By Preston Mitchum
It was a Saturday night — so late, it was technically Sunday — when a shooter killed nine people and injured 27 more in my hometown of Dayton, Ohio. He targeted people outside the Ned Peppers Bar in the city’s historic Oregon District; six of those killed were Black.
Hearing the news of Dayton’s mass shooting on Sunday, August 4 struck me with immediate fear. My first thought was to call and text my friends and family and my second, more scary, thought was, What if someone I know was killed?
I have fond memories of my hometown. Growing up in Dayton, my friends and I spent nearly every weekend eating overcooked burgers at Steak & Shake; and Tuesday nights were for Buffalo Wild Wings, back when chicken wings were still 25 cents. A city where my high school crew consistently spent Saturday nights at Club Foundry and Club Fusions; no matter how hot the clubs became nor the amount of sweat we felt from melanated Black bodies dancing to the latest Lil Jon song, we stayed until closing hours.
Then a white man used an assault-style rifle to kill innocent people, including his own brother. Though authorities said it was “unlikely” the Dayton shooter targeted people based on race, the fact remains that six Black people died that Saturday night in my hometown. Those odds alone are enough to put any group on edge, but it is also not the first time this year that Black residents’s justifiable fear has made national headlines. In May, a Ku Klux Klan-affiliated hate group picked Dayton as the site for their rally; counter-protesters showed up in droves, and city government launched an initiative called Dayton United Against Hate and openly disavowed the hate group by making clear they had only approved the rally permit because it was “legally obligated” to do so.
In acknowledging the shooting the following Monday, President Donald Trump referred to Dayton as Toledo, a city hours away. He also visited the town, which is customary for a president after a tragic event; past consolers-in-chief have offered condolences, and met as many people as possible. From the moment Trump landed, however, it was clear much of the crowd didn’t welcome the visit. According to The Atlantic, people shouted anything from “We don’t want you here!” to “If you support Trump, you’re a racist!”
That it happened less than 24 hours after the mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, compounded both pain and calls to action. Almost immediately, policymakers, presidential candidates, and everyday people alike demanded comprehensive gun restrictions, including universal background checks and assault weapons bans. Whatever comes of that, if anything, it’s undeniable that something needs to change.
Based on research published in Epidemiologic Reviews as well as demonstrable action in other countries, more restrictive gun laws could make shooting deaths much less common. In a review of countries with wealth and varying cultures — the U.S., the United Kingdom, Canada, Switzerland, and Japan — the U.S. had the highest level of gun ownership and homicides.
That’s the main problem — and not mental health or video games, as conservative politicians are so eager to claim. But while there is a strong indicator that restricting access to guns can save lives, these violent acts are bound to occur if we don’t also tackle a culture that condones violence, unhealthy masculinity, and white supremacy; and a country that pretends these problems didn’t exist before President Donald Trump.
“America is not unique in our sins… where we may be singular is our refusal to acknowledge them,” Professor Eddie Glaude underscored in a recent panel interview with MSNBC. And that ahistorical framing of our innocence causes many of our leaders to not call for change.
The suspected gunman of the El Paso shooting has since been booked on capital murder charges and is being held without bond, according to the El Paso County District Attorney’s Office. Though the exact motives of his rampage are not known, we have enough information to recognize it is related to carrying out white supremacist violence. Police believe he wrote and posted a racist manifesto shortly before attacking the Walmart; in it, he expressed support for the perpetrator who attacked mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and denounced the Latinx population in Texas.
White supremacist violence and white nationalist ideology existed well before Trump, but the President works overtime to enable it. Recently, he tweeted that several Black and brown members of Congress are “from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe” and that they should “go back” to those countries. He has referred to Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries.” A few weeks ago, he called Baltimore, a predominantly Black city, a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”
This President’s comments are not merely one-offs but part of a concerted effort of riling up his base and having them actualize harm against the Black and Latinx communities, and other non-whites. This is intentional; both racist language and mass shootings at the hands of white bigots are part of a larger system that is designed to protect whiteness at all costs.
Part of people’s anger is Trump’s refusal to call a thing a thing. In his alleged condemnation of El Paso and Dayton, he blamed the violence on mental health and video games. He mentioned white supremacy, but only briefly; on Twitter, he posed the potential for more comprehensive background checks almost as a throwaway, and contingent on his ability to pass xenophobic anti-immigration legislation. He has never openly and meaningfully reflected on how his own words have closely mirrored the ideologies of white supremacists and domestic terrorists, many of whom have invoked him at some point. He likely never will.
In 2019, there have been more mass shootings than days, according to Gun Violence Archive, and dozens of people have either been injured or killed in such an attack. This year is on pace to be the first year since 2016 with an average of more than one mass shooting a day. Gun violence is far too normalized in the U.S., and we have consistently witnessed mass shootings — and specifically those at the hands of white people — since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. At each turn, we have been begging for policy action and nothing has happened. For decades, people in underfunded, majority minority communities that are regularly affected by gun violence, like the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, have been begging for change. Politicians ignored them.
Gun violence has always been about so much more than just loose gun laws. It’s also about a culture that has continually allowed white people to terrorize Black and brown people, to steal their land and children, and kill them with impunity. It’s about a country that stigmatizes mental health and not racism and bigotry. It’s about a culture that allows white supremacy and unhealthy masculinity to reign supreme over people’s bodies and lives. It’s about our collective exhaustion, because we have fought all of this, and yet it still happens, again and again and again.
That’s why we don’t need for something “new” to happen. We don’t need a new mass shooting to reinvigorate conversation around gun control. We know what we need: policymakers who will force legislation, a president who won’t enable white supremacy, and a paradigm shift in how we think about violence and why it occurs in the first place.
But what will that take? We already know the worst possible outcome has happened. There is nowhere else for us to go.
Preston Mitchum is a writer, activist, and legal/policy analyst from Dayton, Ohio, now living in the Washington, D.C. area. Find out more at prestonmitchum.com.