Shot for making a mistake: America reels from new wave of bullets

Three banal and seemingly harmless occurrences culminated in horrific gun violence in the span of six days, deepening the sense that no place is truly safe.

A 16-year-old boy rang the wrong doorbell. A 20-year-old woman turned into the wrong driveway. Teenage cheerleaders stopped outside a supermarket, and one of them got into the wrong car.

In all three cases, banal and seemingly harmless occurrences culminated in horrific gun violence. Ralph Yarl was shot in the head. Kaylin Gillis was shot dead. Payton Washington and a friend were injured.

In an era of frequent mass shootings, Americans know all too well that tragedy lurks nearly everywhere: schools, churches, offices, grocery stores, movie theaters. But these three incidents in the span of just six days have deepened a gnawing sense that no place is truly safe — not even the front porch of an ordinary house on an ordinary street in suburban Kansas City.

“The truth is that we are living in a nation that is increasingly shooting first and asking questions later. I think people are outraged and sickened by it,” said John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization that advocates for gun control measures. “I think parents are asking: Is my child next?”

The three shootings have each attracted national attention, drawing an outpouring of sympathy, grief and confusion. The incidents may feel especially senseless because the victims are all young people looking ahead to the future. 

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Yarl is a gifted student and musician. Gillis aspired to become a marine biologist. Washington already has a tumbling scholarship to Baylor University after high school graduation.

Yarl, who is Black, was picking up his younger twin brothers from a friend’s home last Thursday night and rang the wrong doorbell. The homeowner, who is white, shot him in the head, cracking his skull and leaving him with a traumatic brain injury, police have said. The homeowner fired a second time when the teenager was on the ground.

Prosecutors in Clayton County, Missouri, have filed two felony counts against the 84-year-old homeowner, Andrew Lester: assault in the first degree and armed criminal action. He has pleaded not guilty. Yarl is recovering from his injuries.

Gillis was in a car with three friends when they pulled into the driveway of an upstate New York home they mistakenly believed belonged to someone they knew, police have said. The suspect, 65-year-old Kevin Monahan, allegedly fired twice at the car from his porch; one of the shots fatally struck Gillis, who was sitting in the passenger seat.

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Monahan has been arraigned on a charge of second-degree murder. He has pleaded not guilty and he has been remanded without bail.

In the Texas town of Elgin, four cheerleaders were on their way back to the Austin area just after midnight Tuesday when they stopped at an H-E-B supermarket, where some had parked their cars. When one of the girls accidentally tried to get into the wrong car, the armed man inside got out and fired five times, according to the owner of the gym where they trained. 

He struck two of the girls, including Washington, 18. The suspect, Pedro Tello Rodriguez Jr., 25, has been charged with deadly conduct, a third-degree felony, police said.

The incidents have renewed and intensified calls for stricter gun control legislation, which will almost certainly be fiercely resisted by Republican legislators at the national and state level. 

The recent shootings have also put scrutiny on “stand your ground” self-defense laws — including the one in Missouri. Kansas City Police Chief Stacey Graves said investigators would consider whether Lester was justified under the state’s self-defense law.

Dave Workman, a spokesman for the Second Amendment Foundation, a gun rights group, said his organization was “alarmed” by the news of the shootings, adding that the criminal charges brought in the shooting of Yarl were “probably justified.”

“We all have the right of self-defense and we all have the right to be secure in our own homes, but over and above that there has to be a definable threat to your safety. It’s not just because somebody rang your doorbell,” said Workman, who is a certified firearms instructor.

The incidents came in the wake of mass shootings in Nashville and Louisville, and amid concerns about local crime and public safety in some American cities.

In one poll released last year, 8 in 10 Americans said gun violence was increasing and three-fourths identified it as a major problem. In a survey published this year, a majority of Americans said they or a family member had experienced gun violence.

In the eyes of some observers, the shootings point to a more fundamental sickness in American life: the toxic brew of paranoia, distrust and suspicion that poisons so many of our day-to-day interactions — and sometimes leads to bloodshed.

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In an interview, Christian Heyne, the vice president of policy and programming for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun control organization, partly blamed the increasingly “violent rhetoric” in mainstream political discourse.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., one of the most vocal advocates for gun control in Congress, described the state of affairs in stark terms on the floor of the U.S. Senate on Wednesday.

“We are becoming a heavily armed nation so fearful and angry and hair-trigger anxious that gun murders are now just the way in which we work out our frustrations,” Murphy said. “This is a dystopia, and I’m here to tell you that it’s a dystopia that we’ve chosen for ourselves.”

“It doesn’t have to be like this,” Murphy added. “Cheerleaders don’t need to be shot when they walk into the wrong car. Teenagers don’t need to be murdered because their music is too loud. Kids shouldn’t fear for their life when they go to school, or when they pick up their siblings from a house in the neighborhood.” 

“We can do better,” Murphy continued. “We can adjust the dials in order to decide not to live in this dystopia.”

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