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Paranoia and Guns Mix Together in New Wave of Shootings

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By Keya Vakil

April 21, 2023

Knocking on a door, turning your car around in a driveway, or chasing a ball into your neighbor’s yard can get you shot now, apparently. 

In the span of less than a week, the United States experienced at least four separate instances of random shootings over simple, harmless mistakes—one of which led to the death of a 20-year-old woman.

It’s not news that America has a gun violence problem. On average, more than 100 people in the US die every day in gun-related deaths. Mass shootings and school shootings have surged dramatically over the past 20 years, since the nation’s assault weapons ban expired in 2004. In 2023 alone, there have been more mass shootings than days in the year. The issue has gotten so out of hand that gun violence is now the leading cause of death among children in the US.

No other developed country in the world has the level of gun violence—or the level of gun ownership—that America has. 

Throw in political leaders who fuel division and target vulnerable groups; a media ecosystem rife with lies, conspiracies, and outright fear-mongering; rampant class, racial, and geographic inequality; a housing crisis; a drug addiction crisis; a mental health crisis; and a loneliness crisis and you’ve got a dangerous mix—just waiting for a spark to explode. 

Guns, of course, provide that spark. Situations that would be defused with words in other countries are instead resolved with guns in the US.

Here are the details of the four shootings that occurred in the past week:

Missouri, April 13

Ralph Yarl, a 16-year-old Black teenager was shot in the head in Kansas City after he mistakenly rang the doorbell of the wrong home while trying to pick up his younger brother.  

The 84-year-old white man who shot him, Andrew Lester, told police he was “scared to death” because of Yarl’s size and therefore shot him through his glass door. Yarl told police he never pulled on the door handle and only rang the doorbell before being shot. Yarl was hospitalized and released three days later, though he has suffered significant injuries, including a cracked skull and loss of brain tissue. 

Lester has been charged with assault in the first degree. According to Lester’s grandson, the senior was reportedly immersed in “a 24-hour news cycle of fear and paranoia.” 

“He’s become staunchly right-wing, further down the right-wing rabbit hole as far as doing the election-denying conspiracy stuff and COVID conspiracies and disinformation, fully buying into the Fox News, OAN kind of line. I feel like it’s really further radicalized him in a lot of ways,” 28-year-old Klint Ludwig told the Kansas City Star

New York, April 15

In rural New York state, a 65-year-old man was charged with second-degree murder after he used a shotgun to kill a 20-year-old woman who drove up his driveway by mistake. Kevin Monahan shot Kaylin Gillis as she and her friends were traveling in a caravan of two cars and a motorcycle that mistakenly turned in Monahan’s driveway in Hebron, NY, while searching for a friend’s house. 

According to authorities, as the group realized their mistake and tried to turn around, Monahan fired two shots, one of which struck and killed Gillis. Neighbors described Monahan as “difficult” and said that he was “known to have altercations with people.”

Texas, April 18

In Elgin, Texas, two cheerleaders were shot just after midnight Tuesday after accidentally getting in the wrong car in a supermarket parking lot. Speaking on Instagram Live this week, cheerleader Heather Roth said that she and three other cheerleaders had finished practice when they went to a carpool lot.

According to Houston ABC station KTRK, Roth said she got out of her friend’s car and opened the door to a car she thought was hers, only to find a man in the passenger seat. She said she got out of the car and back into her friend’s vehicle. When the man, 25-year-old Pedro Tello Rodriguez, Jr. approached the car, Roth rolled down the window to apologize, but Rodriguez Jr. started shooting. 

Roth was struck by a bullet, treated, and released at the scene, but her teammate, Payton Washington, who was shot twice, suffered a ruptured spleen and damage to her pancreas and diaphragm. Washington is expected to make a full recovery and Rodriguez Jr. has been charged with deadly conduct, a third-degree felony.

North Carolina, April 18

On Tuesday night, a Gastonia, North Carolina man shot and wounded a 6-year-old girl and her parents after the child’s basketball rolled into his yard and a group of neighborhood children went to retrieve it. 

Her father, Jamie White, who ran to help her, was shot in the back. He remained hospitalized as of Wednesday evening with serious injuries, including liver damage. The girl’s mother, Ashley Hilderbrand, was grazed in the elbow. Law enforcement officials say Robert Louis Singletary also shot at another man but missed. Singletary fled the area after the shooting, but turned himself in to authorities in Florida on Thursday afternoon.

Weaker Gun Laws Lead to More Gun Violence

The shootings have drawn national attention and for good reason, but as Jonathan Metzl, director of Vanderbilt University’s Department of Medicine, Health and Society, told the Associated Press, they’re not rare. There have been several shootings that occurred under similar circumstances over the past few years.

Instead, what the spate of recent incidents shows, according to Metzl, is that “stand your ground” laws—which more than 30 states have on the books—have convinced people they can use guns defensively “anytime they perceive a threat.”

A growing number of Republican-led states have also passed laws in recent years allowing people to carry guns openly and/or carry them concealed without a permit. 

Research shows that weaker gun laws lead to more gun violence and despite the dramatic increase in mass shootings in recent years, GOP-controlled states continue to loosen restrictions on firearms. 

The Role of Loneliness and Isolation in Rising Violence

Some leaders think there are other major factors contributing to the surge in shootings, too.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) spoke about the incidents on the Senate floor this week, tying them to what he described as a “collective anxiety in this country that we need to deal with.”

“Cheerleaders don’t need to be shot when they walk into the wrong car,” Murphy said. “Kids shouldn’t fear for their life when they go to school or pick up their siblings from a house in the neighborhood. We can do better. We can adjust the dials in order to decide not to live in this dystopia.”

Murphy supports stronger gun safety laws such as universal background checks and a ban on semi-automatic weapons like AR-15s—a position 62% of Americans support, according to a new poll—but he also called for an “apolitical discussion about the level of fear and hate and mistrust in our society today that puts so many people on the edge, ready to fire a gun at somebody over the smallest threat or insult.”

Part of what’s driving this spike in violence, Murphy believes, is the loneliness epidemic plaguing America. Murphy has written and spoken extensively about his belief that the issue of loneliness in particular is contributing to rising anger and bitterness in the country.

“We’re all searching for the reasons why there’s been a retreat to very hair-trigger hostility and violence in this country,” Murphy told HuffPost in a phone interview in March. “There’s a lot of things that unite Americans that we refuse to see, and one of those things is the way that many of us are increasingly feeling very lonely, very isolated and increasingly disconnected.”

A 2020 survey from Harvard University found that 36% of Americans reported feeling lonely “frequently”, with 61% of Americans ages 18-25 reporting frequent loneliness, a sharp increase from before the pandemic. But Census Bureau data has shown that Americans have been spending less time with friends and more time on their own for years, with steady increases in isolation. 

This loneliness, Murphy argues, has many causes. 

“People need meaning, they need identity, and they can find that in healthy places or very unhealthy places,” Murphy told the New Republic this week. “We’ve stripped away access to positive connections: Churches are disappearing, social clubs are vanishing, local communities are less healthy, our downtowns have all given way to the Amazon economies.”

Murphy believes the erosion of these institutions, the rise of social media, the isolation of the pandemic, and policy failures that have harmed communities over the past 40 years of globalization have collectively created the current loneliness crisis—especially among men. 

The data backs him up. A 2021 survey found that fewer than 50% of men report being satisfied with their friendships, while 15% reported having no close friends, a fivefold increase since 1990. And while most men never commit a mass shooting, most mass shooters are men (over 90%) and men commit the vast majority of murders. 

“When you lose the ability to naturally connect through churches, or social clubs, or even the workplace, that often is a bigger problem for men than women,” Murphy told HuffPost. “Because without those easy, natural connections, through work and institutions, men don’t do as well as women in seeking out connection proactively.”

The senator also believes the far right has effectively exploited this crisis and people’s desire for connection.

“When you’re alone or lonely, that’s often followed by anger, and that’s understandable. We’ve all felt lonely in our life, and we know how frustrating that feels and how it can easily lead to anger,” Murphy told HuffPost. “The right has offered an off-ramp for that anger. They have offered connections and identity based around hate messages and division.”

Murphy thinks it’s possible to offer people a different path or identity—but those alternatives may not exist yet. He hopes that talking about it and creating a dialogue with people who feel lonely is the first step towards concrete policy changes that address the problem. 

Those changes are likely years off, but Murphy has other, more immediate asks of his fellow lawmakers. On Wednesday, he urged them to stop elevating and supporting “demagogues and provocateurs” who rise to power by fear-mongering and scapegoating marginalized populations. 

“We shouldn’t elevate political leaders who lead with messages of hate and division. That’s part of what is driving America to fear everybody, to fear their neighbors,” Murphy said.

Author

  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

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