You run out of words and you run out of emotions.
How are you supposed to feel when a man walks into a LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs and opens fire, killing five and injuring 20 others?
Horror, for sure, and admiration for the persons who confronted the alleged shooter before he destroyed even more lives.
The same goes for when you wake to news that six people are dead in a Walmart in Chesapeake, Virginia, after an employee opened fire late at night, grievously injuring half-a-dozen others, before turning the weapon on himself.
But alongside amid the sympathy for the victims, are two other emotions that bubble up and will not go away. And they are anger and outrage.
There’s a fury that this is happening once again, and that nobody appears to have any idea on how to stop it. And an outrage that America has allowed itself to be the place – alone in the world – where mass shootings appear to have become as routine and unremarkable as a visit to the sort of grocery store where this latest horror played out.
One felt the same back in May, when 19 students and a member of the teaching staff were killed an an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, in what became the third deadliest school shooting in the nation’s history.
Then too there was sadness. Who could not feel heartbroken when looking at the scenes from Robb Elementary School?
One felt sheer horror as well, that this could happen at a primary school in the middle of the day, the most vulnerable mown down in broad daylight, 90 miles west of San Antonio. In addition to the dead, many others are injured.
But then came the exasperation, the weary helplessness, and – in truth – that anger. How can this be happening once again in America?
How could another community be irrevocably torn apart by such senseless violence, barely a week or so after 10 Black people were shot and killed in Buffalo, New York. When will this insanity be stopped?
In 2020, the most recent year for which figures are available, there were 19,384 gun murders, the most since at least 1968.
In addition, another 24,000 people killed themselves with firearms, bringing a total of 44,000 Americans who lost their lives to gun violence, according to statistics from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. (A slim, silver lining in the data is that, while the total of killings is up, the number per 100,000 is down.)
Each of the deaths is an individual tragedy and the circumstances unique. Yet, in the vast majority of these murders, there is one thing that links them: if America had common-sense gun regulation, they would not have occurred.
Who knows precisely what led the Texas gunman to open fire on the youngsters at Uvalde with a handgun and a rifle. It emerged that he had attacked his grandmother the night before.
We also later learned that several hundred police officers waited outside the classroom before trying to confront the gunman, a former student.
We do know what inspired the alleged gunman who opened fire earlier this year at a supermarket in Buffalo to act – racist bigotry. He was also able to legally get his hands on a weapon, a Bushmaster XM-15 semi-automatic rifle, for around $1,000.
An alarm raised by the shooter’s high school when he said that his post-graduation ambitions included “murder/suicide”, was not sufficient under the state’s “red flag” law to stop the purchases. And bear this in mind: New York’s gun laws are some of the strictest.
The United States is not the only place with racist, or angry, or deluded or otherwise-motivated people looking for a fight, or to settle a score, real or imagined. But it is the only place where mass shootings are a weekly or daily occurrence.
It is the only place where repeated efforts to try to regulate the sale of guns have been systematically blocked. Other countries, including Australia and the UK, have suffered such incidents, but those – most notably the 1996 primary school shooting at Dunblane, Scotland – led to decisive and united action.
And even when a president is desperate to take action against guns, as Barack Obama was after the shootings at Sandy Hook, Connecticut, in 2012, they run into road blocks, either in the form of Republicans in Congress, the National Rifle Association and other gun lobbyists, people like Donald Trump, who tells his supporters that Democrats want to take their guns, or even Republican senator Joe Manchin, who has refused to support broader gun control and disingenuously blames people with mental health issues.
Or they run into the claptrap and hogwash about a “good guy with a gun” being the best and only protection from a bad guy with a gun – something the image of those heavily armed police officers biding their time outside the Uvalde classroom prove to be nonsense.
In my time in the US, I’ve covered at least four major mass shootings – Virginia Tech in 2007, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in 2015, the Pulse Nightclub Shooting in Orlando in 2016 and the attack at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, in 2019. (In 2015, Obama delivered a eulogy and sang “Amazing Grace” at a memorial for the Black churchgoers killed in Charleston.)
Then, as now, there was demand for change. But nothing did.
Just as little changed when a gunman killed 60 people in Las Vegas in 2017, or attacked Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in February 2018.
Massive credit, then, to the likes of David Hogg, Winter BreeAnne and Shannon Watts, gun control advocates who manage to find the energy to push for change, amid the horror, not just of the repeated violence, but of the constant sense of deja vu, of a record stuck on repeat, of a screen saver that does not change no matter how often you try to refresh the page.
And zero credit to the likes of Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, who has fought every gun control measure possible, and who in 2021 signed into law legislation that allowed Texans to carry handguns without a permit. “Today, I signed documents that instil freedom in the Lone Star State,” he said to cheers.
Joe Biden, looking exhausted after a 17-hour flight from Asia, spoke with eloquence and grace: “When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?” – but as he pointed out, there were similar words a decade ago after the slaughter in Connecticut.
(In June he would sign into law legislation that was very modest in nature but which was the first major progress in three decades, something to be both celebrated but also mourned.)
On Wednesday, Biden again paid tribute to the latest victims, saying that “because of yet another horrific and senseless act of violence, there are now even more tables across the country that will have empty seats this Thanksgiving”. He added: “We must come together as a nation… We must take greater action.“
Perhaps Americans, and all of those living here, need to feel angry and ashamed and appalled that this has happened again, on our watch, and that more people are dead – six in Cheaspake, five in Colorado Springs. And let’s not forget all the others killed before them, including the 21 in Texas.
And then the best of us, the activists who somehow find it in them to get up day after day can make use of that intensity to press their cause in the hope – however tested – that things will one day change.