It wasn't the biggest mass murder in America in 2018, not by a long shot. That badge of dishonor, of course, belongs to the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where a gunman mowed down 17 students and teachers on Valentine's Day. Still, there was something about the grisly events under the pale fluorescent light of a Waffle House restaurant just outside of Nashville — where gunshots shattered the 3 a.m. predawn quiet of a Sunday morning and mowed down four promising young adults — that tapped almost every nerve in our jangled nation.

Start with the venue — a Waffle House, a restaurant chain I was going to describe as "uniquely American" until I saw a New York Times opinion writer beat me to it by two days. Anyway, these square huts with their anodyne, early-1960s architecture, ubiquitous at the end of almost every interstate exit ramp in the American South, have a reputation for folksiness and American grit — unfazed by natural disasters. And yet the Waffle House can also reveal our darker side, as shown by the disturbing police takedown of a female black customer that occurred at an Alabama outlet just as the nation was grieving over Nashville.

That a half-clothed 29-year-old man could casually walk into a Waffle House and start picking off customers with a Bushmaster semi-automatic AR-15-style rifle is another reminder that in the developed nation with the laxest gun laws that has led to the most guns per citizen, by far, no place — school, church, or public gathering spot — is safe. Indeed, it was the second mass shooting in the Antioch area of metro Nashville in less than eight months; last September a man in a ski mask walked into a nearby church and shot seven people, killing one. The Waffle House tragedy also marked the eighth shooting incident so far in 2018 where four or more people have been murdered. It's only April.

But the Waffle House killings managed to tap more deeply into the national zeitgeist than those other cases. There were loud overtones of race — it was hard not to notice that the customers and staff targeted by the white male gunman were all black or Hispanic — and politics, with reports that the killer (we don't use their names here at Attytood) considered himself a "sovereign citizen" not bound by U.S. law and that he'd tried to barge into the White House to discuss those things with President Trump, instead getting himself arrested.

Speaking of Trump, there was the usual — and deserved — online grumbling over why the president tweets about so many trivial things but refused to acknowledge the pain of this hate crime in the American Heartland. Instead, it was left to us everyday citizens to wonder why bail was initially set (at $2 million, but revoked while I was writing this) for an alleged mass killer with clear signs of mental illness, or how come armed white murderers are usually arrested without incident in a country where holding a cell phone can be a death sentence for suspects who happen to be black.

The racial grievance was amplified by the fact that the hero of the Waffle House saga — who undoubtedly saved lives by grabbing the Bushmaster semi-automatic from the gunman — is a remarkable young African-American named James Shaw Jr. , a 29-year-old electrician and father who was recovering with a wound to his arm from battling the killer yet still found time to also launch a GoFund page to aid the families of those who were murdered.

James Shaw, right, gets a hug from Waffle House CEO Walt Ehmer during a press conference on the Waffle House shooting. Shaw wrestled the gun from the suspect.
James Shaw, right, gets a hug from Waffle House CEO Walt Ehmer during a press conference on the Waffle House shooting. Shaw wrestled the gun from the suspect.

Shaw's split-second, life-saving actions were a reminder, amid the bleakness of that Sunday morning, of just how how good Americans can be in a crisis, but they also spoke to something else.

Gun laws.

Shaw was only able to disarm the killer — who'd begun firing through the plate glass windows even before entering the Waffle House — because when the gunman finally got inside, he needed to stop to reload. Indeed, the effectiveness of semi-automatic weapons is, in part, a function of the number of bullets held by each magazine. The sooner that a shooter runs out of bullets, it only stands to reason, the fewer people he can kill before a good guy — in this case one without a gun — has a chance to fight him off.

"If you have fewer bullets, you'll have less targets," said Shira Goodman, who has been executive director of the anti-gun-violence group CeaseFirePA and is now on leave while running for Congress as a Democrat in Montgomery County. "If you have to change magazines more frequently, it gives people more time to get away." Goodman noted that several high-profile mass shootings ended when the gunman stopped to change magazines and police or heroic citizens arrived. But Pennsylvania legislation that would restrict magazines to 15 bullets remains stalled — like most common-sense gun-safety proposals.

Not many Americans want to repeal the Second Amendment or quibble with the rights of Americans to own a weapon for hunting game, or for self-defense by a responsible citizens who might confront a robber or an intruder. But weapons of war like the Bushmaster XM-15 or the high-capacity magazines used in mass killings from Orlando to Las Vegas aren't for hunting deer or confronting a burglar. They exist to kill large numbers of human beings.

You don't need a degree in rocket science, or bullet science, to see a path forward here.

  • Ban high-capacity magazines (variously interpreted as the ability to hold more than 20 rounds, but often no more than 10), which has already been accomplished in nine states and the District of Columbia. There's no moral justification for the ability to kill so many so quickly, nor is there a valid argument that Founding Fathers ever intended to protect this.
  • Return to the federal assault weapon ban that was in place — albeit with significant loopholes — in America from 1994 until 2004 and which, studies have since shown, helped reduce deaths in mass shootings during those years. Every high-profile mass-shooting tragedy — Las Vegas, Parkland, Newtown, etc. — was carried out with the AR-15-style rifle used again on Sunday in Nashville. Yes, America is now flooded with these. It's still not too late, however, to say, "Enough!"
  • The bizarre story of how the 29-year-old even had his firearms — confiscated by authorities because of his White House arrest and other seemingly psychotic incidents, yet returned to the man's dad who eventually gave them back to his son — shows yet again how much work America needs to do to keep deadly weapons from people who display a potential for violence. Look, there's no easy answer when you start asking the government, or anyone else, to determine who has the potential to be a killer. But the Waffle House tragedy suggests that we're not even trying very hard to find one. At the least, let's have an A-list blue-ribbon panel look for solutions.

A remarkable thing has happened in little more than two months since the high school massacre in Parkland. A mass movement — conceived by, and led by, young people — has walked out of classrooms and taken to the streets to urge America's lawmakers to pass new gun laws, to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines or make it harder for young people to buy them. But — with the exception of Parkland's home state of Florida — the impact has been minimal … so far.

Real change probably can't happen until 2019, after voters have had a chance to elect state lawmakers and a new Congress that aren't beholden to the NRA. But that change is long overdue. Because we can't always depend on a good guy without a gun like James Shaw Jr. to be in the right place at the right time. We need some good guys with some good pieces of common-sense legislation.