The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We’re a nation bristling with guns and no room for mistakes

5 min

Ding dong. Is that a stray Instacart or pizza delivery? Mormons? A Girl Scout selling cookies? A volunteer canvassing for a political campaign? Someone whose cat is in your tree?

All of those were perfectly normal possibilities, in the America we lost this month.

This month changed the mundane and common ways we humans interact with one another, as Americans who knocked on a door at the wrong address, turned around in a driveway, chased a stray ball into someone’s yard and went to the wrong car in a big parking lot were met with gunfire.

People who’ve taken life — and our endless, small mistakes — for granted suddenly see peril everywhere.

Parents are talking to their kids about going near other people’s yards, political volunteers said they may never canvass again, and Door Dash delivery drivers worry about their safety.

“She left her sweatshirt at someone’s house and they said she should go in through the back and get it; the door’s unlocked if they’re not home,” a friend of mine said, explaining why she didn’t let her daughter retrieve that sweatshirt over the weekend. “What if someone saw her going in the back and thought she was breaking in?”

Well, yeah.

In North Carolina, 6-year-old Kinsley White was shot in the cheek after she chased a basketball into her neighbor’s yard and he opened fire on her family.

“I couldn’t get inside in time so he shot my daddy in the back,” she told WBTV. Police arrested Robert Louis Singletary, 24.

The truth is that this new level of wariness has long been the norm for Black Americans, the stuff of “the talk” that Black parents give to their kids. It’s a validation of all those fears, and a crash course to those who have long considered themselves immune.

Black parents take their kids to a talk on how to deal with police

With Andrew Lester — an 84-year-old White guy who said he was “scared to death” when a Black, 16-year-old clarinet player came to his door thinking he was at the right address to pick up his siblings — it was easy to believe that racism played a part.

The victim, a marching-band kid named Ralph Yarl, is scary only to someone who sees a Black boy as a threat.

“The warning signs were there. I wasn’t shocked when I heard the news,” one of Lester’s grandsons, Klint Ludwig, told CNN. “I believe he held — holds — racist tendencies and beliefs.”

Sadly, Ralph’s shooting was quickly followed by others that proved there is no end to the ways in which we will harm each other. In a rapid clip, the violence was Black on White, White on Black, White on White.

While the subject of gun ownership divides us, we are now united in our fear.

This became clear to me Sunday. My 16-year-old is learning to drive. Despite his swagger, he’s a little awkward and nervous behind the wheel. So we did some country driving, along quiet roads in a residential area in Maryland, away from the slashing diagonal streets, traffic circles and pedestrians of D.C.

When it came time to try a three-point turn, I imagined the possibility of a homeowner seeing us pull in with our D.C. plates and opening fire. “Welcome to Black motherhood,” I thought to myself, considering deeply all I have not suffered.

A month ago I’d think anyone as White as me who’d imagine this is nuts. But America changed this month.

We heard about Kaylin Gillis.

Gillis — 20, blond, White, a Disney fan and aspiring veterinarian — died on the third Saturday in April after she was hit with two shotgun blasts in rural New York.

Police said Kevin Monahan, 65, White and now charged with second-degree murder, stood on his porch and fired at the car Gillis was riding in after the driver realized they had the wrong address and tried to pull out of the driveway.

This happened a few days before two Texas cheerleaders were shot when they went to the wrong car in a supermarket parking lot.

Payton Washington, 18, was in serious condition and the other young woman was grazed by a bullet. Pedro Tello Rodriguez Jr., 25, was arrested.

Before that, a Florida homeowner opened fire on a lost Instacart driver who was trying to deliver groceries.

They made headlines recently, but the stories are everywhere: A 16-year-old girl killed by her dad, who thought she was an intruder; an Ohio newspaper photographer, shot by a deputy who thought the photographer’s camera was a gun; a Texas maintenance worker checking on frozen pipes killed on Christmas Eve by a homeowner who thought the worker was a burglar (Santa didn’t stand a chance).

A recent Gallup poll showed a record high in people’s perception of crime. More than half of Americans think they’re living in a war zone — even though violent crime is down, historically.

Meanwhile, we’re trafficking more guns.

Between 2000 and 2020, the number of guns manufactured, exported and imported in America increased by 187 percent, 240 percent and 350 percent, respectively, according to a report by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

More guns because of fear, fear because there are so many guns.

This isn’t freedom, for any of us.