— The Virginian-Pilot (@virginianpilot) June 1, 2019
On Friday afternoon, a longtime employee of the city of Virginia Beach—an engineer in the public-utilities department—entered the municipal complex where he worked with a .45-calibre handgun and began shooting. According to the authorities, at least a dozen people, on three floors of the building and in a car outside, were killed, along with the shooter. Alyssa Andrews had been parked next to the complex, with her year-old grandson, waiting for her daughter, who was inside paying a parking ticket. Andrews noticed that the roads were blocked off. She saw SWAT officers running up the street. “The police were just running back and forth with machine guns in their hands,” Andrews said, in an interview on CNN. “I just saw a police officer run in front of my car with this gentleman that had just gotten shot.” Andrews, a nurse, asked if she could help. “They said, ‘No, stay in your car.’ ”
Before the man was taken away, she snapped a photo, which ran on the front page of Saturday’s Virginian-Pilot. The stocky, bearded man, in a green striped shirt and khaki pants, with a lanyard around his neck, is a victim. That much we know. It is unclear where he was shot. His left hand is bloodied. The dark maroon of the blood spatter seems darkest on the right side of his chest, near his shoulder. The splotches also appear to be more concentrated on his left leg. The police officer standing in front of him has his hand on his right shoulder, in a gesture of comfort, the kind you would extend to a stranger, when words fail, and you lack the intimacy to pull the person into an embrace. The officer’s back is to the camera; his face is hidden. He seems to be looking past the bloodied man, perhaps alert to the still-present danger. The eyes of the man who has just been shot are vacant. His lips are parted slightly, his brow furrowed, in a mask of incredulity and despair. “I pray that he’s O.K.,” Andrews told CNN.
The Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit organization formed in 2013, tracks gun-related violence in the United States. The data tables on the archive’s Web site offer the most direct explanation for why Friday’s shooting registered as a non-event for so many us: it marked the hundred and fiftieth mass shooting in the country this year. (The archive defines a mass shooting as any incident in which four or more people, not including the shooter, are shot or killed.) Friday, May 31st, was the hundred and fifty-first day of the year. Mass shootings, in other words, have become daily events in the U.S.
Yet there is something undeniably startling about the photo that Andrews took. For all the images that have been broadcast from mass shootings—scenes of children scurrying from their schools in single file, with their hands in the air, of heavily armored police with assault weapons stalking buildings, of long trains of ambulances queuing up to take victims away—it is unusual to actually see blood. We are more accustomed to seeing these kinds of images from war zones, where news photographers are often able to witness the carnage of combat up close. By contrast, the setting of Andrews’s photograph is visibly suburban. A sidewalk stretches behind the injured man. On the car next to the officer is a barely legible sticker of a ball, with the word “Fastpitch.” A no-parking sign is prominent on the right. It makes for a jarring composition.
In 2013, the Connecticut state legislature voted overwhelmingly to block public access to graphic images of those killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, as well as future homicide victims, owing to privacy concerns. Dan Malloy, the governor at the time, quickly signed the bill into law. There is a case to be made, however, that the country needs to be exposed to these kinds of images, if we have any hope of being jolted from our collective inurement to the ravages of gun violence. I am guessing the details of Virginia Beach will soon blur in my memory, alongside the litany of other mass shootings that have dominated cable news and quickly receded. But my memory of the man in the green shirt will endure.