Roanoke wasn’t just a singular tragedy. It was supposed to be the third mass shooting in America this week.
At 7 a.m. Wednesday, Vester Flanagan opened fire on two journalists on live television in Virginia. Eighteen hours earlier in neighboring West Virginia, a boy walked into his high-school and pointed a pistol at his teacher’s head. Forty-five hours before that, Boston police announced they stopped two men from massacring a Pokemon convention.
The only thing that prevented America from being knee-deep in blood last week were two brave, anonymous people without weapons. It sure as hell wasn’t our gun laws, their lax enforcement, or the imaginary John Waynes who would save everyone if not for “gun-free zones.”
Thirty-three thousand people were killed by guns in America in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control, a rate that’s higher than any other developed country on the planet.
But you knew that already.
What you may not have known is that this is just the visible edge of a larger gun violence epidemic.
According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting, there were 142,324 incidents of aggravated assault with a firearm in 2013—and another 21,175 firearm suicides.
And for every Roanoke shooting, it seems, there’s a near miss: someone calls 911, a gun jams, a cop collars a perp with a pistol.
Take this week. First, a boy took a pistol to Philip Barbour High School in Philippi, West Virginia. The boy used that pistol to hold hostage a history teacher and 27 students on Tuesday. Disproving the claim that “only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun,” an anonymous teacher talked the boy down.
“The teacher did a miraculous job, calming the student, maintaining order in the class,” the superintendent said.
A hostage negotiator and the boy’s pastor talked him down further.
“You’re not going to end your life on my watch,” said Pastor Howard Swick through the glass window in the closed classroom door. “You’re going to lay the gun down, and we’re going to walk out, arm in arm.”
The boy was evaluated at a hospital and arrested for making terrorist threats.
Several days earlier, James Stumbo made his own threats online.
“MY AR-15 says you lose,” Stumbo allegedly wrote in a private Facebook group for Pokemon players. Police said he referenced the Columbine school shooting, Boston marathon bombing, and specifically threatened several players going to the Pokemon World Championship in Boston.
Stumbo drove 25 hours from Iowa to Boston with Kevin Norton, 250 rounds of ammunition, an AR-15 assault rifle, and a shotgun.
Stumbo and Norton both tried to enter the Hynes Convention Center, where they were invited to play in the Pokemon tournament. They were stopped by guards.
The Facebook moderator had called security.
Stumbo and Norton were arrested for not having permits for the guns and ammo, and police said they prevented a “potential tragedy.”
Tragedies by the dozens were not prevented this week, however.
On the day Alison Parker and Adam Wade were murdered on live television, 27 other people were murdered with guns, according to the Gun Violence Archive. In 24 hours following all of their deaths, another 15 people were killed.
Forty-five people killed by guns immediately before and after Flanagan’s attack. That just so happens to be the combined total of victims from Virginia Tech and Columbine.
Americans did what Flanagan only wished he could do: kill 45 people.
“I was influenced by Seung—Hui Cho,” Flanagan wrote in a suicide note faxed to ABC News on Wednesday. “That’s my boy right there. He got NEARLY double the amount that Eric Harris and Dylann Klebold got…just sayin.’”
Evidence collected from Flanagan’s car indicates he was not done killing.
The murderer changed vehicles and then drove for several hours, getting as close as 60 miles from Washington, D.C., before he killed himself. Police said Flanagan had a “to do” list, six ammunition clips, three license plates, and several disguises like wigs.
Police also said evidence from his apartment indicated he “closely identified” with the 9/11 hijackers.
If not for a quick-witted state trooper, Flanagan might have reached his final destination in Washington, even driving by the Pentagon where one of his idols slammed a plane into its side.
There would have been a fourth mass murder this week.