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The Visceral Reality of America’s Daily Mass Shootings

Twenty-two years after Columbine, mass killings are an everyday occurrence—and the public is still waiting for lawmakers to act.
April 20, 2021
The Visceral Reality of America’s Daily Mass Shootings
View of damage to the west entryway to Columbine High School where teenage gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold entered the school on April 20, 1999 in Littleton, Colorado. Flags mark points where evidence such as bullet casings were found. (Photo Courtesy of Jefferson County Sheriff)

When the news broke over the weekend about a mass shooting in Austin, Texas, I shuddered.

It wasn’t that the news of another mass shooting made me nervous. While I haven’t been inured to the stories of gun violence in America, it is hard to be surprised anymore—after all, there have already been more than 150 mass shootings this year, leaving more than 180 people dead and over 620 injured.

Nor was it the closeness to the anniversary of the Columbine shooting, the horrible massacre twenty-two years ago today in which two high school boys killed a dozen students, a teacher, and themselves.

No, the reason I was moved by this weekend’s mass shooting in Austin is that the very first mass shooting I remember hearing about as a boy, one that haunted me when I was young, occurred in Austin. On August 1, 1966, 25-year-old Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the tower in the middle of the University of Texas campus and opened fire, killing more than a dozen people and injuring many more before police were able to reach him and shoot him dead.

After that, as a child I developed a fear of tall buildings. My dad calmed me by reminding me that Whitman, who had purchased most of his weapons with bad checks the day he began his shooting spree, was an aberration and that we were perfectly safe in our ordinary everyday lives. I eventually took dad at his word.

The first mass shooting I covered as a reporter was a 1988 triple homicide in San Antonio engineered by a drug dealer who got angry at a rival. I arrived on the scene, as other reporters did, to see dead bodies in the street and an Uzi, an AK-47, a pump shotgun, and a Sig Sauer pistol strewn about the property. One of the dead, a young Hispanic man, had almost been cut in half with automatic weapon fire. He was lying face down with his head turned toward me. I saw doll’s eyes and most of his liver, spleen, and intestines. That image has haunted me for nearly 35 years.

A year later, a madman ran through Standard Gravure, the printing shop once owned by the Bingham family that was across the street from the Courier Journal and Louisville Times, where I once worked. On September 14, 1989, Joseph Wesbecker, a 47-year-old man armed with two MAC-11s, a snubnosed .38, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, killed 8 people and injured 12 before he took his own life. Though I wasn’t in Louisville at the time, I had friends and relatives who witnessed the shooting or were supremely disturbed for years by the incident.

Still, those events seemed rare.

Then came a turning point. On the afternoon of October 16, 1991, George Hennard drove a pickup through the front window of a Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas. Armed with Glock and Ruger pistols he’d purchased legally, Hennard killed 23 people and injured 27 others. Most of the victims were women, and Hennard, who it was later learned had an explosive temper, despised women. He called several of them “bitch” before killing them with a single shot—usually to the head. He reloaded several times, got in a brief firefight with police, and then took his own life after police wounded him in the abdomen.

I covered that story. It was the deadliest mass shooting by a lone gunman in U.S. history until the Virginia Tech shooting 16 years later—which I also covered.

My perspective on mass shootings has much to do with the fact that I reported so many of them, including during my years as a reporter-producer for America’s Most Wanted. I have seen bodies in a variety of states of decomposition. I have mourned people I never knew.

And it just seems sometimes like this country’s desire to commit mass murder and suicide only increases with time. We seem to be incapable of understanding that unlimited gun ownership goes hand in hand with crazy people opening fire in crowded public areas.

Today we are killing each other in mass shootings that occur not just daily, but multiple times a day. (This is the 110th day of the year, and, as noted above, there have been more than 150 mass shootings since January 1.) In 1994, partly because of the Luby’s shooting and other mass murders, Congress passed an assault weapons ban. It expired in 2004 and all efforts to renew it or pass successor legislation have failed. Indeed, today, instead of considering any kind of restrictive gun legislation, some members of Congress propose combating gun violence by promoting open-carry laws. Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert from Colorado, a prominent gun advocate, has spoken in support of arming as many “good guys with guns” as possible, has been seen strapped in public—and has talked about how she wants to bring guns into the Capitol.

More guns do not make us safer. I’ve been to places where everyone is armed. They’re called war zones. After a mass shooting or in a time of public unrest, this country can feel like a war zone. Especially in such times, I don’t go anywhere in public without knowing my exits, looking for blind spots, and planning ways to get my family out alive if something goes down.

We’re over our heads with “thoughts and prayers.” The public wants some action—but all we get is words.

Whenever I hear lawmakers argue abstractly about the Second Amendment and the rights of gun ownership, I think back to the first time I witnessed close up the results of a mass murder. It wasn’t abstract. It wasn’t sanitized. It was raw, visceral reality. And if the graphic, bloody nature of that kind of reality—seeing it, smelling it—doesn’t make you understand why we need to fundamentally change how we approach gun ownership in this country, then nothing ever will.

I am not asking people to see what I have seen. I am hoping that fewer people ever will have to see what I have seen. Let’s come together to find a way to end this madness.

Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy magazine. He successfully sued Donald Trump to keep his press pass after Trump tried to suspend it. He has also gone to jail to defend a reporter's right to keep confidential sources.