To many Americans, the massacre of 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., was supposed to force a long overdue reckoning with a nation’s love affair with guns.
Yet four years and hundreds of mass shootings later, Congress has not enacted a single law restricting the use of firearms. Politically, it is almost as if the Newtown massacre never happened and the searing images of sobbing first-graders being escorted by police are just vestiges of a bad dream.
How could a nation’s citizenry be at peace with such unthinkable devastation? Is it possible that the focus on defenseless child victims — often described as “angels” or “babes” in media reports — could be part of the problem?
In “Another Day in the Death of America,” Gary Younge attacks what he calls the “empathetic shortcuts” that simplify and distort the national discourse on gun violence. Instead of dwelling on angelic innocents, Younge explores the messy and often dysfunctional lives of 10 children and teens killed by gunfire over just one 24-hour period in 2013. By plumbing the depths of how these young lives were actually lived, without glossing over bad decisions and rough circumstances, Younge has produced a deeply nuanced portrait of the social, racial and economic forces behind the daily carnage of gun deaths in America.
“This is not a book about gun control,” writes Younge, a columnist for the Guardian and Nation magazine. “This is a book about America and its kids viewed through a particular lens in a particular moment.”
Most of the young people killed by gunfire on Nov. 23, 2013 — the day Younge randomly selected for the book — were not morally pure innocents. For example, before Kenneth Mills-Tucker, 19, was shot in a gunfight in Indianapolis, his Twitter feed was peppered with references to a gang that trafficked in guns and drugs and that police believed was connected to multiple homicides. Tyshon Anderson, 18, of Chicago, posted Facebook photos of himself brandishing guns, and spent much of his short life in prison before someone shot him in the head in a stairwell.
Younge’s goal is not to litigate the precise chain of events or circumstances that led to each killing, but to lay bare the unforgiving environments that these kids inhabited.
In the seven months before his murder, Mills-Tucker lost three friends to gun deaths. Anderson lived in a city, Chicago, where 20 to 30 percent of public school children have witnessed a shooting. Younge even interviews a woman in Dallas who is so accustomed to gun violence that she considered taking out insurance policies on her children for precisely that reason; but before she gets around to buying such a policy, her 16-year-old son is shot dead in the street after playing a game of Uno with friends.
That young people in America are living in the vicinity of so much death is indefensible. Yet it does not automatically follow that people see a causal connection between the ubiquity of guns and these daily tragedies. In researching the book, Younge asks all the parents who lost children on Nov. 23, 2013, why the gun deaths keep happening. To his surprise, the prevalence of firearms is not even mentioned. The same is true of scores of community activists and others interviewed for the book, who are quick to blame individual morals or “poor parenting” without mentioning guns.
It is no wonder that “Another Day in the Death in America” strikes such a despairing chord. Younge admits in the afterword that researching and writing the book “mostly made me want to just howl at the moon. A long, doleful, piercing cry for a wealthy country that could and should do better for its youth and children — for my children — but that appears to have settled, legislatively at least, on a pain threshold that is morally unacceptable.”
Chris Serres is a reporter for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @chrisserres
Another Day in the Death of America
By: Gary Younge.
Publisher: Nation Books, 304 pages, $25.99.