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‘Wrong address’ shootings reflect America’s rising paranoia

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Picture: Cheney Orr/REUTERS/Taken March 30, 2023 – Protesters gather outside the Tennessee State Capitol to call for an end to gun violence and support stronger gun laws after a deadly shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee, US. Picture: Cheney Orr/REUTERS/Taken March 30, 2023.

By Francis Wilkinson

It takes a village to raise a frightened man with hair-trigger impulses and put a loaded gun in his hand. Our village has raised many, and we have armed them spectacularly.

Upstate New York resident Kevin Monahan has been charged with murdering 20-year-old Kaylin Gillis. The young woman was in a car whose driver, looking for a friend’s house without the benefit of cellular service to guide the journey, mistakenly pulled into Monahan’s driveway.

The local sheriff said Monahan shot at a distant car filled with young people as it was leaving his property. “There was clearly no threat from anyone,” he said.

A part of American society, vigorously contested by another part, has concluded that Monahan possessed the mental and emotional balance and moral discernment to be entrusted with firearms. Why, just last week Monahan was the very definition of a good guy with a gun. No one asked whether Monahan was a moral degenerate, a rage-addled misanthrope, a paranoid fool or all that and more. It wouldn’t have mattered if they did. Because all such people are permitted – indeed encouraged by powerful American institutions – to buy firearms like candy and stockpile them like gold.

The lesson that gun culture warriors want American parents to learn is simple: If you want your kids to grow to maturity, make sure they and their friends never make innocent mistakes. It’s a good rule to live by. Look at what happened to Payton Washington and Heather Roth when they failed to follow it. Police say the Texas high school students were shot earlier this week by Pedro Tello Rodriguez after they accidentally got into the wrong car in a grocery store parking lot. Washington is now in intensive care with damage to multiple organs.

Ralph Yarl’s mistake was ringing the wrong doorbell. Here is the New York Times’ description of what occurred:

Yarl had made an error common in Kansas City, driving to a house on Northeast 115th Street instead of Northeast 115th Terrace, a block away. He pressed the doorbell and waited outside the front door for what felt like a long time, he told the police later.

Yarl not only rang the wrong doorbell, he did so while Black. The shooter, who came to the door and fired two bullets into the 16-year-old’s body, was 84-year-old Andrew Lester. He was White. The North Carolina man accused of shooting a 6-year-old and her parents after their ball rolled into his yard was Black. Gun culture has deep racist roots but its pathologies bloom in every American terrain.

In the village, gun ownership is a sacred right – “God-given” some say. It’s a right that transcends morality, society, even life itself. The problem is not that American gun culture energetically promotes paranoia, violence, murder and suicide. The problem is that people ring the wrong doorbell.

Renisha McBride, for example. She was murdered in 2013 when she knocked on a door after a car accident. That same year, a Wisconsin man murdered his 13-year-old neighbour while the child was taking out the trash. At his trial, his lawyer claimed the murderer had a mental disease, and didn’t know what he was doing. It was a plausible defence. It is not, however, an impediment to purchasing semi-automatic firearms in bulk.

The village that raised these shooters, and nurtured them to kill, is where we live. It’s Fox News spreading lies and fear day and night. It’s the local television news station broadcasting nothing but stories of violent crime and puppy adoptions, devoid of context or complexity. It’s the National Rifle Association telling frightened White men that nothing can save them but a “tactical” arsenal. It’s the Republican Party passing laws to put more guns on the street, in bars, in cars, in churches, in parks, in schools, in homes and in the hands of the depraved and deranged, and then pretending that gun violence is a product of a “woke” prosecutor in Philadelphia or San Francisco. It’s the conservative Supreme Court justices who have manufactured history and law to match the dystopian fantasies of their political allies. It’s a gun culture that makes heroes of killers like Kyle Rittenhouse and George Zimmerman.

It takes a village to do all this. And a morally shattered, nihilistic movement that feeds off the fear that it generates. As long as we continue to empower that movement in government and law, we will remain in thrall to its pathology. Ringing the wrong doorbell, entering the wrong driveway, opening the wrong door will be invitations to violence and death.

Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering US politics and policy. Previously, he was an editor for the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.