California mass shootings show America is too focused on motive instead of solutions

Last Fourth of July, a gunman opened fire on a parade in Highland Park, Illinois, killing seven and injuring dozens. Fast-forward to now and in a span of three days we've faced two mass shootings in California, first in Monterey Park and then Half Moon Bay.

As I write this, there could well be another. Such is America.

Like the Illinois tragedy near my home last summer – and so many others in between – the California mass shootings have made national headlines. The first response, for many, particularly those not directly impacted by the violence, is to ask questions: Why? What was the shooter’s motive? Who inspired him? Who can we blame?

What answers could make a tragedy any less tragic?

It’s an uncomfortable pause that could precede any expression of shock, perhaps an unhealthy defense mechanism some of us have developed. It’s a feeling we must wait several beats before deciding how horrified to feel about an act that’s transparently horrific.

A San Mateo County Sheriff deputy speaks with FBI agents in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Jan. 24, 2023, after a shooting. Seven people were dead and a suspect was in custody.
A San Mateo County Sheriff deputy speaks with FBI agents in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Jan. 24, 2023, after a shooting. Seven people were dead and a suspect was in custody.

I was in Highland Park the day after the shooting broke that community in a way that will never fully heal. I spoke to a mother who hid with her young daughter behind trash bins, hoping to survive. The feelings there, among those who had witnessed the shooting and those who had lost people, were fear and horror. There, in that raw moment, there was no pause, no evaluation of the circumstances.

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About an hour south, in the city of Chicago, gun violence is a daily occurrence, and each time a bullet destroys another body, questions tend to precede the horror: Was it gang related? Was it a domestic dispute? What, as always, was the motive?

As if there’s a reason behind any one of these catastrophes – like some missing detail about a shooting that killed 11 people at a Monterey Park dance club – that might temper the reaction of those outside that community. As if a motive makes a difference to the families and community torn apart by an eruption of violence.

There have been dozens of mass shootings in America already this year

Was it a hate crime? (How could it be driven by anything but hate?) Was the shooter liberal or conservative? (Does it matter to those mourning?) Was it random or targeted? (Does either answer help?)

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According to the Gun Violence Archive, which defines a “mass shooting” as one in which four or more people are injured or killed, there have been about 40 mass shootings in America already this year. On Monday, there was another mass shooting in California, in the city of Half Moon Bay about seven hours north of Monterey Park. Seven people were killed.

In all of these mass shootings this month, at least 70 people have been killed and more than 160 injured. Since the Monterey Park shooting Saturday night, more than 30 people have been injured in other mass shootings.

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We don’t know the motive behind many of those attacks, just as we don’t yet know the motive behind the tragedies in Monterey Park or Half Moon Bay. But we do know, without question, that each victim had ties to other people, and those other people, their communities and the victims who survived are all feeling the agonizing impact of gun violence.

We should feel every mass shooting like a punch to the gut

The motive matters, but it shouldn’t be a fact that modulates our shock. We shouldn’t let the cause excuse the effect, but I fear that’s where some of us have wound up.

Rather than feeling the swift and senseless loss of human life like a punch to the gut, we want a group or an ideology to point a finger at, comfortably ignoring this simple fact: In America, it’s frighteningly easy for people with hate in their hearts to get hold of guns.

Want fewer shootings? Pass tough gun laws: We studied the science. Our research shows lax laws fuel violence.

Where that hate comes from and whom it’s directed at seems secondary to the fact that we’ve normalized easy access to tools that help the hateful inflict mass carnage.

The motive doesn't matter in the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting

As news of the Monterey Park shooting broke, and as we learned it is a predominantly Asian American community, social media lit up with people questioning whether the murders were racially motivated. Those questions often preceded expressions of grief.

Of course we want and need to know why crimes are committed. But in the flashpoint of the tragedy, motive is meaningless, and I’d argue the search for a motive – that squirmy waiting period we think might dictate how we should feel – takes our focus away from the deadly simple equation our country can’t seem to solve: hate + access to firearms = mass shootings.

Since Fourth of July shooting in Highland Park, nearly 400 people dead

Since the July 4 shooting in Highland Park, according the Gun Violence Archive’s data, there have been more than 360 mass shootings in America, leaving nearly 400 people dead and more than 1,400 injured.

A police officer in Lake Forest, Ill., on July 4, 2022, after a shooter fired on the Fourth of July parade.
A police officer in Lake Forest, Ill., on July 4, 2022, after a shooter fired on the Fourth of July parade.

Those shootings have happened in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, California, Illinois, Arizona, Texas, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Colorado, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Indiana, Nebraska, New Jersey, Wisconsin, South Carolina … well, you get the idea.

In each of those states – in every state, really, as gun violence permeates the nooks and crannies of this nation – there are lives torn asunder, never to be right again. And in every mass shooting, there are two factors that will always matter more than any motive: a human with enough hate to kill, and a gun that helped that person do the killing.

Take either of those factors away and you have a far different story to tell.

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The same thing that keeps happening has happened again

We should be repulsed by any and all mass shootings, be it Monterey Park or Highland Park or the Buffalo grocery store shooting or Half Moon Bay or the dozens upon dozens of mass killings that go largely unnoticed.

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A motive doesn’t bring back the dead or dampen the horror. We can't let ourselves become so inured to America's murderous rhythm that we need to know more before we let ourselves feel. Having lived around Chicago violence for two decades, it's something I have to remind myself of more often than I'd care to admit.

All we need to know when news breaks of any mass shooting is this: The same thing that keeps happening has happened again. If we hold off on reacting until we can blame something other than the hate in the shooter or the gun in his hand, we’re never going to stop a thing.

Follow USA TODAY columnist Rex Huppke on Twitter @RexHuppke and Facebook, or contact him at

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Monterey Park, Half Moon Bay shooting motive shouldn't steal our focus