Violence Across America Weighs on Voters’ Minds
Mathew Downing used to view firearms with fear.
Then, a fellow student walked into their Umpqua Community College classroom armed with six guns, including pistols and an assault rifle. He killed nine people but spared Downing. To Downing, guns now symbolize safety.
“I don’t blame anyone in the classroom for not having a gun, but if somebody had had one, things probably would have gone down a lot differently,” Downing, 19, said over pancakes on a recent morning in Roseburg, Oregon. “It wasn’t a gun that went in there and killed people. It was a person that needed mental help.”
One year ago, Roseburg joined a roll of places synonymous with tragedy that’s grown to include San Bernardino, California, where jihadi terrorists killed 14 in December, and Charlotte, North Carolina, which erupted after police shot a black man last month. The violence has different wellsprings, but the cities are united by what’s left: grieving families, rattled nerves and an electorate desperate to prevent the list of wounded communities from growing longer.
Crime data show the U.S. is dramatically safer today than in the 1970s and ’80s. At the same time, it remains far more violent than other industrial democracies -- and ubiquitous images on television and social media of violent terrorism, civil unrest and mass murder aggravate the fears of a nation on edge. As they prepare to choose between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump on Nov. 8, residents of Roseburg, San Bernardino and Charlotte revealed in interviews how their outlooks have been shaped by witnessing calamity so close to home.
Roseburg: Comfort in Guns
Roseburg sits among the fir- and vineyard-covered hills of the Umpqua River Valley that gives the community college its name. Few of its 22,000 residents were untouched by 26-year-old Christopher Harper-Mercer’s attack last October. Many drew similar lessons.
“The reaction wasn’t, ‘Let’s strengthen gun laws,’” said Larry Hall, a retired pediatrician who’s advocated doing just that for 40 years. “The reaction was buy more guns.”
Few issues today are as divisive as gun rights, seen as sacrosanct by supporters and as a public-health scourge by others. Congressional efforts to address the increasing frequency of mass shootings in recent years, including Newtown, Connecticut’s 2012 schoolhouse massacre that left 20 children and six teachers dead, have repeatedly failed. The issue has dogged President Barack Obama, who last year called it the “one area where I feel that I’ve been most frustrated and most stymied.”
In January, Obama issued executive orders aimed at curbing violence that Trump, who’s been endorsed by the National Rifle Association, vows to undo. The Republican nominee opposes gun bans and magazine-size limits, as does the party’s platform. He favors arming school personnel and making conceal-carry permits, now allowed state by state, valid nationwide.
Clinton has campaigned with families of firearm victims and would prohibit people on the FBI terror watch list from buying guns. She’s promised to “take on the gun lobby” and expand background-check requirements, as Oregon did last year before the Roseburg killings.
Downing, who was born in California, has curly light-brown hair, green eyes and black, square-framed glasses. Sitting in a Denny’s booth next to his mother, Summer, he said he hopes to become an elementary-school teacher. He’d just come from Umpqua, where he’s still pursuing an education degree, and where there’s no way to avoid Snyder Hall, where the attack unfolded. It’s surrounded by chain-link fences as crews make way for a $4 million replacement.
Last year, Downing was a high-school senior taking courses at Umpqua for college credit. Harper-Mercer, who later turned one of his legally obtained weapons on himself, assigned Downing a task: to deliver an envelope containing a message for police.
Downing has learned more about guns since that day. He joined an Airsoft team -- in which opponents shoot pellets at one another, akin to paintball -- and some of his teammates are military veterans who have real guns at home. He favors some restrictions, such as preventing purchases by the mentally disturbed, as Harper-Mercer was reported to be. Still, “guns probably are going to end up in the wrong hands,” and so erring on the side of caution means arming more people, including teachers, he said.
This year will mark Downing’s first time casting a ballot. He’s a registered Democrat and fan of Obama, whom he met when the president visited Roseburg following the shooting. But Downing’s unsure he can trust either candidate, or news reports about them. He cites Clinton’s evolving support of same-sex marriage as an example -- who’s to say she won’t flip back against it while in office?
“I look at both of them and I don’t see enough I like,” he said. The candidates’ positions on guns will do little to sway him. “There are things that are more important," like tax policy and foreign policy, he said. But he isn’t clear on which proposals will prove more beneficial, and so he doesn’t yet know whom he’ll choose on Election Day.
He does know what he’ll do when he turns 21 two years from now: apply for a concealed carry permit.
San Bernardino: Armed With Mace
“Please don’t let it be a Muslim,” Dalia Nassman said to herself after hearing of a mass attack last December in San Bernardino. But Muslim they were: Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik had gone on an ISIS-inspired rampage, killing 14 and injuring 22.
Six miles from the slaughter, Nassman, 31, was presenting a lecture at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center as part of her medical residency. Wearing jeans and a lavender head scarf, she raced to the trauma unit and began readying chest tubes and scanners.
“Anyone that day would have been more likely to be treated by a Muslim than shot by a Muslim,” she said. “My faith is a major motivator in wanting to help people.”
Six days later, Trump, still competing for the Republican nomination, called “for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
By then, Nassman had already visited Amazon.com to buy a container of Mace to carry on her keychain. It was she who felt in danger, because everyday she tucks her dark brown hair under a scarf that -- even in a state that’s home to more Muslims than any other -- makes her feel like a target.
“I’m entitled to believe what I believe -- that’s the beauty of this country,” Nassman said over coffee in Rialto, a town bordering San Bernardino, which is about 60 miles (97 kilometers) east of Los Angeles. “But ever since the shooting, it’s been pushed into my consciousness more that I’m viewed as an outsider. I feel like at any point somebody’s going to lash out.”
Terrorist attacks including those that killed 130 in Paris last year and 49 in Orlando in June, along with a bombing plot in New York and New Jersey last month, have fed a wave of Islamophobia. The Council on American-Islamic Relations tracked 79 retaliations directed at mosques nationwide last year, the highest since record-keeping began in 2009. They’re on track to match that this year.
In the Oct. 9 presidential debate, a Muslim woman posed a question about how the candidates would address hatred. Clinton brought up Trump’s attack on the Khan family, whose Muslim-American son died while fighting in Iraq for the U.S. military, and repeated her pledge to defeat ISIS in coalition with Muslim-majority nations. Trump called on Muslims to report nefarious activity and claimed that “many people” had seen bombs in the San Bernardino attackers’ apartment and said nothing. That claim has been rated false.
Born to Palestinian immigrants in southern California, Nassman voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary after he won her over with his stances on corporate taxation and college affordability. The transition to support Clinton in the general election was easy, she said, “simply because it was Trump on the other side.” Of the xenophobia she sees underlying this campaign season, she said: “I don’t want the epidemic becoming a pandemic.”
Nussman grabbed the container of Mace dangling from her key chain and cupped it in her hand. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get rid of this.”
Charlotte: Driver’s Education
Khasha Harris, a former bank manager in Charlotte, ensures her husband’s identification is easily accessible and inspects his car’s brake lights and blinkers before he ventures outside city limits. Her oldest son just got his driver’s license at 22. De-escalation techniques are dinner-table conversation.
“It’s called driving while black,” said Harris, 41, after enumerating her efforts to keep her family from encountering law enforcement. “I don’t hate cops. I’m afraid of them.”
The Sept. 20 police killing of Keith Lamont Scott, a black father of seven, was one of the latest in a wave of such shootings that’s propelled a national movement. Days of protest ensued, in some cases turning violent, as activists sought to draw attention to the deadly toll they see resulting from implicit bias.
“It’s like taking a scab off an old wound to remind you it’s still there,” said Ed Holland, a former senior vice president at Bank of America and current administrator of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church.
Clinton and Trump are deadlocked in the swing state of North Carolina, where almost a quarter of voters are black. Minority voters are also crucial in determining the election’s outcome nationwide.
As Harris recounted her story Oct. 2 over lunch near the shooting site, Clinton met with black community leaders across town. The nominee aims to heal the police-community divide by developing national guidelines on the use of force, boosting funding for bias training and equipping more officers with body cameras. Her pledge to tackle the criminal-justice system includes addressing the “mass incarceration epidemic.”
Trump’s support is dismal among black voters, with polls show it hovering in the low single digits. Casting himself as the “law and order” candidate, he’s said he’ll boost the number of officers and expand the use of a tactic called stop and frisk, which a New York judge ruled unconstitutional, saying it disproportionately targets minorities.
In Charlotte, the details surrounding Scott’s killing are disputed. Police say he was armed and that the shooting was justified, while Scott’s family says he was unarmed and reading a book. Which account one believes often depends on skin color, according to interviews with residents of the apartment complex where Scott lived and the shooting took place.
Everett Buck, a white supporter of Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson who lived across from Scott, believes the shooting was justified.
“In my experience, you listen to cops, especially when they’re pointing a gun at you,” said Buck, 23. “I don’t know why he wouldn’t put a gun down. I like to have some faith in our justice system and their report says there was no book.”
Harris, who joined in Charlotte’s protests and voiced her concerns to the city council during a hearing after Scott’s death, is skeptical about the presidency’s power to improve police-community relations. The tone is set at the top, but policies she’d like to see, such as greater punishment for officers who commit unjustified shootings, get implemented at the local level.
She’s placing what faith she does have in Clinton.
“If Donald Trump gets elected, racial tensions will get worse,” she said. “Racists are everywhere, so if you have a racist cop, why would he give me a second thought before he shoots? What’s to stop him from planting evidence on me? This is the fear that black people live with everyday.”