In a darkly perverse way, it’s appropriate this one happened at a church. No, I’ll never be grateful for a mass shooting but there’s a moral to be had in this one — a moral in the most literal sense.
As mass shootings go, the shooting at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama on June 16, 2022 didn’t even make the official “mass shooting” cut.
This mini-mass-shooting unfolded when “occasional attendee” Robert Findlay Smith showed up at Thursday “Boomers Potluck” gathering at St. Stephen’s. The 74-year-old shooter produced a handgun and proceeded to shoot. Authorities said Walter Rainey, 84, and Sarah Yeager, 75, were pronounced dead shortly after and Claire Pounds, 84, succumbed to her injuries Friday.
Another potluck attendee disarmed Smith and immobilized him until police arrived.
According to the independent, nonpartisan Gun Violence Archive (GVA), a mass shooting is an incident during which at least four victims are shot, either injured or killed, not including the shooter. As of today, the 169th day of 2022, the U.S. has seen 270 mass shooting events this year. The St. Stephen’s event would’ve made that 271 but, with only three victims, it doesn’t qualify. Nevertheless, at 1.6 mass shootings per day, we’re on track to exceed two daily mass shootings by Christmas.
When I write on the topic of mind-numbingly common mass shootings, I very frequently get push-back from Second Amendment supporters who tell me it’s not a gun issue – it’s a moral issue.
They’re absolutely right. I agree: mass shootings are unquestionably a moral issue.
As recently as the 1980s, pickup trucks with gun racks and rifles visible in rear windows were common sights in high school student parking lots. Nobody thought anything of it.
Hold on, I know where you’re going to go with this. In many or most mass shootings, the good-guy-with-a-gun scenario is pure fantasy — the odds of a high school kid getting out to his pickup, retrieving his rifle and successfully hunting down a mass shooter somewhere on his school campus simply do not make for a favorable bet. Heavily armed gunmen in body armor routinely kill tactically-trained professional law enforcement officers. Realistically, an amateur stands little chance of dropping many or most mass shooters.
Yes, there are circumstances where a disciplined, cool-headed good-guy-with-a-gun could prevent a shooting. As I have stated elsewhere, a mugging or robbery could well be stopped by an armed good guy. Even the St. Stephen’s incident might’ve turned out less deadly with an armed good guy’s intervention.
But shooting someone isn’t the straightforward one-and-done that American films and television portray — it’s frightening, it’s uncertain, it’s violent and life-changing. Saving the day with a sidearm is best left to those with tactical training. Now more than ever, if we truly want to stop the depravity of daily mass shootings, we must be honest when we talk about solutions for this uniquely American scourge.
And how times have changed. Since most of us feel a level of mass-shooter-related unease far greater than we did in the halcyon 1980s, we don’t see rifles in teenagers’ pickup trucks at school today. And at the rate mass shootings are occurring, we might be forgiven for a little suspicion and paranoia.
Several weeks ago, I saw a man carrying a rifle as he walked the sidewalk across the street from my house. Back in those ‘80s, I would’ve thought little of it, assuming him to be a hunter or target shooter exercising his Second Amendment rights. Today? No way.
Only a fool would dismiss an unknown armed man as harmless — even if you’re the most ardent 2A supporter, you’re probably going to keep an eye on a stranger with a long gun walking through your neighborhood. Sure, he might well be benign. But in this day and age, given our more-than-one-a-day mass shootings, you can’t blame any sane person for being worried or suspicious when armed strangers wander around.
Don’t forget, most recent mass shooters met the textbook definition of good-guy-with-a-gun right up until the moment they raised their weapons and mowed down a bunch of shoppers, worshipers, kids or whoever the victims were in our dizzying array of dead.
That is, most recent mass shooters acquired their weapons legally which, last time I checked, earns the full fury of Second Amendment enthusiasts whenever someone tries to control, restrict or confiscate legally acquired firearms. Then these legal owners kill some people and the chorus of “if only there’d been a good-guy-with-a-gun there to take him down” starts up, conveniently forgetting that the shooter was technically a good-guy-with-a-gun until he suddenly and bloodily wasn’t.
Ultimately, I agree with my conservative friends: mass shootings are a moral issue.
Where we diverge is on how we make that morality happen. I believe it’s impossible to legislate morality in a free society. So if we cannot mandate individual morality, we’re stuck legislating the other part of the equation: firearms. Sure, we can define criminal behavior — we’ve always done that. But it’s not doing anything to mitigate mass shootings and it certainly hasn’t halted moral decay.
On a sweeping scale, we have abrogated our responsibility to raise morally sound children. Some of this is as simple as aloof, indifferent or perpetually distracted parenting. Some of it is a result of parental irresponsibility or immaturity. Some of it is the result of people who have no business producing progeny nonetheless cranking out kids like drunken rabbits.
And it’s not like the media and entertainment industries are worried about their influence on an increasingly narcissistic and self-indulgent culture. No, sir, it’s not their fault — they’re just giving the people what they want. They can’t be held responsible.
Welcome to freedom in 2022.
Often, my conservative friends clamor for a return to teaching Biblical morals, the ten commandments, traditional discipline, respect and deference — robust ethics drilled into our children. Would this work? The funny thing is, it would almost certainly help. But what they really mean is a return to an era that’s long gone — a time we’ll never see again. Whatever the case, mandatory Bible training sounds dangerously theocratic, a sort of right-wing Sharia to constrain the public’s habits and behaviors to fit a Christian idea of decency. That’d never fly now.
This mini-mass-shooting hit too close to home for me as St. Stephen’s is an Episcopal church, a member of the Anglican Communion, to which I belong.
Meanwhile, we talk in circles, endlessly repeating the same tired non-solutions for a problem no developed nation would tolerate — or rather, no developed nation other than us.
It remains an inarguable truth that guns are tools designed to quickly and efficiently kill. When the Second Amendment was drafted, firearms were simpler and slower than they are now — perfectly suited for the well-regulated militia the amendment references. As it stands, we’re placing lethal military-grade equipment into the hands of people who see no value in training and, frankly, lack the competency, maturity, stability and accountability we should expect from bearers of such arms.
While we wait for the return of an epoch that will never happen, we’d be well-advised to update our views on how firearms fit into an amoral era. As it stands, a regression to a latter-day Wild West serves none of us.
Photocomposite © 2022 Josh Applegate via Unsplash; Hosein Charbaghi via Unsplash
Matthew Meador is a former food and wine writer, senior editor and a rare moderate Republican who now writes political commentary. Previously, Matt was an award-winning graphic artist who often put his skills to use during election seasons. Matt has served in various capacities on political campaigns, for pollsters and for elected officials. Contact him at matthewmeador.com.