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Opinion: Massacres in Texas — One With a Car, One With a Gun — Reveal Two Sides of the Culture of Violence

Photos: Fibonacci Blue / Ted Eytan

In the space of less than 17 hours, American news outlets this weekend exploded with headlines about two separate but eerily similar mass killings in Texas. Both assailants killed eight people each, and injured seven and 10 more, respectively. The victims of both killings are believed to be predominantly people of color: mostly families of Korean and Indian descent in the first, Venezuelan migrants in the second. One killer had multiple neo-Nazi tattoos, a history of racist internet activity, and reportedly wore a patch on his jacket that said, "Right Wing Death Squad" while he massacred his victims; the other reportedly shouted anti-migrant epithets while he slaughtered his, according to some witnesses.

Both stole the lives of people who mattered, who were loved, and who cannot be replaced.

Both happened in public spaces where safety should be guaranteed: an outlet mall on a Saturday afternoon, and a bus stop on a Sunday morning outside a shelter for the unhoused.

Both used weapons that advocates have fought for years to regulate because they are uniquely capable of killing large numbers of people in moments: the AR-15 rifle and the SUV.

There are important differences between the epidemic of mass shootings and the epidemic of traffic violence in America, many of which arose in the aftermath of the two atrocities.

Much of the news coverage of the former — which occurred in the Dallas suburb of Allen — clearly identified the gunman who pulled the trigger and discussed the ways that Texas's lax gun laws and other systemic failures enabled his crime. Meanwhile, many of the headlines about the latter — which occurred in Brownsville, a town along the border with Mexico — confusingly implied that the driver's car had committed mass murder, leaving unclear whether that car was somehow driverless or operated by a motorists who did not own it.

That car, by the way, was a Range Rover SUV, which is part of a vehicle class that is so much more likely to kill the people its operators hit that experts say its proliferation has become a major driving force behind a national pedestrian death crisis that recently reached a 40-year high. Few articles about the Brownsville massacre, though, even mentioned the national movement to get regulators to address the dangers of these trucks, or how the death toll in Brownsville might have been lower if the driver's car had, at the very least, been smaller, or ideally, outfitted with speed limiting and automatic braking technology already required on many cars in Europe.

Meanwhile, President Biden issued a statement following the Allen shooting calling on Congress to "send me a bill banning assault weapons" such as the AR-15 used in the shooting, because that class of weapons is so much more likely to kill the people being targeted that experts say their proliferation has become a major driving force behind a national mass shooting epidemic that is setting national records, too.

The President gave no statement about the Brownsville massacre at all, even after survivors pleaded with him to at least reunite them with their families while they healed from their horrific injuries.

Some have argued that what happened in Brownsville, like all traffic violence, may not be strictly comparable to a heinous act of gun violence like the one that occurred in Allen. For one, the investigation is still ongoing, and police have so far declined to charge the driver with murder, only manslaughter; investigator Martin Sandoval told reporters the cause of the crash “could be intoxication; it could be an accident; or it could be intentional." Maybe the driver's brakes simply failed. Perhaps he was even obeying the speed limit on the 45-mile-per-hour road — a velocity at which 90 percent of struck pedestrians will die, but which is commonplace throughout communities where people walk anyway.  Maybe he was a drunk who made the reckless choice to endanger others after kicking a few back.

And even if this was a true vehicle-ramming attack? Well, then clearly the only thing we can do to stop future violence is to throw this single driver in jail (or, if he has a diagnosable condition, perhaps a carceral mental health facility). After all, as the saying goes, cars don't commit vehicle-ramming attacks; people commit vehicle-ramming attacks. And people who drive dangerously, and who design dangerous roads and vehicles, and who build parking lots outside of bars and strip funding for addiction treatment and mobility alternatives for people who use impairing substances? None of these people cause accidents. Accidents are simply acts of God. And our best hope to take on God is pouring money into the multi-billion dollar autonomous vehicle industry and waiting for them to figure it out.

All these arguments, of course, do exactly the same work as the arguments of the gun lobby in the wake of a mass shooting: they lay blame for atrocities on everyone but the architects of dangerous systems themselves.

They divert attention from any and all life-saving actions that would come at that system's expense: universal background checks, and road diets, and ending legal immunity for gun manufacturers, and diverting money from highway agencies to transit, and the universe of other structural reforms we could make tomorrow if we had an ounce of political will.

They convince us that dangerous systems are worth it because they get us to work faster, or because they give us a sense of safety should an intruder enter our home — as if those things could not be had with, say, a high-speed train, or a society where the intruders didn't have guns, either.

They give industry cover to slowly remake the world so that we don't just choose to pick up the keys for a weekend road trip or pick up a shotgun for a weekend hunting trip, but so we have no choice but to depend on these objects for our basic mobility and security whether we like it or not. And if you think that's not the end game of the gun industry, think again; the auto industry just got there first.

Sixteen people are dead in Texas. Some of their names we know; some we don't. What we do know is that their lives mattered, and that countless other lives were shattered when their loved ones were murdered in utterly preventable crimes. And we know that all of these losses share a common root: a failure to reject the dangerous systems upon which our country is continually being rebuilt, and which are not fundamental to who we are, no matter what they tell you.

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