Tarke is a retired county of San Diego mental health services deputy director. In 1984, while at the San Ysidro Health Center, he coordinated the county’s mental health treatment for victims of the San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre. He lives in La Mesa.
On July 18, 1984, a lone gunman walked into the McDonald’s in San Ysidro, armed with a semi-automatic pistol, a semi-automatic rifle and a shotgun. He shot and killed 21 restaurant patrons and workers in what was then the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history. Nearly half of the victims were under 21 years old. Five were under 12. One was 8 months old.
Nearly 40 years later, the McDonald’s massacre is tied for the eighth deadliest mass shooting in recent US history with the May 24 Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas. There, a lone gunman armed with a semi-automatic rifle also shot and killed 21 people. Nineteen were students. Two were teachers. In both instances, the gunmen were killed by law enforcement but not before they perpetrated unspeakable grief on their victims, on numerous families, on the surrounding communities and on the entire country.
I coordinated the mental health treatment for victims and the community in the aftermath of the McDonald’s massacre, and I will never forget those days.
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Victims, families and witnesses suffered immense grief, fear, anxiety, and an inability to tolerate loud noises or calm themselves. Many of the impaired concentration and overwhelming feelings of depression, agitation or feeling numb. Counselors and therapists let grieving people talk about what had happened at their own pace and encouraged them to resume normal routines, limit television, try to sleep regular hours and reach out to friends, family and spiritual supports. We also reassured them that their unbearable grief and trauma would get better in time.
Since that time, like all Americans, I have read or heard of numerous acts of violence that have continued to take place in this country. These acts are often similar. They are inflicted upon people living their everyday lives and who are usually in a group situation. These include churchgoers, schoolchildren, fans of nightclubs and music events, workplace employees, airport travelers, and in restaurants, grocery stores and even military bases. These acts usually involve a lone gunman who is armed with guns used by the military but available to the civilian population.
Every time there is a mass shooting, people initially seem shocked as they make comparisons in their minds with other shootings: How many were killed at Columbine High School? Sandy Hook Elementary School? What about that nightclub in Orlando, Florida? The festival in Las Vegas?
What is often forgotten are the hundreds of shootings that have taken place since that summer day in 1984. So many have occurred that databases have been created to keep track of these killings. Databases that are often updated weekly. One can easily Google these databases and be horrified by the information they contain, but we remember many of these sad shootings. The numbers of those killed are staggering. They include the Las Vegas festival shooting in 2017 (60 killed); the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016 (49); the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 (32); the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 (27); the Sutherland Springs, Texas, church shooting in 2017 (26); the Luby’s Cafeteria massacre in Killeen, Texas (23); the El Paso, Texas, Walmart shooting in 2019 (23); the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, in 2018 (17); the University of Texas shooting in 1966 (17); and of course, Columbine High School in 1999 (13). The list is too long.
When the latest shooting occurs, we are outraged and look for solutions such as addressing mental illness, terrorism, domestic violence. What we do not do is limit access to guns. Can we at least take steps to stop the increased proliferation of semi-automatic rifles? Can we implement reasonable background checks that prevent those who have no business having guns from getting them? Can we prevent the sale of ghost guns? This is not about taking away guns. It is about beginning the process of turning us into a less violent society.
I believe that as Americans, we can do two things that will help to end the cycle of violence.
First, never forget the killings that have previously occurred. Certainly, the families and friends of these victims do not forget. They will forever be impacted by their grief. The rest of us should never be complacent or breathe a sigh of relief when we hear that only two people were killed, as we first heard about the school shooting in Texas last month, and then be outraged when we find out it was 21. All these deaths are too many.
Second, elect politicians who have the political will to implement laws that will stop the terrible gun violence epidemic in this country. Contrary to those who believe there is no solution, we are near the goal posts. The majority of legislators in the House of Representatives are willing to pass meaningful legislation. The Senate is close. The road is a long one, but together we can do it.