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Life in public-shooting-era America: ‘You can’t just not go’

August 5, 2019
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Authorities walk among evidence markers at the scene of a mass shooting, Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019, in Dayton, Ohio. Severral people in Ohio have been killed in the second mass shooting in the U.S. in less than 24 hours, and the suspected shooter is also deceased, police said. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
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Authorities walk among evidence markers at the scene of a mass shooting, Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019, in Dayton, Ohio. Severral people in Ohio have been killed in the second mass shooting in the U.S. in less than 24 hours, and the suspected shooter is also deceased, police said. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

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.”

But does “that kind of place” exist anymore? And if not, how does that impact American life in ways that defy measurements and metrics?

From Britain, which grappled with a spate of Irish Republican Army attacks from the 1970s through the 1990s, to Afghanistan and Iraq, where public explosions and attacks have been commonplace during the past two decades, the world’s citizens have grappled in many ways with balancing regular life and increased vigilance.

In Israel, during the second uprising against the government’s long-running military rule over Palestinians, Palestinian militants carried out a series of suicide bombings and shootings in Israel, targeting cafes, malls and public buses. Between 2000 and 2005, many Israeli Jews stopped riding public buses and avoided crowded public spaces. Others fought to maintain normal routines.

Avraham Sela, a professor of international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says many Israelis became scared to visit public places, though he says that, in the end, Israelis “never allowed our lives to be dictated by those fears.”

The United States is hardly at that point. But the conversations that now take place — Should we go? Should we take the kids? What’s that noise? — reflect a society that, no matter people’s political beliefs, is starting to process what’s taking place in its midst.

This year marked two decades since two student gunmen killed 12 schoolmates and a teacher at Columbine High School outside Denver, a watershed moment in mass shootings. Sam Haviland, who was a junior at Columbine in 1999, knows other survivors who are fearful in public places or avoid them completely. After years of post-traumatic stress, she chose a different path.

“I decided that I didn’t want to live in fear and that I can’t control it, and so I’ve just come to terms with the fact that I may not be safe in public,” said Haviland, now director of counseling for Denver Public Schools. “The number of shootings since then has just reaffirmed for me that, you know, it’s a real possibility that shootings — that I might even survive another shooting.”

Back in Virginia Beach, a couple sitting together at an outdoor shopping center offered differing views of how to navigate the changed landscape around them.

“If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen,” said Jerry Overstreet, 27, who served in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan and now operates heavy machinery at a coal terminal.

But Jasmine Luckey, 25, a social worker, is now “super alert,” she says: When she goes to any major public events, she knows where the exits are and often leaves early.

“It just puts me on edge, and I don’t want to be on edge,” she said. “I want to be able to raise children in a place where they can freely leave my side for a little bit and not worry about them getting shot.”

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Ted Anthony, director of digital innovation for The Associated Press, writes about American culture. Follow him on Twitter at @anthonyted. Contributing to this report were AP journalists Ben Finley in Virginia Beach, Daisy Nguyen in San Francisco, Dan Elliott in Denver, Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem and Danica Kirka in London.

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