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Inside a Deadly American Summer

Mitch Smith
Gun rights advocates gather outside the Texas Capitol where Texas Gov. Greg Abbott held a round table discussion, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019, in Austin, Texas. Abbott is meeting in Austin with officials from Google, Twitter and Facebook as well as officials from the FBI and state lawmakers to discuss ways of combatting extremism in light of the recent mass shooting in El Paso that reportedly targeted Mexicans. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Mass shootings this summer came one after the next, sometimes only hours apart, and hurled the nation into an agonizing routine: a sudden burst of violence followed by solemn mourning and pleas for change, and then another burst, somewhere else.

There were ones that rattled the whole country — in an El Paso, Texas, Walmart, on the streets of Dayton, Ohio, along a highway near Odessa, Texas. But there were still others, eruptions that plunged one town or one neighborhood into grief but went mostly unnoticed elsewhere.

In the end, even in a country numb to the daily toll of homicides, the scale of this violent summer was shocking. There were 26 mass shootings between Memorial Day and Labor Day, leaving 126 people dead and dozens more injured. There were close to two such shootings a week, at a rate of more than one death a day. The violence touched 18 states, in huge cities and rural counties.

Among those killed were a 3-year-old girl at a house in the Miami suburbs and a 90-year-old man shopping in El Paso. There were people enjoying the summer — at a house party in New Mexico and a festival in California. And there were people just going about their daily routines — watching television, settling into bed, driving down the highway.

Then came the bullets, the sirens, the tears.

“It’s like a great awakening for many people in terms of realizing how much America has changed,” said Rev. Renard Allen, a pastor in Dayton, who presided over the funeral of one of nine people killed there. “The world we live in now is one in which no place is safe, no lives really matter, when it comes to violence.”

The massacres set off calls for new gun laws and stricter background checks in statehouses and in Congress. But as weeks passed with no bipartisan consensus, little changed and the issue started to fade once more.

The New York Times analyzed every shooting in the United States that resulted in three or more deaths, not including the gunman, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the unofficial summer season.

Though every shooting was distinct, patterns emerged. In three of the four deadliest killings, the gunmen used military-style weapons. In more than half the mass killings, the suspect had a familial or romantic relationship with at least one victim. In every case, authorities identified a suspect. And every one of those suspects was male.

An Office Shooting Reveals the Risks From Within

With the workweek almost over and summer in sight, a man with two handguns stormed through municipal offices in Virginia Beach, Virginia, on the last afternoon of May. He began shooting.

Employers across the nation have invested in elaborate security systems to keep dangerous people out. But as is often the case, this threat came from someone on the inside.

The gunman, a longtime city engineer, had shown glimpses of volatility before: a violent encounter at work, a hasty resignation email. He was able to walk right into the building.

“Hardening your target with physical protection isn’t going to protect you from a guy who has keycard access,” said Katherine Schweit, a former FBI official who studies mass killings.

The victims included Ryan Keith Cox, a utilities worker with a golden singing voice, who died shielding colleagues; Richard Nettleton, an Army veteran; and Herbert Snelling, the only victim who was not a city worker, who had come to ask questions about a permit.

Their deaths were the first in what felt like a summerlong siege, the start of a bleak routine of panicked 911 calls and mourning.

A Swift Police Response, and Still Nine Killed

The police are trained to race toward gunfire and take on a gunman — even when their handguns are overmatched by a high-powered weapon. In three of the summer’s four deadliest shootings, an AR-style or AK-style gun was used.

That included the massacre in Dayton, Ohio, where officers shot and fatally wounded a gunman within 32 seconds of his opening fire on a packed street lined with bars, nightclubs and shops.

The toll was still devastating. Using an AR-style weapon, the gunman killed nine people in barely half a minute.

Thomas McNichols, a father of four who played kickball at family gatherings, was enjoying a night out with friends when he was killed. Allen, who presided over McNichols’ funeral, said the experience brought him “face to face with a level of pain that is almost too intense to describe.”

“We’re reeling,” Allen said. “We’re recovering, but we’re reeling.”

Many Killings Happened at Home, Behind Closed Doors

The television was playing. There was food on the living room table. A man had killed four members of his wife’s family.

“It could have been any neighborhood in this town,” said Lt. Paul Joseph of the San Jose, California, police, who examined that crime scene in June. “It could have been any neighborhood in any town.”

The case was not an outlier. More than half of the mass killing suspects this summer had an intimate connection to at least one victim. Among them: a teenager in Alabama accused of killing five relatives; a father in Iowa who killed his wife and two school-age sons; a man in Oklahoma charged with killing his wife and stepchildren.

The sheriff in Marshall County, Oklahoma, said he had never heard of trouble from the man who lived on rural Page Road, near Madill, until deputies found the man’s wife dead in the master bathroom and his two stepchildren killed in their beds.

“He wasn’t on our radar at all,” Sheriff Danny Cryer said.

Such is often the case in familicides, a disturbingly common type of mass killing — but the sort that draws less attention than those involving strangers in public places. Though motives are often complex, researchers have found that many mass killers share a history of hating women, assaulting wives, girlfriends and female family members, or sharing misogynistic views online.

In more than 20 years patrolling Marshall County, population 16,800, Cryer could recall only one other triple homicide. Investigators believe that case was also rooted in domestic violence.

In at Least One Shooting, Bigotry as Motive

Hate crime reports across the nation increased three years in a row, with 7,100 incidents in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available.

A vast majority of those crimes did not result in deaths. But this summer saw one of the worst hate-driven massacres in modern U.S. history at a Walmart in El Paso, which police believe was motivated by hatred of Hispanic people.

Armed with an AK-47-style rifle, the gunman stormed through the aisles of the busy store near the U.S.-Mexico border, spraying dozens of shoppers with bullets.

He killed Jordan Anchondo, a mother who used her body to protect her infant. He killed Javier Rodriguez, who played high school soccer. He killed Margie Reckard, whose funeral was attended by hundreds after her husband extended an open invitation. He killed 19 more — citizens of the United States, Mexico and Germany.

El Paso police said the actions of one man inside the store may have kept the death toll from going higher, though they have not provided precise details of his actions. He was wearing a short-sleeved dress shirt and a brown hat. Detectives were hoping to find the man, interview him and honor him.

“We believe this HERO helped save several lives including an infant,” the police said in a mid-August Facebook post that has been shared 4,700 times.

A month later, his identity remains unknown.

An Inordinate Amount of Violence, by Any Metric

The list of shootings examined by the Times includes killings tracked by the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit group that focuses on shootings, and verified by law enforcement records, interviews with authorities and local media accounts.

While several of the summer’s 26 mass shootings dominated headlines, others — like a triple homicide in rural Pennsylvania — received little national attention.

Jesse Northrup’s life was in crisis. He was suffering from anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. He had stopped taking his medication. He had just been fired from his job at a meatpacking plant. Then on June 13, Northrup went to a store and bought a Smith & Wesson .40-caliber handgun. A day later, he fired four fatal bullets — at his mother, his stepfather, another man and then at himself.

Every Suspect Male, and No Case Unsolved

Mass shootings are hard to prevent, dangerous to interrupt and devastating in scope. But they are usually easy to solve. Whether the attacks ended by shootout, suicide or arrest, none of the suspects in the summer’s mass shootings avoided detection.

This summer, suspects included a 14-year-old boy in Alabama and a 62-year-old man in Georgia, but no women or girls. Experts said it is exceedingly rare for women to carry out mass shootings.

In many cases, including a triple homicide in August at a house in San Antonio, the gunman killed himself. In others, including in Virginia Beach, police killed the gunman.

And even when the gunman flees, police often do not have to look far to make an arrest.

It was a chaotic scene in Burlington, North Carolina: a barrage of bullets at an apartment complex, three young men dead, witnesses pointing toward where the gunman had run. Soon, officers found Hyquan Parker, 26, who was charged with three counts of first-degree murder.

Parker, an acquaintance of the victims, had killed a man as a teenager and was convicted of second-degree murder. He was released from prison after about seven years.

Children Among the Victims in 11 Shootings

Shootings at U.S. schools have fueled much of the national conversation about gun violence. But this summer, children were killed in their homes, at a shopping center, on a highway and at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California.

The man who brought an AK-47-style rifle to the Gilroy Garlic Festival, a joyous mix of food and music and children’s games, did not seem to care whom he shot. He had plotted against religious institutions, federal buildings and political groups from both major parties. Then, for reasons domestic-terrorism investigators have not detailed, he settled on the annual Garlic Festival.

Keyla Salazar, one of two schoolchildren killed that day, was about to turn 14. Stephen Romero, 6, loved Legos and Batman.

In Other Mass Shootings, No Known Motives

Mass killings can be inspired by bigotry, by domestic anger, by botched drug deals or, in one case in California, by an argument over golf. But sometimes, including in Las Vegas in 2017, the site of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, the reasons for a massacre are never discovered.

The same has been true in Des Moines, Iowa, where police accused a man of killing three people, including two children, in a house this summer. Grecia Daniela Alvarado-Flores was 11. Her brother, Ever Jose Mejia-Flores, was 5. Their mom died, too.

The suspect, now charged with murder, lived in the same house, but was not related to the victims. The police still do not know why he did it.

A Relentless Cycle of the Most Vicious Sort

The shootings came one after the other. On June 23: South Carolina and California. On the last weekend in July: Wisconsin and California. On Aug. 3: El Paso. And then early the next morning: Dayton.

Even in a country numb to the daily toll of gun violence, the pace of mass death struck deep. When Ohio’s governor spoke at a vigil in August, Dayton residents drowned him out with shouts of “Do something!”

Before the end of that month, there would be seven more mass killings across the nation.

By Labor Day weekend, the national debate about gun control, reopened by El Paso and Dayton, had returned to a familiar stalemate. Democrats wanted stronger background checks and, in some cases, an assault weapons ban. Many Republicans did not. Sweeping national action seemed unlikely.

Then a man fleeing a traffic stop began shooting randomly at motorists between Odessa and Midland, Texas, using a military-style rifle. ABC News reported that he bought it through a private-sale loophole after failing a background check because of a mental illness.

And the summer ended much as it had begun, with a new round of panicky 911 calls, another set of wrenching vigils, a new wave of pleas for change.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


© 2019 The New York Times Company