ALEXANDRIA, Virginia — One weekend not long ago, my 10-year-old son and I took our dogs to the park. He chased them around the fenced-in area where they run free and stopped to pet retrievers and terriers who crossed his path. He raced up an embankment in a far corner and gazed down on the rest of the park, over the basketball court, the short green grass where he scored his first soccer goals, and, directly across from his little hill, the baseball diamond.
On Wednesday morning there were members of Congress on that diamond, and also a man with a gun. In the dog park — our dog park — people cowered when dozens of shots filled the air. Officers shot the gunman, who later died. Five other people were wounded, one of whom continues to battle for his life in a hospital.
It’s a cliché to say you can’t believe it happened here, but in the moment, it’s true. It does not seem real when camera crews flood your streets and reporters commandeer your coffee shops. Not when your police chief, in a press conference carried live on the national news, says the shootout in your neighborhood “was not only chaotic, it was a combat situation.”
But if you pause and think beyond your bubble, you see how real it all is, for your fellow Americans. How it does happen here, in our neighborhoods, in our parks, basically every day.
To live in the shelter of a trendy suburb, or work under the heavily guarded dome of the Capitol, is to be shielded, at least in part, from the brutal realities of gun violence in the United States. Members of Congress, and the residents of my city, would do well to take that lesson from this intrusion on their quiet peace.
There have already been 154 mass shootings in the United States this year — ones that each injured at least four people — according to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive. Many of them went almost entirely uncovered by major media, including two incidents that occurred earlier this week in Baltimore that left a total of two dead and six wounded. Many people were shot in parks or playgrounds — at least dozens over the past few years, according to the Archive.
In Chicago alone, there have been nearly 1,000 shooting victims already this year, as of the first week in May, according to a detailed count by the reporters of the Chicago Tribune. In 2016, the city had 27.9 murders per 100,000 people (not all of those were gun-related, of course); it was only the eighth-highest such rate in the country. These shootings, these killings, persist even though violent crime has been falling in America on the whole for decades. (It ticked up slightly in 2015.)
As researchers at Pew noted earlier this year, crime rates vary widely by geography. Certain cities are safer. Certain suburbs feel safer.
Perhaps the most important element of a good news story for journalists is surprise, which is why you read wall-to-wall coverage from my neighborhood on Wednesday but likely heard almost nothing last week about the shootings in Fort Worth, Texas, that left two dead and five others wounded. The local NBC affiliate in Forth Worth reported that a witness, Ethel Love, heard “dozens of shots” on her street near the interstate that runs through the city.
Gunfire near her is “a regular thing,” Love told the station. “I’ve been staying on Davis street since 1972 and seven people have passed away and I’m just … really tired of it.”
Contrast that reaction with what NPR’s Susan Davis reported from Congress on Wednesday afternoon, a good 10 miles from the site of the shooting that targeted members of the House GOP baseball team:
And contrast it with my neighborhood, where the people I interviewed could not seem to shake the shock of bullets crashing through the windows of their YMCA, of panicked Congress members fleeing the ball field to seek refuge in their dog park.
“Not a good day,” one of the park’s immediate neighbors, David Witebsky, told me about an hour after he finished his morning run to the sudden and sustained pop-pop of gunfire. He looked back toward the park, toward my son’s soccer fields, toward that small hill where my child, for a few glorious moments that recent weekend, stood and beamed like the king of the suburbs.
“What do you tell your kids,” Witebsky said. “You know?”
And what do you tell the ones who live with this, every day?