A gold plaque hangs next to a bullet hole in the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., where a lone gunman killed six worshippers and injured three others last August. It is engraved with the words, “We Are One.”
“It frames the wound,” says Pardeep Kaleka, son of former temple president Satwant Singh Kaleka, who died in the massacre. “The wound of our community, the wound of our family, the wound of our society.”
In the past week, that wound has been ripped open with shocking ferocity.
“Are there any sanctuaries left?” Kaleka asked. “Is this a fact of life, one we have become content to live with? Can we no longer feel safe going Christmas shopping in a mall, or to temple, or to the movies? What kind of society have we become?”
As this year of the gun lurches to a close, leaving a bloody wake, we are left to wonder along with Kaleka: What is the meaning of all this?
And yet those who study mass shootings say they are not becoming more common. “There is no pattern, there is no increase,” says criminologist James Allen Fox of Boston’s Northeastern University, who has been studying the subject since the 1980s, spurred by a rash of mass shootings in post offices.
The random mass shootings that get the most media attention are the rarest, Fox says. Most people who die of bullet wounds knew the identity of their killer.
Society moves on, he says, because of our ability to distance ourselves from the horror of the day, and because people believe that these tragedies are “one of the unfortunate prices we pay for our freedoms.”
Grant Duwe, a criminologist with the Minnesota Department of Corrections who has written a history of mass murders in America, said that while mass shootings rose between the 1960s and the 1990s, they actually dropped in the 2000s.
Chances of being killed in a mass shooting, he says, are probably no greater than being struck by lightning.
Still, he understands the public perception. “There is this feeling that could have been me. It makes it so much more frightening.”
On April 16, 2007, in a classroom at Virginia Tech, it was Colin Goddard.
For two years, he couldn’t bear to hear about other shootings.
And then, on April 3, 2009, he turned on the computer and heard the news. A 41-year-old man had opened fire at an immigrant community center in Binghamton, N.Y., killing 13.
After Binghamton, Goddard resolved that he had to get involved, to somehow try to stop the cycle. Reminders are lodged inside him: three bullets.
He now works in Washington for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
“I refuse to believe this is something we have to accept as normal in this country,” he said. “There has to be a way to change the culture of violence in our society.”