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America’s mass numbness

WASHINGTON — If you think it’ll be a month of Sundays before this country gets serious about gun violence, you’re probably underestimating.

It’s already been nearly three months of Mondays — 77, to be exact — and we’re not making progress.

After the July 2012 shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., a group of Washington women — a preschool teacher, a retired principal and a few friends — resolved to meet outside the White House every Monday until the nation comes to its senses on guns.

They’ve missed only a couple of Mondays since then because of extreme weather, and they’ve been there through the Navy Yard shootings, the Sikh temple shootings in Wisconsin and the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., among others, and they’ve been keeping a running list of victims.

“There are 68 mass shootings on our timeline,” said Linda Finkel-Talvadkar, the retired principal.

“Or was it 90?” inquired Barbara Elsas, the preschool teacher. “Shoot!”

On second thought, don’t shoot.

I had come to see the gun-control activists because of the shootings Saturday at a mall in Columbia, Md., 25 miles outside Washington. For a few hours, cable news went with the story, but the incident quickly faded into a collective ho-hum. It apparently wasn’t a terrorist — police at this writing are still searching for a motive — and only three people were killed, including the shooter. That falls short of the standard “mass murder” definition, which requires four deaths, not including the shooter.

By any definition, the level of gun violence is obscene. USA Today reported last month that 934 people had died in mass shootings over the past seven years, and that’s only 1 percent of all gun-related homicides. The newspaper’s tally, including incidents in which four or more people were killed, was 146 mass shootings since 2006.

A crowd-sourced count on Reddit of any gun incident in which four or more were shot found 365 mass shootings in 2013 alone. The liberal Center for American Progress’ ThinkProgress blog found that in the first 14 school days of this year, there had been at least seven school shootings of all types, compared with 28 in all of 2013.

With so many shootings, it’s perhaps inevitable that the Columbia incident seems almost routine. The weapon used, a 12-gauge Mossberg shotgun, was ordinary, and the shooter reportedly had no criminal record and bought the gun legally.

But it is this sort of numbness that the women outside the White House are trying to counteract with their weekly vigils. They stand in the closed-to-traffic stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue, as few as two of them and as many as a dozen, wearing “Stop gun violence” pins and yellow crime-scene tape, and buttonholing passersby during lunch hour.

The women are not motivated by any personal connection to gun violence but by a generalized outrage. They have been involved in demonstrations since the civil rights and Vietnam War movements of the 1960s, but nothing recurring like this.

At first, they had plenty of company outside the White House from the Brady Campaign and other gun-control organizations, but “after Newtown, those groups got swamped,” Elsas said, and the groups decamped to work on gun legislation that ultimately failed.

The friends remained, and they’re disappointed that their action — and gun control in general — has not gained more news media attention. They said most of the interest has been from foreign media — Russian, German, Japanese — that are curious about American gun culture.

Yet the women continue, week after week. On Monday, a strong wind was blowing their signs down the street and one of their trash bags over the fence and onto the White House lawn. Moments later, the wind toppled their supply cart, to which was taped a Margaret Mead quotation about a small group of committed citizens changing the world. Another gust sent a protest sign at Elsas’ head, knocking off her glasses.

I asked if they worried they might become part of the scenery, like the nearby anti-nukes encampment, or the ubiquitous Falun Gong demonstrators who also were on location Monday.

Elsas said they aren’t concerned about that, “because, unfortunately, these shootings keep happening.” And the women can point to small triumphs from their conversations — 100 per week, they say — including the time they won over two pro-gun skateboarders who decided to join their protest.

“We haven’t given up hope,” Elsas said.

Real gun control, Finkel-Talvadkar added, “will happen in our lifetime.”

Good health, ladies.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank. (c) 2014, Washington Post Writers Group

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