Sat. May 28th, 2022


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Today’s note is especially personal. Many of you will undoubtedly have followed the latest horrifying episode of public gun violence in New York, in which a man entered a subway in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, set off a smoke bomb to create chaos, and then fired off 33 bullets from a Glock semi-automatic handgun into the train, wounding 10 people. It seems that the only reason nobody was actually killed is that the gun jammed, preventing more bullets from being sprayed (the gunman, Frank R James, had another 57 at his disposal).

The incident happened at about 8:30 am, prime time for the school and work commute. My 15-year-old son was two subway trains behind on that very line when the shooting started. Had he been a bit more prompt getting off to school that morning, it might have been his subway car that was shot up. One of his school friends was actually in the 36th Street N train stop when the smoke bomb went off.

I heard about the episode only a few hours later at lunchtime; I had been on a business trip giving a presentation all morning. I grabbed my phone, and saw there were several calls from my son. All the local schools had been locked down as the manhunt went on (the shooter was captured a day later, last Wednesday). I reached Alex, panicked, but he was fairly calm. I asked him how he felt. “Lucky, I guess,” he said. Were the other kids OK? “Yeah. The teachers are available to talk. I think a few people have gone to see them. ” He said he was OK, and did not feel the need to talk. Then, he asked if he and a friend could use my Seamless account to get lunch delivered.

What to make of the fact that my son (an empathetic kid with a lot of EQ), along with most of his school peers, saw this whole episode as disturbing, but not too much out of the ordinary? I think more than anything, it says a lot about the stunning level of violence that is taken as a matter of course in America. Look at this Wikipedia summary of mass public shootings last year and you’ll see that we had 693 of them, resulting in 703 dead and 2,842 injured.

Part of me thinks the Brooklyn shooting is yet more evidence that it’s time to leave New York. The increasing level of violence in the city is something that I’ve sounded off about in Swamp Notes past.

But I’m not ready to call it quits here (my son loves his school, and he and the other students are back on the train), particularly given that mass shootings happen all the time across the country, in places big and small.

Which of course brings me to the two real issues here: the availability of firearms (particularly automatic or semi-automatic ones) in the US, and the stunning rise in mental health issues post Covid-19. While we have yet to learn much about the shooter, he did have nine prior arrests in the 1990s, including theft and a criminal sex act. Despite all this, he was able to purchase the gun he used legallyin Ohio in 2011, because none of the prior arrests were felonies.

I find this just kind of unbelievable, as I’m sure many British and European readers will. Ed, this raises my question for you: what the hell do we have to do politically in this country to get some serious gun control laws? I come from a state where people frequently use guns to hunt, or require them for certain farm tasks. They do not use a gun like this. If anyone can come up with a reason that an average person should be allowed to own a large-capacity ammo, concealable weapon like this, I’d love to hear it.

On the issue of mental health, James had posted a number of bigoted, disturbing videos on social media, ranging from Russia’s war in Ukraine to New York’s policing of homeless people on city subways. Was this guy mentally disturbed when he shot up the train? Who knows, but he’s going to stand trial for domestic terrorism, so a case for both sides will undoubtedly be built.

Whatever comes out, the combination of rising mental health problems and the fact that the NYC police are at the front lines of it is a tinderbox. As some Swamp readers will remember, I had my own rather traumatic experience with having to evict a violent, mentally ill tenant during the pandemic (I’ll write about it at length once I’m over my PTSD). One thing I learned is what an impossible position both the mentally ill (at least those without excellent private insurance) and the police are in. If someone is perceived to be a danger to themselves or others, it’s the job of the police – who are trained in law enforcement, not psychiatry – to deal with it. They are on the front lines of the mental health crisis in the city, at a time when police reform is a moving target. Whatever these people are being paid, it’s not enough.

Do not miss Edward Luce and Rana Foroohar on May 7 at our inaugural US edition of the FTWeekend Festival, featuring leading luminaries including Henry Kissinger, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, William J Burns, Tina Brown and Jennifer Egan. Claim 50 per cent off your pass using our exclusive newsletter discount code FTNewslettersxFTWF22.

  • The New Yorker writer Tad Friend’s personal history of a life spent sparring with, loving and trying to fully know a father who also fancied himself a writer is one of the best magazine pieces I’ve read in ages. Read to the very end. The last sentence is a killer.

  • The FT’s Big Read on long Covid-19 raises worrisome issues about the future cost of the virus for labor markets, companies and individuals who have to figure out how to earn a living when they can not get out of bed for more than a few hours a day.

  • I’ve been fascinated reading my former Newsweek colleague Isaac Stone Fish’s book America Second: How America’s Elites Are Making China Stronger, which raises the very important topic of why we continue to trust many of America’s grandest foreign policy figures (people like Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright) on China, when they and many others have been paid rich salaries by the Party (or companies associated with it) for consulting work in their private lives. It’s a thorny and important question, tackled in a non-xenophobic way by a veteran foreign correspondent in China (he’s a fluent Mandarin speaker) who now runs his own political risk firm that is helping investors gauge western companies’ supply chain exposure in China.

Edward Luce responds

I do not have an easy answer to the apparently insuperable task of establishing effective gun control in the US. The script is so familiar I can recite it in my sleep. Some nut shoots up a school or a nightclub killing dozens of people, or slaughtering children in the case of Sandy Hook. Democrats announce this is the point of no return and the time for meaningful gun reform. Republicans offer their “thoughts and prayers” for the victims and proceed to block even the most minimal of new controls, such as banning bump stocks, or tightening America’s minimal background checks. Democrats retreat to an incrementalist position that will change little or nothing. The most recent example of the latter is Joe Biden’s executive order banning the sale of ghost guns – weapons that can be manufactured at home. Roughly 20,000 “buy build shoot” kits were sold last year. Upholding this ban would have a minute impact on US gun ownership but it’s something I suppose. At any rate, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and other Republican senators are trying to overturn it in the Senate.

For a foreigner living in the US, I’ve long since given up trying to make empirical arguments against widespread gun ownership (with almost 400mn firearms, America has about 40 per cent of the world’s privately owned guns). I’ve even stopped trying to persuade people that the Second Amendment has been badly distorted and that guns have nothing to do with freedom. The basic problem is the power of the gun lobby and the fanatic motivation of the National Rifle Association’s 5mn members against the lukewarm support of the majority of Americans for serious gun reform. As economist Mancur Olson showed, a small group of highly motivated advocates will almost always defeat the majority of public opinion if it is less organized, which it usually is.

One small anecdote. When I was growing up, my parents had a .22 rifle in the house that we used to shoot rabbits in the vegetable garden, almost always missing. When I was 15, my older brother and I had an argument over which television channel to watch. As the older and stronger brother, he prevailed in our highly combustible argument. I went straight for the .22 and he had no doubt that I wanted to shoot him, though the rifle was not loaded. My mother disarmed me before my bluff could be called. That tale was a running joke for years. But it is deadly serious. People with guns at home will eventually misuse them, including children. The case for restricting guns was proved a long time back. Logic and evidence is overwhelmingly with the reformers. But logic and evidence is never enough. Politics is about organization.

Your feedback

And now a word from our Swampians. . .

In response to ‘Elon Musk and the mirror Twitter holds’:

“Twitter is an addictive waste of time and I deleted my account about a year ago. It’s really just a political food fight. ” – Dave Anthony, Woodstock, Georgia

We’d love to hear from you. You can email the team on swampnotes@ft.comcontact Ed on edward.luce@ft.com and Rana on rana.foroohar@ft.comand follow them on Twitter at @RanaForoohar and @EdwardGLuce. We may feature an excerpt of your response in the next newsletter

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