The Deadly Side of the American Dream

The Deadly Side of the American Dream

How did we as a society come to conflate making it easier to shed blood with freedom?


A few days before I left for a week-long reporting trip, six people were killed and many more were injured during a late night shooting spree in Downtown Sacramento, barely a mile from where I live. At this point, it looks like the slaughter was the result of a shootout between rival groups rather than the act of a lone gunman.

As I was returning from that trip, dozens of people were injured on a rush-hour subway train in New York after a gunman released smoke grenades and then shot into the panicked crowd of commuters.

Shootings like these have spurred a national conversation about whether criminal justice reforms have swung too far away from the tough-on-crime policies of previous decades. At least one of the shooters in Sacramento had been released from prison years earlier than he would have been had his sentence been adhered to, and the Sunset Park gunman apparently has multiple arrests in his past. Republicans in California have slammed reforms, such as Proposition 57, which made it easier for many prisoners to qualify for parole, and have sought to make the rise in gun crimes a potent issue at the ballot box come the midterms. Nationally, the GOP sought to turn Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearing into a collective yawp against criminal justice reform policies and practices.

Yet those same Republicans who are trying to dismantle those practices—and who are going after progressive DAs and blaming them for rising crime rates—are adamantly opposed to any gun control legislation. The result is an absurdity: We will, as a country, always be reacting after the fact to carnage such as that seen in New York and in Sacramento if we can’t find some way to limit ease of access to high-powered weaponry.

Last year in America, 20,706 people died of gunshot wounds inflicted by others—either murdered or killed accidentally. (There were just over 15,000 in 2019, the year before the pandemic knocked everyone and everything for a loop.) In 2021, there were 693 mass shooting events, in which four or more people were shot.

In addition to these numbers, roughly 24,000 Americans commit suicide by shooting themselves each year. Thousands more are injured annually in gun violence, the incidents painstakingly chronicled, down to the street block on which they occur, by the Gun Violence Archive.

Throughout much of the South and in parts of the West, where gun ownership is highest and gun control laws are virtually nonexistent, at least 18 per each 100,000 people die of gunshot wounds every year. In Mississippi, the rate is a shocking 28.6 per 100,000. Compare that to Hawaii, which has some of the strictest gun control laws in the country and, in consequence, a gun fatality rate of only 3.4 per 100,000 residents.

When I was reporting last week, I interviewed people in a gun store who were absolutely adamant that without the right to bear arms—guns of all sorts, with no restrictions placed on them—Americans’ freedom would collapse. I’m no longer surprised when I hear such rhetoric, but it never fails to depress me. No other country on earth has such a definition of freedom, a fine-tuned philosophical license to kill.

How did we as a society come to conflate making it easier to shed blood with freedom?

I wake up every morning and obsessively read the news about what is happening in Ukraine. I read about Bucha and the other sites of obscene Russian massacres, and my blood boils. We are, quite rightly, absolutely horrified by Putin’s war of choice, and by the killing of innocents that his actions have unleashed.

Yet how cheaply we as a people now seem to hold life in our own country, how unable we have been to control our own demons. In 2020 and ’21, murder rates in the US soared. So, too, did overdose rates. The CDC estimates that since 1999 841,000 Americans have died of drug overdoses, and the rate of deaths is accelerating. Last April, for the first time ever, data suggested that more than 100,000 Americans had died of ODs in the previous 12 months. In California, the country’s most populous state, upwards of 10,000 residents are dying of overdoses each year. An estimated 95,000 Americans die annually of drinking-related illnesses. As with overdose deaths, the rate is accelerating, with the annual number of deaths roughly doubling since 2019. So, too, the number of automobile fatalities is soaring.

Each year, more than 1,000 Americans are shot dead by police, a number orders of magnitude higher than that in other wealthy industrial democracies. In all of 2021 there were only 15 days in which someone wasn’t killed by the police on the streets of America. The Guardian recently calculated that over a five-year period 18,000 homeless Americans had died on the streets, in encampments, or in shelters.

Something is terribly amiss in America at the moment. We are, as a country, reacting in the most self-destructive of ways to the traumas inflicted by the pandemic. It seems to have induced some sort of collective psychosis, whereby we deal with our woes by reaching for weapons, for drugs, by acting with disregard for the safety of ourselves and others—in short, by doing everything we can to inflict harm.

In 2020, as the pandemic ravaged this country and as all of these additional forms of self-harm kicked into overdrive, life expectancy in the United States fell by more than two years. Contrast that with a basket of other wealthy democracies, where life expectancy fell by about half a year. In 2021, life expectancy in the US declined by another half a year, whereas in other peer countries it began increasing again as mass-vaccination campaigns drastically reduced Covid death rates.

These are the sorts of life-expectancy declines that took place in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the result both of a breakdown in health care services and a spiral into economic and social despair that resulted in huge spikes in alcoholism and drug usage.

Yes, we ought every day to be outraged and horrified by what Ukraine is suffering through. But amid that outrage, let’s also not forget to look at what is happening in this country, at the sheer scale of needless death we are inflicting on ourselves.

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