Four days before the shooting, my husband asked me whether I’d ordered guns online. This story takes place in the United States, which means I need to be more specific about the shooting. As a matter of fact, there were two that week—one in Gilroy, California, and one in El Paso, Texas. We had this conversation after Gilroy but before El Paso. “What are you talking about?” I asked, a chuckle forming in my throat at the absurdity of the question. My husband was looking at his phone, squinting as he tried to decipher an e-mail alert about a package from a gun dealer. “It says here that your delivery was redirected. It’s waiting for you at the UPS facility in downtown Los Angeles.”
Someone was shipping me guns? What a sinister joke, I thought. But try as I might, I couldn’t figure out who might do this. The UPS delivery alert listed the sender as a gun shop in Arkansas, so I looked up its phone number and called. The customer service rep, a young man with a lilting accent, pulled up the order for me. “Yup,” he said. “I have it all right here.” Then he rattled off a list of gun attachments and accessories, totaling $1,304.63. I told him that my credit card number must have been stolen, because I hadn’t placed the order. “Oh.” He sounded annoyed. “Well, I need to get off the phone and try to get this shipment back before it’s picked up, or else we’re going to lose money.”
California, where I live, has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation. It bans assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, has a 10-day waiting period for firearms sales and transfers, and doesn’t recognize concealed-carry permits issued elsewhere. But gun manufacturers have found ingenious ways to circumvent such state restrictions: They’ve modified gun designs to allow for tactical attachments. As my story shows, it’s not terribly difficult for someone to turn a gun purchased legally in California into an assault weapon by buying modification kits and accessories from out of state. And with stolen credit card information, the purchase is not even traceable to the person who made it.
Out of caution, I called my local police department. I was curious whether the officers would be able to do anything about what was clearly a suspicious purchase. I was fearful, too, because I happen to be Muslim, and I worried that someone might go on a shooting rampage under my name. The officer I spoke with let out a bitter laugh. “That kind of fraud is rampant,” she said.
I tried to imagine the man—for it is usually a man and usually a white one—who did this. Did he have something in common with other mass shooters? Was he, perhaps, a white supremacist intent on starting a race war? An anti-Semite who blamed Jews for hosting immigrant invaders? A xenophobe who feared that Hispanics would take control of the local and state governments? Was he consumed with hatred for women, as so many of these men are? Did he have grudges against his neighbors? Or was he an aimless man like the one in Thousand Oaks, California, who murdered 12 innocent people because, as the shooter posted on social media, “Life is boring so why not?”
Whatever the motivation or lack thereof, a simple fact connects these atrocities: The ease with which it is possible for anyone in this country to own a weapon. There are 393 million firearms in the United States, a statistic so staggering that it is necessary to render it in simpler terms. For every 100 Americans—regardless of age, criminal history, mental health, or physical ability—there are 120 weapons. Last year nearly 40,000 people died in gun-related violence, two-thirds of them from suicide. So far in 2019, there have been at least 38 shootings with three or more deaths.
The script that follows each act of public gun violence is hackneyed: sorrow and anger from the citizenry, thoughts and prayers from lawmakers. Year after year, even modest and widely supported reforms stall somewhere in the Capitol. At the moment, the people who are leading the fight to bring sanity to gun legislation are to be found in grassroots organizations. For example, Moms Demand Action, which has 6 million supporters, pushed 20 states to tighten their gun laws and successfully lobbied major retailers and restaurant chains to ban open carry.
Every move is being met with a countermove by the gun lobby. Gun manufacturers have shown a remarkable ability to adapt their deadly products to changing state laws. Gun fanatics who live in states with strict legislation can procure their weapons from nearby states with looser laws. (That is what Santino Legan, the mass shooter in Gilroy, did when he traveled from California to Nevada to buy an AK-47-style assault rifle.) In the meantime, the violence continues at such a pace that an entire generation of children is as familiar with the ritual of active-shooter drills as it is with the Pledge of Allegiance.
It’s time to bring federal resources to the fight against gun violence. There is no shortage of ideas—an assault weapons ban, a national gun buyback program, firearm licenses and registry, universal background checks, liability insurance, limits on ammunition purchases. But there is a shortage of political will, thanks to the influence of the National Rifle Association on some lawmakers. As the presidential race consumes massive amounts of money, energy, and attention, it’s important to remember that Senate and House races will determine whether we will finally have some leadership on gun control.
After I phoned my credit card company to report the theft, I got a call from the gun dealer in Arkansas. This time, the customer service rep sounded relieved; he’d managed to get the package intercepted before it was picked up. “That’s good,” I said, still baffled by the fact that weapon parts could be sold online with little oversight; I hadn’t received so much as a phone call to verify the purchase. “Yeah,” he replied. “You never know who might have gotten it.”