EDITOR’S NOTE: Trigger Point

By on July 13, 2016

When enough is enough and the Second Amendment isn’t.


JACKSON HOLE, WY – Last week I found myself in Austin, Texas, upholding the city’s motto: “Keep Austin Weird.” Hosted by The Austin Chronicle this year, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia conference invites members of the independent press from all over the country to sharpen their craft, exchange ideas, glean inspiration…and perhaps drink a little. During this time, Austin, though it boasts an ample supply already, enjoyed a surplus of bespectacled tattooed weirdos.

While many of us weirdos were busy becoming better storytellers and refining our investigative chops, a chain of gun homicides—elucidating America’s increasingly strained race relations—happened all over the country. These incidents arrived on the heels of the most violent mass shooting in U.S. history at an Orlando, Florida nightclub, where 49 people were murdered in a single attack.

Tuesday in Baton Rouge, LA, police officers shot and killed Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man who was selling CDs outside of a convenience store. On Wednesday, Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man, was shot to death by St. Anthony police officers in Minnesota when he reached for his wallet during a traffic stop. Then on Thursday night, five Dallas police officers were fatally shot in a mass ambush by a black man named Micah Xavier Johnson, a 25-year-old Afghanistan war veteran. The officers were monitoring a peaceful protest against police brutality. Nine other officers were wounded along with two civilians. It was the deadliest incident for American police officers since 9/11.

Two days later, on Saturday, a 38-year-old black man named Alva Braziel, who was allegedly waving a gun in the air, was shot and killed by two Houston police officers.

In that same week that journalists in town for the AAN conference worked from afar to coordinate stories on the tragedies that transpired in their hometowns, I found myself on the phone with one of my reporters to discuss a gun homicide here.

Outside my hotel in the blazing Austin sun, my phone cemented to my sweaty cheek, I listened bleary-eyed as my reporter outlined the gruesome details of 39-year-old Jennifer Nalley’s death. She, along with her unborn child, was fatally shot multiple times, allegedly by her ex-boyfriend, Erik Ohlson, Tuesday morning in Driggs, Idaho. Her uncle discovered her lifeless body.

I noticed with interest that headlines of Nalley’s death made it all the way to Austin. Before joining the Jackson Hole Juggernauts, Nalley was a founding member of the Texas Rollergirls, Austin’s roller derby league. At the time, in 2003, roller derby had not yet made its boisterous way onto modern circuit tracks, and Nalley is considered one of the godmothers of its resurgence. A statement issued on the Juggernauts’ website remembers Nalley as an exceptionally vibrant and dynamic woman: “She was the most oddly brilliant and wonderful person we’ve ever met. Fiercely loyal, wonderfully inviting—she lived life like we all should. She had no apologies for the unique, quirky, lovely soul that she was.”

Nalley’s death demands we take a good hard look at the warning signs of abusive relationships, which reporter Jake Nichols dives into in The Buzz this week. But her murder, along with the latest string of gun homicides nationwide, or at least the ones garnering headlines right now, force us to examine a gun culture eroding the nation.

Though gun control is not a popular topic in gun-toting Wyoming, the numbers cannot be ignored.

According to the nonprofit independent research group Gun Violence Archive, so far in 2016, the U.S. has lost 7,239 Americans to gun homicide. The number of people injured by guns just this year is 14,935.

Americans are 10 times more likely to be killed by guns than people in other developed countries, according to a February study by the American Journal of Medicine. The countries that provided mortality info to the World Health Organization for the study include: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Slovak Republic, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom (England and Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland), and the United States. Iceland and Luxembourg were excluded for having very small populations.

More alarming stats from the study include a U.S. homicide rate 7 times higher than in other countries, driven by a gun homicide rate that was 25 times higher.

Young people, the study explains, are particularly at risk. For 15- to 24-year-olds, the gun homicide rate in the United States was 49 times higher. Firearm-related suicide rates were 8 times higher in the U.S., but the overall suicide rates were average. Unintentional firearm deaths were 6 times higher here.

Overall, the firearm death rate in the United States from all causes was 10 times higher than other countries. Ninety percent of women, 91 percent of children, 92 percent of youth aged 15 to 24, and 82 percent of all people killed by firearms were from the United States.

Wyoming happens to be among the five states with the highest rate of gun deaths in the country. The numbers here, however, come from suicide deaths and not homicides.

Changing gun laws so that citizens cannot easily obtain automatic weapons designed to kill multiple people at once may not prevent a homicide like Nalley’s, but stricter laws will revive our sensitivity to acts of gun violence that are becoming commonplace in the American psyche. Yes, gun culture and attitudes are driven in the most basic sense by the idea that it is a lawful right to own a gun, as outlined in the Second Amendment. But let us not forget: The Bill of Rights was penned before the advent of automatic weapons. Since then, firearms have dramatically changed, and so too must our laws.

Beyond tough laws, a face must be placed on the fallen.

During the AAN conference I met Lansing, Michigan’s City Pulse publisher, Berl Schwartz, whose best friend was fatally shot during the University of Texas Tower Shooting on August 1, 1966.  The young man was killed attempting to save a pregnant woman from the crossfire. That day, engineering student Charles Witman gunned down a total of 49 people, killing 16. It was the first mass shooting at an American campus.

As the 50th anniversary of his friend’s death neared, Schwartz took a tour of the tower while he was in Austin. The tour guide, however, made no mention of the massacre. Afterwards Schwartz confronted the guide who pointed to UT’s president as the reason he was forbidden to discuss the shooting during the tour.

If we can’t talk about it, if we can’t humanize the victims of gun violence, we are destined for more of the same. Years ago, I interviewed a psychology professor at the University of Oregon, Dr. Paul Slavic, who explained that in order to elicit compassion for victims of crimes, and in turn prevent the crimes from repeating, we must “meet” the victims. “Statistics are human beings with the tears dried off,” Slavic told me. “Individual stories are very powerful and moving in ways that factual info is not.”

We have an opportunity right now, as analytical, intelligent people. The shocking frequency of gun violence in America could be the tipping point for gun control; the moment we say: Yes, black lives matter, brown lives matter, white lives, young lives—all lives. And we refuse to allow our leaders to cheapen these lives by neglecting to enact legislation to protect them. This could be the moment to shift a false narrative hinging on the idea that people are either good or bad, destined for a life of crime, or death. We are, after all, so much more than that. We are ingenious, emotionally intelligent creatures, capable of complex communication, curing disease, and dreaming up inventions that have positively altered the trajectory of civilization—the printing press, electricity, the airplane, the Internet.

We are also uniquely capable of destroying each other and ourselves. Yes, humanity is seemingly more violent, more at odds and more fragile than ever before. Yet this truth remains—we have never been as educated, informed, and adept at analyzing and understanding the consequences of our actions, and more importantly, the actions of those who came before us. PJH

About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Planet Jackson Hole and Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

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