Any town could be Roseburg

Story highlights

  • Alafair Burke: Mass shootings have become so common that any place can fall victim
  • She says we need to remove barrier to government-funded research into this phenomenon

Alafair Burke is the best-selling author of 13 novels and a professor of law at the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University. She formerly was a deputy district attorney in the Multnomah County district attorney's office in Portland, Oregon, and says she will always consider herself an Oregonian. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)I spent much of the weekend convinced I had to rewrite a book I thought I finished months ago.

On Friday, I reviewed a letter my publicist had written to accompany advance readers' editions of my next novel. About 24 hours had passed since nine more innocent people were killed and nine others injured in another deadly rampage, this time at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.
Alafair Burke
The first sentence of the letter quotes an endorsement from a best-selling author whose work I greatly admire: "With an all-too-real mass shooting in a richly-observed Manhattan as its springboard, THE EX. ..." A later paragraph refers more obliquely to a "violent tragedy" that leaves a main character a widower and single father.
    Readers who open the book will soon learn that the novel's protagonist grew up in Roseburg. They will see her wonder during a police commissioner's press conference following a triple gun homicide whether these tragedies have become so commonplace that law enforcement departments now have a public statement template at the ready.
    I immediately asked my publicist to hit the pause key on not only the letter but also the advanced distribution of the book.

    'Somehow this has become routine'

    Until I looked at the letter, it did not dawn on me to connect the horrific events in Umpqua to a work of fiction I completed several months ago. Like the rest of the country, I was still processing the news as my emotions bounced from profound sadness for the loss of innocent life, admiration for the selfless efforts of survivor Chris Mintz, pride for the public response of the state I called home for a decade, and anger and dismay that warning signs of potential violence in a mentally disturbed young man were ignored once again.
    The last thing I wanted to think about was a publicist's pitch letter.
    I woke up the next day with the intention of sending two emails: one to my publicist, asking how long we could wait to send out review copies of the book; and one to my editor, asking whether it was too late to change the main character's hometown to some place other than Roseburg, even though she was from Roseburg for a reason. Roseburg is a tight-knit community that creates good, strong people.
    But then it dawned on me: What's the point? What is the date a publisher can pinpoint on the calendar when we can be sure there won't be a mass shooting in the headlines? What is the town that we know won't be the next Columbine, Virginia Tech, DeKalb, Tucson, Oakland, Aurora, Newtown, Isla Vista, Santa Monica, Charleston or Roseburg?
    The film premiere of "Jack Reacher," about a man trying to prove the innocence of a man accused of a deadly mass shooting, was canceled after the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Two episodes of the TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," featuring vampire-induced violence at a high school graduation, were delayed for months after Columbine. An episode of "Bones" about the murder of a college student was postponed after Virginia Tech. One website collects examples of the "Too Soon" phenomenon, described as "a kind of self-censorship born out of sensitivity to current issues."
    I would be happy to add my next book to the list if it would prevent victims' families from perceiving any connection between a work of fiction and the murder of their loved ones.
    But a work of fiction set in a world where characters have been affected by a mass shooting is simply a book set in modern-day America. According to the crowd-sourced site Mass Shooting Tracker -- the fact that there is even something called Mass Shooting Tracker speaks for itself -- there have been 994 mass shootings, defined as four or more people shot in one incident, in 1,004 days.
    As President Barack Obama observed, "Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. We've become numb to this."
    But not all of us are numb. Many are outraged and desperate for change. Some believe gun control is the obvious answer. Others blame factors such as deficiencies in the mental health care system, violent video games and social isolation aided by the Internet. Reasonable minds, unassisted by empirical research, might differ in their intuitions.
    And that's why we don't rely solely on seat-of-the-pants intuition in crafting public policy. What can we do as a nation to prevent and reduce the violence? We could start by asking the best and brightest minds from every potentially relevant field to study the unfortunate wealth of data we now possess about mass shootings and then propose evidence-driven solutions.

    Why it will remain routine

    Here's the obstacle to that common-sense first step: As the death toll mounts, Congress still refuses to amend the 1996 ban against gun-control advocacy by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to permit it to research the underlying causes of gun violence. Yes, you read that correctly. The CDC -- the leading public health institute for the most advanced country in the world -- is not allowed to study the causes of a public health crisis that appears only to be increasing in frequency and gravity.
    House Speaker John Boehner defended the ban by saying "a gun is not a disease." But as a contributor to Forbes recently noted, the CDC has studied other environmental influences on health, such as tobacco, other drugs and ventilation systems. And if the problem is that the CDC is the wrong group of experts to study the problem, then find the group that's a better fit. But instead, a small but powerful contingent of extremists has decided not to make any effort to understand the causes of gun violence because the recommended solution might involve changes to the ways we buy, sell, transfer or handle guns.
    Even former Rep. Jay Dickey of Arkansas, the man who proposed the original legislation that led to a ban on government-subsidized gun research, said he believes this is nonsense. One week after a madman clad in body-armor murdered 12 people and injured 70 others in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, Dickey, a Republican and lifelong member of the National Rifle Association, co-authored an opinion piece in The Washington Post with Mark Rosenberg, a former director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the CDC.
    Though they were on opposite sides of the gun-control battle for years, they came together to argue "that scientific research should be conducted into preventing firearm injuries and that ways to prevent firearm deaths can be found without encroaching on the rights of legitimate gun owners."
    Just as the government was able to study the causes of motor vehicle fatalities and to reduce them with interventions such as seat belts, child safety seats and air bags, government should engage in serious, nonpartisan, data-driven research regarding all factors that may influence gun violence. But instead, obstructionists in Washington refuse to lift the research ban because they fear the possible results.
    As long as we treat mass shootings as an unpreventable, inevitable part of contemporary American life, any day could be October 1, 2015, and any town could be Roseburg. So this week, I will tell my publicist to send the letter she drafted, along with the book as I wrote it.