 50 people at the crime scene and 200 at a hospital that received some of the victims. It took 12 days for police to publicly identify the suspect, 27-year-old Billy Dee Williams, who reportedly opened fire into a crowd gathered on the street, killing King. King had been attending a family gathering following the funeral of a cousin. The shooting received scant press coverage outside of Arkansas and the nearby Memphis area.

Two similar shootings generated hardly more attention. On Father’s Day, ten people, including a two-year-old and a ten-year-old, were shot at a block party in West Philadelphia by two men who randomly sprayed the crowd with shotgun pellets. That same evening, at a block party on the west side of Detroit, another ten people were shot, one fatally, when a gunfight ensued on a basketball court. Detroit Police Chief James Craig called the shooting an “act of urban terrorism.”

In some urban centers, news outlets tracked shootings by the hour, not the day.

It was in America’s cities that the spike in gun violence was foreshadowed in late spring, as crime statistics from the first months of the year trickled in. By early June, Chicago, St. Louis and Baltimore had reported a double-digit uptick in firearm injuries and deaths. By July, several more cities had joined their ranks, one by one surpassing the previous year’s violence in half the time. When compared with Los Angeles and New York, which are home to millions, a few dozen more murders may not seem like an epidemic. For cities like Milwaukee and Omaha, with populations under half a million, the toll can be overwhelming.

In some urban centers, news outlets tracked shootings by the hour, not the day. On the Fourth of July in Chicago, gunfire took the place of fireworks when 30 people were shot in an eight-hour period. Three were killed, among them 7-year-old Amari Brown, struck with a bullet intended for his father. “He wasn’t crying, he was speaking. ‘Daddy, daddy,'” Brown’s father said. In a two-hour span on one Baltimore Sunday in early August, ten people were shot, seven of them in a single incident. The next day in New York City, a pregnant woman was shot five times and her unborn child killed in a drive-by shooting. The incident was one of seven shootings over a long holiday weekend, leaving a total of 16 shot. Days later, the city’s parks, basketball courts, and streets erupted in mayhem again: In six hours, nine people were shot.

Some in law enforcement attribute the increase in urban shootings to the “Ferguson effect,” a term coined by St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson that describes overburdened and highly scrutinized forces quietly stepping down enforcement efforts. But gun violence had been increasing in St. Louis before the death of Michael Brown, and in Baltimore before the death of Freddie Gray, whose spine was nearly severed during a “rough ride” in the back of a police van.

While theories falter, there are numbers, again, to be reckoned with: The Guardian has counted 298 people, 61 of them black — seven of them black and unarmed — shot by police this summer. On the other side of the thin blue line, twelve police officers were killed by intentional gunfire in June, July, and August, four of them in one eight-day stretch. One of them, Darren Goforth, a deputy sheriff ambushed while pumping gas in Harris County, Texas, was approached from behind by a man who emptied 15 rounds into his head. Firmin DeBrabander, a Baltimore resident and author, looked at the first set of numbers and the second set of numbers and saw a place where the interests of the Black Lives Matter movement and law enforcement overlap. “Neither can advance their stated missions — saving lives, affirming the value of all lives — amid a profusion of guns, which so easily waste lives,” he wrote in the Washington Post.

“It’s a domestic,” the local sheriff said. “He’s been shot and he’s dead.” A shooter, a body, another family tragedy.

Surging urban homicides and brutal police shootings are inherently public problems. But many gun deaths happen behind closed doors. On August 9, just 20 miles from where Texas sheriff Goforth was killed, a domestic dispute ended with eight dead, six of the victims under 18, an event tied for the most children fatally shot in a single place since Sandy Hook. David Conley, 49, broke into the home of his ex-girlfriend, restrained her, her boyfriend, and six children — one of whom was Conley’s — and shot each of them in the back of the head. In a jailhouse interview, Conley said of the son he killed, “I love Nate to death.”

The Conley story was unusual in that it generated national coverage; shootings that take place within four walls can seem too quotidian to attract much attention. This does not make them any less brutal. In one week in August, a mother of three was fatally shot by her boyfriend in Covington, Tennessee; a man murdered his brother in Toledo, Ohio; and a firefighter was shot at home by a woman in Jackson County, Mississippi. “It’s a domestic,” the local sheriff said. “He’s been shot and he’s dead.” A shooter, a body, another family tragedy. The numbers from the Gun Violence Archive tell that there have been hundreds of domestic victims this summer. (Even when we do pay attention to gun deaths that take place at home, we still often overlook a still bigger category, the gun violence no one talks about: the thousands of gun suicides that occur every summer, part of the upwards of 21,000 suicides-by-firearm recorded each year.)

A majority of Americans now believe that a home with a gun in it is a safer home, as the pollsters at Gallup tell us. When a gun kept for self-defense is a gun kept at the ready, loaded and unobstructed by locks or passcodes, it becomes a gun that can find itself into a child’s hands. Here is Fred Grimm, a popular columnist for the Miami Herald, assessing the damage done this summer in his state alone, when “Florida kids discovered their parents’ firearms and the statistical probabilities trumped all that home safety propaganda pushed by the gun lobby.” An 11-year-old boy finds his mother’s semi-automatic pistol and shoots his 9-year-old brother in the face. A three-year-old, likely searching for an iPad, instead discovers his parents’ loaded Glock 9mm and shoots himself in the head.

The trend of course was not confined to any one state. July 6, Spring, Texas: a three-year-old boy fatally shoots himself with his grandfather’s handgun. July 29, Washington, D.C.: A seven-year-old boy, another unsecured handgun, another young sibling dead. August 25, back-to-school week, Augusta, Georgia: a third-grader is grazed by a bullet as a classmate plays with a .380-caliber handgun.

Perhaps the horror and shock of this last group of incidents can best be understood through the anguish of an Ohio mother, who called 911 after her three-year-old son shot himself. “The gun is mine. It is in the house, I carry it in my purse, I laid it down. We just got home,” she howls into the phone, her voice hysterical. “His eyes are open, but he’s out.”

[Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images]