For politics junkies, cultural rot seems to come up in every conversation about the state of the nation. After small talk about kids and dogs and the latest home improvement projects, the topic always veers toward the world we’re leaving our kids. The homelessness and poverty and violence that anchors New Mexico to the bottom of national well-being rankings. Record homicides. Record suicides. Drug addiction.
One story always comes to my mind as an example of how little hope is left: the murder of a 52-year-old at a movie theater in Albuquerque this June.
It didn’t receive the attention of some of New Mexico’s more sensational murders: Lilly Garcia or Victoria Martens, or the Muslim homicides of 2022, for example. But neither was it the usual drug-deal-gone-wrong-type story that Albuquerque residents see so often on the evening news.
The movie theater shooting was different, and tragic beyond the body it left.
Two couples went to a romantic comedy and a dispute began over reserved seats. One couple didn’t have seats together and the other couple was asked to move. Words were exchanged, everybody sat, but the dispute continued. The shooter, 19 years old, threw his popcorn at the other couple, prompting the man to stand up and shove him against the wall. Shots rang out, and another family was forced to carry on without a father.
The movie: “No Hard Feelings.”
For sure, the Bennie Hargrove story is a worse example, because it was a child who was murdered, and a child killer. It was heinous.
But the Hargrove murder was a national tragedy. It drove the gun control narrative for a few days, as expected. The New Mexico legislature even passed a “Bennie Hargrove” law to prosecute parents if their kids use their guns in crimes. It was the only significant crime bill to earn the governor’s signature this year, and it does nothing to prevent kids from killing kids. It merely slapped cuffs on their parents after the bodies are buried.
The movie theater shooting comes to the fore in conversations about our cultural decline because it was so petty, so easily avoided.
There is no excuse for murder in a situation where your life is not in danger. The shooter has pled not guilty, but his self-defense plea is unlikely to sway a jury. No one can say until you’re in the situation what you would do. When your wife is disrespected, instincts kick in. But I imagine if you asked the people involved if they would handle it differently if they could go back in time, they would not hesitate to.
Four-year-old Lilly Garcia was shot and killed in 2015 following a road rage incident. “If I would have known what I know now about that day, I wouldn’t have swerved,” her father, the driver, said. “My daughter’s life was worth more.”
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s “emergency health order” banning guns in Albuquerque—since blocked by a judge on constitutional grounds—was issued in response to an 11-year-old being murdered after the vehicle he was in cut off another driver.
Imagine killing, or dying, for that.
What does it say about us that we are so quick to respond with vitriol and outrage over such trivial matters? Where has common courtesy gone? The benefit of the doubt? An apologetic wave versus a middle finger. A nod instead of a glare. “Thank you” instead of “Fuck you.”
It’s one of the many things I don’t miss about the city. The scowls and scoffs from childless old women when a family enters a restaurant. The blue-haired lunatics chanting “baby racist!” at your daughter as you walk into a political rally. The homeless who screams at you to fuck a squirrel and die of AIDS for not giving him a cigarette. The gangster machismo on display at every concert and baseball game, just one wrong glance away from escalating to violence.
It’s cold French fry culture, where the slightest offense drive people to murder. Everybody is on edge, everybody is triggered, and everybody is a stranger, making it that much easier to not care.
The homicide rate in Albuquerque has been setting records for several years, so guns are an easy scapegoat. But gun ownership per capita has steadily fallen since the 1970s. The city’s population has barely budged in two decades.
Not that these facts matter.
Even the people who should be raising the bar don’t care to do so. Former Lt. Gov. Diane Denish is a prominent New Mexico Democrat who is fond of rage-tweeting “blood is on your hands” at complete strangers who clearly haven’t killed anyone.
A ridiculous argument, no doubt, but the effect is to fuel rabid partisanship, in both the accuser and the accused.
Gun bans are what abortion was to Republicans before SCOTUS overturned Roe v. Wade last June: a useful issue to campaign on, but one that will cost you politically if you get your way. Republicans learned this in the 2022 midterms. Fortunately for Democrats, they’ll never face the political consequences of banning guns. Abortion isn’t a right protected by the Constitution. Bearing arms is, and repealing the Second Amendment would require two-thirds majorities in both chambers of Congress or two-thirds of the state legislatures. Republicans control the majority of state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives. Banning guns is a pipe dream, which is what makes it such an effective bludgeon. Sowing division turns out votes.
The governor herself brings no unifying energy to the office. From calling her constituents “QAnon lizard people” to outright shaming them for daring to eat dinner with their families during COVID, she is a constant reminder to those on the other side of the political aisle that she does not care about us. President Biden is worse, accusing his opponent’s supporters of being extremists and racists. And no, Trump is no better. People loathe the man.
But this problem goes beyond “leaders.”
The problem is us. Parents. Fathers. Mothers. Media consumers.
We cannot solely blame government for everything that’s wrong with our state. Schools don’t fail because of government bureaucrats or low-quality teachers. They fail because parents don’t care about their kids’ education. City parks and sidewalks are littered not because littering is a growing problem but because too few take pride in their community. The reason young adults don’t work isn’t the economy. It’s because parents let them squat rent-free in their homes well past the age their own parents would have allowed it.
Suicide and drug overdoses aren’t on the rise because our leaders aren’t doing enough. States spend more than ever on services for addiction and homelessness, and the problems only grow.
Last January, an 18-year-old threw her baby in a Dumpster. This January, a 19-year-old killed her newborn baby, leaving it in a trashcan at a hospital. On September 14, 2023, another dead newborn died in a trashcan. Also at a hospital. Also a teen mother.
How do you blame guns for all of this?
Society is the issue.
We make excuses rather than raising the bar for our fellow man. We justify crime by blaming poverty when poverty is the single most remediable problem an individual can face (as Bill Clinton famously said, if you finish high school, work full time, and don’t have kids until marriage your odds of being in poverty are less than 2%. That statistic still stands).
If you dare to criticize bad ideas, you are swiftly labeled a bigot, a racist, a sexist, a homophobe. We excuse shitty attitudes and worse behavior because everyone is a lazy asshole, and who cares anyway.
It’s hard to. For everybody. Myself included.
When you’re screamed at to muzzle and isolate your kids to protect obese liberals from the consequences of their own poor life choices, or when self-proclaimed “patriots” spew insults because they’re afraid to walk the talk when it’s time stand up to tyranny, or when you’re labeled a Nazi for tweeting that parents should feed their own kids instead of allowing government to force-feed them prison slop, it’s increasingly difficult to care about anybody outside your own small circle.
But there are moments of hope.
I first heard a man named Eric Otero speak on Sunday, at the open-carry rally in Old Town. On Monday, he was at the Republican Party press conference, where he said something everybody needs to hear:
“Us as individual citizens need to step up and be proactive people and lead by example. They keep asking, ‘How do you address the gun violence?’ The issue is with the culture. The culture needs to change. We need more God-fearing humans who respect the law of God and aren’t going to kill, aren’t going to steal, and they’re going to watch out for their communities and lead with strength.”
After the small talk about kids and dogs and the latest home improvement projects, maybe reminders like his could come to replace our blackpilled broodings about the dismal future that seems to await us.
We’ve always had guns. We have not always had great leaders. What kept the fabric of America from fraying wasn’t dependent on who was sitting in positions of authority in Santa Fe or Washington. It was the people. Mothers, fathers, neighbors, friends. It was us, and maybe it can be again.
But maybe not.