A shooter. A gun. A train of helpless commuters. In what should be a rush-hour nightmare on the NYC subway on April 12, Gerard Baker saw something different. The renowned Wall Street Journal columnist diagnosed the Brooklyn subway attack as an emblem of the "failure of American government at all levels." The failure, as he elaborated in his opinion piece headlined A Crime Scene Where the Victims Wore Masks, has permeated everything: from the mask mandate to law enforcement to the border crisis…
Except for one thing: gun control.
Ignoring the gun issue in a gun violence incident is ridiculous enough, and it is equally absurd that mask-wearing had to bear the onus at a crime scene. But sadly, such an attitude falls in line with the popular belief shared by a significant number of Americans, that "excessive" mask mandates are somehow more noxious to society than an excessive number of guns. It reflects a disturbing anomaly in today's America, where, even during a pandemic, guns are viewed as a necessity while masks are treated as a liability.
Too many guns have always been a perennial problem in American society, which has gradually explored its own way of "living with guns"—defending firearms with more firearms. On average, one hundred Americans own some 120.5 guns, according to available data published by the Small Arms Survey, which estimated that 81.4 million Americans who possess (393 million) guns make up about 46% of the world's total civilian firearms ownership.
America's superabundance of civilian-held guns is a problem of its own making. Gun shops in the US are so omnipresent that they outnumber Starbucks, McDonald's and grocery stores combined, according to Statista. With lax and counteractive federal and state laws as well as loose background checks, buying a lethal weapon in America is so easy that "it doesn't make sense," as former US president Barack Obama once declared.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans' gun hoarding habit has grown out of control. Forbes reported that Americans bought 19.9 million firearms last year, the second-highest year only after 2020, which saw a record-setting of 22.8 million purchases of firearms. "There was just as much a run on guns as on toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic," said Marqueece Harris-Dawson, an American politician.
Accompanying the surging gun sales is the soaring number of gun violence incidents: both gun-related suicides and homicides have spiked in the US. Between March 01, 2020, and March 31, 2021, the US saw a 30% upsurge in nationwide gun violence rates, according to a report published in Nature. In 2020 alone, 45,222 people died from gun-related injuries in the US, of which 54% were suicide deaths, 611 people died from mass shootings and 19,508 from gun-related homicide or murder (In 2021, all of these numbers continued to climb).
Racism-driven shootings (e.g., 2021 Atlanta spa shootings) and indiscriminate mass shootings (such as the Brooklyn subway shooting), among other gruesome gun-related homicides, occur so often that they almost make America's gun crisis sound like a cliché, receiving a period of attention that is so short-lived that hardly has the next gun tragedy arrives that the previous one starts to fade away from the public's radar. So much so that Americans and the global audience have already developed their immunity to the "horrifying shooting—crying for gun control—political impasse—more horrifying shooting" vicious circle.
Masks, on the other hand, have faced a totally different fate in American society. Their very existence has come under serious doubts and "life-threatening" challenges since the early stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed almost one million Americans.
They survived two American presidents: Trump mocked the act of mask-wearing and refused to wear one until July 2020; Biden prematurely dropped the mask mandate for vaccinated people briefly before another surge of cases hit the US.
They were rendered useless in states like Florida and Texas, belittled as ineffective by politicians, including US senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, and portrayed by popular media outlets such as the FOX News as something that can achieve nothing, but are attacks on the public's "liberty" and "freedom."
Finally, on April 18, a Florida judge struck down the federal mask mandate on airplanes and other public transit systems. At a time when only 66% of Americans are fully vaccinated, a rate far below the number needed for optimal herd immunity, and with daily averages still above 50,000 new cases, the ruling has invited grave concerns and criticisms. "The science on masking did not change (with the ruling)," wrote Aaron E. Carroll, a public health expert, in a New York Times article. He added that the reason why several governors and businesses didn't hesitate to abandon mask requirements (even long before the ruling) is that "these groups have interests that compete with science."
Despite their treatments being poles apart, guns and masks point to the exact same crisis management mechanism in the US, where one group's liberty takes precedence over the whole society's safety, where science and expertise yield to political or business interests, where saving more lives isn't as convincing to some politicians as saving more votes. In such an upended reality, it's hard to fathom when enough will finally be enough.