The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

January 16, 2011

Spiritual Life of an Atheist: Longing for Transformation After Tucson (Edited)

It would be lovely to think that the Tucson shooting was an anomaly in America.  I could recall a handful of other mass shootings over the years but did not know how many had actually occurred.  Some internet research revealed an answer that startled me a bit.  In the U.S., we have an ever-lengthening history of mass shootings–at least 22 in the last 45 years, with 20 happening in the last 26, including:

(1)  University of Texas Clock Tower Shooting on August 1, 1966 (16 killed, 32 wounded)
(2)  California State Fullerton Library Shooting on July 12, 1976 (7 killed, 2 wounded)
(3)  San Ysidro McDonald’s Shooting on July 18, 1984 (21 killed, 19 wounded)
(4)  Edmond Post Office Shooting on August 20, 1986 (14 killed, 6 wounded)
(5)  Stockton Schoolyard Shooting on January 17, 1989 (5 killed, 29 wounded)
(6)  GMAC Shooting on June 18, 1990 (9 killed, 4 wounded)
(7)  Luby’s Shooting on October 16, 1991 (23 killed, 20 wounded)
(8)  University of Iowa Shooting on November 1, 1991 (5 killed, 1 wounded)
(9)  Lindhurst High School Shooting on May 1, 1992 (4 killed, 9 wounded)
(10)  101 California Street Shooting on July 1, 1993 (8 killed, 6 wounded)
(11)  Long Island Railroad Shooting on December 7, 1993 (6 killed, 19 wounded)
(12)  Westside Middle School Shooting on March 24, 1998 (5 killed, 10 wounded)
(13)  Columbine High School Shooting on April 20, 1999 (12 killed, 21 wounded)
(14)  Red Lake Senior High School Shooting on March 21, 2005 (5 killed, 5 wounded)
(15)  Goleta Postal Shooting on January 31, 2006 (7 killed)
(16)  Capitol Hill Shooting in Seattle on March 25, 2006 (6 killed, 2 wounded)
(17)  Amish School Shooting on October 2, 2006 (5 killed, 5 wounded)
(18)  Virginia Tech Shooting on April 16, 2007 (32 killed, 17 wounded)
(19)  Northern Illinois University Shooting on February 14, 2008 (6 killed, 18 wounded)
(20)  Binghamton Shooting on April 3, 2009 (13 killed, 4 wounded)
(21)  Fort Hood Shooting on November 5, 2009 (13 killed, 30 wounded)
(22)  Tucson Shooting on January 8, 2011 (6 killed, 13 wounded)

The Tucson shooting is like the other mass shootings in that the shooter was quite clearly mentally disturbed.  But it is different from the other mass shootings in that a Congress member was the principal target.*  Also, the shooting’s occurrence at a Representative’s meet-and-greet in front of a Safeway in a strip mall–the most axiomatic of democratic activities outside of voting itself–injected a sense of the vulnerability of our democracy to attack that the other mass shootings did not.

I believe this visceral recognition of the vulnerability of our democracy to actual assault spurred the calls for greater civility in our public political discourse.  I am confident that the overwhelming majority of Americans do not want our country to become one where a real threat of violence discourages civil servants from serving in public office, our elected representatives from reaching out in-person to their constituents, and our citizens from peacefully voicing their views to the people who are supposed to speak for them.

Jared Lee Loughner himself does not pose a threat to American democracy.  He, like the other mass shooters, appears to be a loner gunman, not a member of a violent organization poised to inflict greater harm.  But his singular disturbed act of political violence serves as a wake-up call.

Of course, talking to each other about our disagreements more respectfully will not change the fact of our fundamental disagreements.  We are in the midst of a profound political/cultural clash within our own country.  But the history of our country is not a story of anodyne consensus.  The very purpose of our democratic institutions is to provide a peaceful process for negotiation of serious, sometimes vicious, societal disputes.  

Since the country’s founding, there has been one disagreement our democratic institutions were not sufficient to resolve–the abolition of slavery.  Everything else (and there has been a lot) we have worked through with our peaceful processes intact.  Again, I am confident that the vast majority of Americans want to keep it that way.

We may have deep disagreements about the role of government, its relationship to religion, taxation, immigrants’ rights, abortion rights, and gay rights, but we don’t actually want to kill each other over these disagreements–we only too often talk to each other like we do.

Only 4 Congressmen have been assassinated in U.S. history: James M. Hinds, Representative of Arkansas, in 1868; John M. Clayton, Representative-elect of Arkanas, in 1889; Huey P. Long, Senator from Louisiana, in 1935; and Robert F. Kennedy, Senator from New York, in 1968.  Also, on March 1, 1954, 5 Congressmen were injured by 4 Puerto Rican nationalists who opened fire in the House of Representatives.

copyright 2011 S. Anne Johnson



  1. Restricting to the last 30 years (which is a “generation” loosely defined, or a legal life enprisonment), that is 196 killed.

    196/30=6.53 per year

    Taking an “average” US population over that time period of 280 million, which doesn’t include tourists or other people on visas, illegal immigrants, etc., then:

    270 million/6.53= one death per year per 41.3 million people

    If my quick eyeball math is correct, the first 15 of the thirty years saw 89 deaths, leaving 107 in the last half, an increase of about 20%. But according to the 1990 census, the population of the US was just over 248 million versus 310 now, or an increase of 25%, so the rate of increase of shootings in your tally hasn’t quite kept pace with the rate of population growth.

    Now, these are just estimates, but I think we can reasonably say that the real rate is not increasing, and may even be slightly decreasing. Compare that to the number of traffic fatalities:

    270 million/45,000= one death per 6,000 people

    That rate is well-documented and is thankfully decreasing.

    Over the same 30 years, more people have died from terrorist attacks than politically motivated shootings. In fact, in that period more US children have died from Christian faith healing (the AP quotes 10-12 per year or around 300 total).

    I am not saying the events in Tucson are not a terrible tragedy. Obviously they are. But I also feel horrible for all of the kids who die from prayer rather than being saved by antibiotics, but unfortunately they don’t get much press coverage.

    Comment by R P — January 16, 2011 @ 2:01 pm | Reply

    • I did not mean to suggest that mass shootings are the most, or even among the most, pressing problems our society faces. I was just surprised at the number that have occurred. I am not really interested in getting into a gun control debate on this blog but if I were to evaluate gun control measures, I would look at the occurrences of gun deaths and injuries overall, rather than focusing just on mass shootings. Also, while I don’t want to minimize the issue of 10-12 children who die unnecessarily every year because of their parents’ misguided religious beliefs, that is a small fraction of the children who die every year in the U.S.

      Comment by SAJohnson — January 16, 2011 @ 10:58 pm | Reply

  2. “He, like the other mass shooters, appears to be a loner gunman…”

    Like all but one of the twenty five or so people implicated in the events above, he is a man. The idea that men and women should have the same firearms restrictions is silly.

    Comment by Brian — January 16, 2011 @ 2:56 pm | Reply

    • It is correct that all but one of the shooters in the mass shootings in the past 45 years were men (I should say males, because some were children). The Goleta Postal Shooting was committed by a woman. It is also true that our prisons are filled with men, not so much women, and that men commit crimes at much higher rates than women. I don’t think my piece was saying anything about what firearm restrictions are advisable. However, I would not be inclined to institute firearm restrictions along gender lines.

      Comment by SAJohnson — January 16, 2011 @ 4:05 pm | Reply

  3. […] has done a great job of collecting 40-some years’ worth of mass shooting history on her blog, and as I noted there, adjusting for growth in the US population, the rate of death from mass […]

    Pingback by Tucson: A Case Study in Mass Hysteria « Why things are the way they are — January 16, 2011 @ 6:02 pm | Reply

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