Sacramento shooting: Pandemic has worsened access to guns

Father Michael O’Reilly stood on the steps of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in his long purple robes, gazing at a crime scene a few yards away where more than a dozen evidence markers were laid out.

It was surreal, he told me, and he felt bad that one of his first thoughts was whether the church would be able to accommodate parishioners that morning, with a shooting of mass closing the streets around us.

But people were already wandering around this grand cathedral that sits within sight of the state capitol, unaware of the shooting or perhaps needing comfort because of it. Life goes on, even with six bodies still on the sidewalk. We accept the unacceptable, or at least endure it.

This is, after all, the 12th mass shooting in California this year. We all know what happens next. The process has already started. We are horrified. Unworthy. Saddened. I have a stack of press releases from politicians across the state who want voters to know this is wrong.

I won’t name any. I think you know why.

All is sound and fury for a crisis of gun violence that has long eaten away at the soul of this country. People are dying every day, shot by those who don’t respect the law or life, or who are so unstable they shouldn’t have guns. All the while, we argue over whether the 2nd Amendment protects the use of automatic weapons on our city streets.

But there was little discussion of gun rights among those I spoke with on Sunday morning, as police collected casings and gory evidence and the corpses of three men and three women lay waiting in the unusual heat to be recovered.

I stood behind the police tape, where family and friends tried to separate themselves from the dozens of TV reporters whose cameras were trained on the tragedy, recording their reports for the afternoon news. Fred Harris, the father of Sergio Harris, one of the victims, twice pushed under the tape to confront officers and demand answers.

But the truth is, there are no answers that will ease his pain. Her son is dead. I have spoken to too many family members who have lost a loved one to violence. Many of them told me this painful reality: nothing can fix things.

People I spoke to said there were more guns on the streets than ever before. The pandemic, they said, has spiked the number of all types of guns — those held legally, ghost guns that are Frankensteined as well as untraceable parts and guns stolen, traded, imported or not part of the official system.

Police found a stolen handgun at the scene, they said, and several people who were there on Sunday told me of rapid gunfire from a speeding car, the telltale sound of a automatic weapon fired.

“Rat-a-tat-tat,” said Timothy Langier, a homeless man who stood in a nearby doorway.

“Everyone has a gun now,” said Stevante Clark, a community activist who came to comfort family members of the victims. “Anyone who tells you otherwise is living under a rock.”

Berry Accius, another community activist with a long history of violence prevention, arrived downtown shortly after the 2 a.m. massacre and had been there for five hours by the time he and I spoke. He echoed Clark, telling me that earlier this year he warned that we should be “laser focused” on guns post-pandemic. But no one was listening then.

Now, as Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said at a press conference later that day, “summer is coming.” He said it as a warning, twice. “Summer is coming.”

People come out of isolation, with all these weapons. K Street, where the violence occurred, is home to some of Sacramento’s most popular clubs. It’s a pedestrianized street, and on warm weekend nights it can be packed with revelers early in the morning when those bars close and customers overflow.

Because Sacramento is small and there aren’t many major clubs, all kinds of people — some who don’t get along — find themselves crowded on K Street. Almost every night, Clark says, there are fights. For years, since this downtown strip tried to revitalize itself after years of decline, there was talk of how to keep the peace on the Kay, as the town’s merchants dubbed the stretch.

I don’t know if any gangs were involved in what happened Sunday night. But, as Leia Schenk, who also works on community issues, said, all those guns mean “you can’t fight on your fists anymore.”

Someone will pull out a gun, and “then all those bystanders are killed,” she said.

District of Sacramento County. Atti. Anne Marie Schubert, a candidate for state attorney general on a crime-fighting platform, told me that since 2019, her office has seen a 45% increase in the number of cases filed for criminals in possession of a firearm. It’s not just Sacramento that’s seeing this increase, she said. This is happening all over the country.

“I’ve been screaming about this for over a year, how many illegal guns there are on the streets,” she said. “You talk to any major city chief across the country, they’ll tell you the same thing.”

Schubert and I have been talking about this hike for months. She thinks it stems from a combination of factors: people are scared during the pandemic, growing economic inequality, organized unemployment fraud that has left criminals with millions in ill-gotten funds. It was, she said, inevitable that COVID-19 would make things worse.

“I’m not saying I’m a tarot card reader; I’m just saying it’s a bad combination of things,” Schubert said.

So California is where we are. A gun crisis that was devastating before the pandemic has now been supercharged, no matter who you ask. We all know that.

There will be a 13th mass shooting, a 14th and a 15th. Steinberg called the US stance on guns “one of the greatest signs of irrationality and disease in our country.”

If there is a way out of this very dark wormhole of gun violence, it is the possibility that a majority of Americans will wake up to the truth. The truth is, the 2nd Amendment can be protected without allowing easy access to assault weapons.

These weapons have been mistakenly considered a core value of our democracy, enshrined in one way or another in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, but they are not. Nobody needs a machine gun for self-defense or anything. No one needs to fire 600 rounds in a minute.

Too often these weapons are about death, not self-protection. It is about suppressing the most fundamental right: the right to exist and to do so without fear.

As the sunset returns to downtown in the dark, I find myself with the image of Pamela Harris, Sergio’s mother, bent over in Clark’s arms, shouting to no one, “Why did they do that? to my baby?”

And I can’t help wondering, why are we doing this to ourselves?

Los Angeles Times

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