By Ted Anthony
Ohio: A bar district where friends gathered for drinks on a warm Saturday night. Texas: A Walmart stocked with supplies for back-to-school shopping on an August morning. California: A family-focused festival that celebrates garlic, the local cash crop.
Two consecutive summer weekends. Less than seven days. More than 30 fellow human beings gone in moments, in public places exactly like those where huge swaths of the American population go without a second thought.
Or perhaps not. Perhaps no longer. Have we crossed into an era of second, third, even fourth thoughts?
“I don't like to go out, especially without my husband. It's really scary being out by myself,” preschool teacher Courtney Grier, 21, said Sunday outside a grocery store in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where a gunman killed 12 in a city building in late May.
But, Grier says, “You still have to go to the grocery store to get dinner. You can't just not go.”
That might be an apt slogan for America, circa 2019: You can't just not go.
Civic life, particularly the public portion of it, has been a foundation of American society since the beginnings. That may have ebbed in today's nose-in-your-device world, but events like festivals, going out for the evening and in particular shopping remain enduring communal activities. Now those three venues have given us lethal and very public shootings in the space of less than a week.
Add other daily-life institutions that have been visited by mass shootings—houses of worship, movie theaters, malls, a newsroom and, of course, schools—and the question becomes more pressing: Are these loud, sudden events starting to fundamentally change America in quiet, incremental ways?
The sites where bullets flew and people fell this past week are not simply places where random people gather publicly and informally. More importantly, if you're an American, they're places like the ones where people like YOU gather publicly and informally—particularly in the summer, when so many are not as hunkered down by weather and obligation.
These aren't only mass shootings (Gilroy, in fact, with three dead other than the shooter, technically isn't a “mass shooting” by some of today's metrics). They are also mass public events that make us deal with something that other places have faced for yearslong stretches: assessing daily life's danger while moving through it with loved ones.
The chances of an American being caught up in a public mass shooting remain incredibly rare. Nevertheless, the sometimes-toxic cocktail of the events themselves, social media echo chambers and the distorting factors of the 24-hour news cycle can be impactful.
El Paso's 20, Dayton's nine and Gilroy's three have caused online outpourings around many questions, some more political than others. But variations of these two keep cropping up: Are regular places safe anymore? Should we assume that they are?
There are, loosely, two types of reactions that sometimes overlap. One is to back off some, to take more precautions. One is to be defiant. That's the approach that retired Marine Richard Ruiz, a Gilroy native, says he's seen in Gilroy in the week since the garlic festival shooting.
“The thing that has changed in Gilroy is our focus,” said Ruiz, 42. “No one is showing signs of being worried or fearful in public. We're emboldened. We want to go out more.”
In Squirrel Hill, the Pittsburgh neighborhood where a shooter killed 11 people at Tree of Life Synagogue last fall, a commitment to doing exactly that has helped ensure that civic life remains vibrant. There is little visible change except for the “Stronger than Hate” signs in some shop windows that encourage two things—a return to normal life and a commitment to never forgetting.
In Dayton, Nikita Papillon, 23, described the site of the killings that happened across the street from her Saturday night as the kind of location “where you don't have to worry about someone shooting up the place.”
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