The Feb. 10 murders of three young people in Chapel Hill seemed another spasm of American gun violence. But soon there was a strong national, even global assertion that this view ignores the real cause.
Relatives of the victims said the killings were a hate crime in which the three students were targeted because they were Muslims. The relatives said the alleged shooter, Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, went to a neighboring condominium in the quiet complex where he lived near the University of North Carolina and fatally shot Deah Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister, Razan Abu-Salha, 19, as the final of several encounters in which an animosity toward Muslims was the subtext.
People scoured Hicks’ Facebook page for evidence of such hate. The findings were conflicting. Hicks posted that he was an “anti-theist” hostile to all religions. He also posted sentiments about tolerance, including toward the rights of same-sex couples to marry and even the right of Muslims to open a mosque near the site of the 9/11 terror attack in New York City. He also expressed his love of guns.
Hicks’ wife said her husband harbors no hatred of Muslims. Neighbors in the complex said he was a bully-at-large about enforcing assigned and visitor parking spaces. He walked around with a gun in his belt and called the towing company so many times that it stopped responding. But those who see the killings as Muslim-related said even a strange, angry man with a gun doesn’t kill people over a parking space.
That makes sense, but gun violence is often senseless. This is America, gun-besotted, gun-crazy America. Anger and bullets mix every day. Often the anger is about minor things – the honk of a horn, a passing comment, texting in a movie theater. Google the words “parking space and gun” and all sorts of shootings come up.
That’s not to say the faith of the victims in Chapel Hill was not a factor. Hicks had encounters with other residents, but police say he opened fire only on the Muslims. And not just the man he met at the door, but two women, all hit at close range. The FBI is investigating whether it was a hate crime; we’ll have to await the findings. Ultimately, only the shooter knows his motives, or his lack of them.
Still, it was unfair to criticize police for saying tensions over parking seemed to be the reason. Social media from Chapel Hill to Egypt were buzzing with reports of three Muslims murdered for their faith. These days a viral message like that can trigger attacks on the other side of the world. If there was evidence that this was a shooting of neighbors who happened to be Muslims, the police needed to get that message out, and they did.
Relatives and friends of the victims are understandably looking for something deeper behind the deaths of their loved ones. And there may well be. But it’s also possible that this was violence without any broader connection, another case of anger, frustration and stress all terribly magnified by a gun.
It’s a haunting idea that we’ve become so inured to gun violence that it must be tied to a larger context to have meaning. Otherwise, it’s just something that happens, like a car accident. No one seems particularly alarmed that Hicks was found to have a dozen firearms in his condominium, including a fully loaded AR-15 Bushmaster, the same military-style rifle used in the Newtown massacre. Maybe if we believe the Chapel Hill shootings involved some sharply focused hatred, we don’t have to think of what might have happened had there been a party with 15 people in a condominium, cars double parked and an angry man at the door with an AR-15.
This is America. Hicks had a right to keep and bear arms, to stockpile arms, to arm himself with rifles designed for combat. He apparently owned the weapons legally. Sane gun laws might prevent the assemblage of these social time bombs. People should be allowed to have guns only when they can establish a need for them – hunting or protection – not just a desire for them. Somehow guns have become intertwined with freedom. What they really are about is annihilation. So few need a gun, yet so many have them. Someday that imbalance will be fixed, but it will be a long time coming.
Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt is active in the national group Mayors Against Illegal Guns. He said, “If we had reasonable gun laws it might not have prevented this incident, but it might make such events less common around the country. But there’s not political will to do that.”
No, there’s not. The slaughter of innocents in Chapel Hill won’t change that any more than the Newtown slaughter of children did. Indeed, the North Carolina General Assembly in 2013 expanded the places where gun owners can take concealed handguns, though lawmakers kept legislative buildings off limits..
It will be a while before it becomes clear why three smart, promising and altruistic young people were shot to death in Chapel Hill. But we know the means and the context that killed them: guns, readily obtained, readily tolerated, readily involved in mayhem.
All lives matter. What doesn’t seem to matter is the easy availability of guns designed to do nothing but take lives.