Mass shootings are a product of America’s violent culture

The bloodthirsty legacies of settler-colonialism and Western expansion endure today.


This story was originally published by The Land Desk and is republished here by permission.

On March 22 a young man pulled into the parking lot of the King Soopers in South Boulder and started shooting, ultimately killing ten people before he was finally detained. The incident came on the heels of the Atlanta suburb shooting, which came on the heels of dozens of other gun-related murders in America this year.

News of each of these leaves a hollow feeling inside, paired with an ever-escalating fear for myself and my loved ones. But the Boulder shooting hit even closer to home because I have numerous friends and acquaintances who live in South Boulder (I’m sure a lot of you readers do, too), and because the King Soopers in question is much more than just a grocery store. Thankfully, my friends were not among the dead, but they all are victims of this gruesome act — we all are, really — as is the entire community of South Boulder.

South Boulder is a collection of neighborhoods lying south of Baseline Road. Officially it is just as much a part of Boulder as Pearl Street or The Hill, but it is architecturally and demographically distinct. It mostly is comprised of suburban-style homes built in the sixties, seventies and eighties that tend to cost less (but are still wildly expensive) than homes in North Boulder or the historic districts. Calling it working-class might be a bit of a stretch, but South Boulder is decidedly less chic and more low-key than most of the rest of the city and feels, well, normal.

King Soopers, where the shooting occurred, and the Table Mesa shopping center it anchors, make up the commercial center, even the “downtown,” of South Boulder. When my wife and I visit that part of Colorado we always stay at our friends’ place a few blocks away from Table Mesa and tend to make multiple trips per day to the shopping center — Pettyjohn’s for wine, Caffé Sole for caffeine and to hang with the laptop crowd, Walnut Cafe for brunch, Sweet Cow for ice cream, Southern Sun for a tasty brew, and, of course, King Soopers for groceries. 

Despite its boxy, stripmall-esque veneer, and the giant, always crowded parking lots, pockets of the shopping center can feel as warm, personable and lively as a small-town square. King Soopers, I’m told, has even become a prime hangout for COVID-era, remote-learning school-kids. 

So, when a man showed up at Table Mesa on a March afternoon and opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle, he not only brutally cut short the lives of ten people, sending heartbreak and sorrow rippling through the figurative village, but he also took aim at the heart of the community. Just as the lives of the victims’ loved ones will never be the same, so too has the place been altered, violated, indelibly stained with violence. 

Each incident tears at the fabric of society and the collective psyche.

The same is true of any mass killing, whether it’s in an Atlanta suburb or Las Vegas or Chicago or Tucson. Each incident tears at the fabric of society and the collective psyche. The epidemic of mass shootings in America is perhaps the most effective act of terrorism ever inflicted, in that it injects us all with a little nodule of terror that re-emerges every time we send our kid to school or our spouse to the grocery store, vaguely wondering whether they’ll come back.

The headlines tell us that the mass-shooting epidemic tapered off during the height of the pandemic, which is true according to the mainstream definition: four or more people shot and killed in a public setting (typically excluding shootings that result from domestic violence, drug deals, and gang activity). The Gun Violence Archive, on the other hand, considers an incident a mass shooting if a “minimum of four victims are shot, either injured or killed, not including any shooter who may also have been killed or injured in the incident.” According to the latter definition, there were 611 mass-shootings in 2020, a significant increase from prior years. 

By whatever name — be it mass shooting or domestic or gang violence — the results are the same: trauma, broken bodies, lost lives, broken hearts, and an uptick in fear. And regardless of definitions, in no way has the killing and maiming subsided during the pandemic.

The Boulder shooter apparently purchased the rifle he used less than a week before his rampage, making him one of more than 20 million Americans who bought firearms during the last year. Had it been more difficult or impossible for him to buy the weapon, the shooting may not have occurred. But any efforts to enact a longer waiting period, tighten background check restrictions, or ban semi-automatic rifles will run up against the filibuster, which is propped up in part by what a lot of people call the gun culture of America, the most potent strain of which runs through the Western U.S.

I think culture is the wrong word here, though. Sure, a lot of Americans are nuts about guns, Westerners included, and they will go ballistic if they catch even a whiff of heightened regulations on firearms. But fanaticism and fetishism, fueled by some sort of cowboy myth, do not a culture make. They do, however, feed into the the money machine that the gun industry has created, which looks like this: 

Mass shooting —> “thoughts and prayers” —> consider minor gun control measures —> “They’re coming for our guns!” —> surge in gun sales —> massive profits for gun manufacturers and industry groups like the NRA —> bigger donations from gun industry to politicians to ensure that they block gun control —> mass shooting … and, well, you get the picture.

That’s not culture, it’s greed. 

If there is a cultural element to all of this, if there’s something embedded within the fabric of American society that is fueling the horror, it isn’t guns, but deep seated violence, a blood-thirst that drove and expedited the American project of settler-colonialism and Western expansion and that endures today.

Yes, better gun laws are needed. Yes, this nation needs a new approach to mental health and more resources and expansion of care. And, yes, we need to address the drivers of despair and rage that would lead someone to take another life. But we also need to go even deeper and root out the long tradition of violence that has shaped much of American life. Is this possible? Maybe not. But for all of our sake we’ve got to try. And it starts with acknowledgment, with a laying bare of America’s bloodshed-tinged heritage.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News and runs The Land Desk. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. 

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