Half-Staff Nation: The United States of Slaughter

Should President Biden just go ahead and order all U.S. flags to be flown at half-staff until further notice? Without a doubt, the next mass shooting is coming any day. They now occur so frequently the memorials blur together.

Between honoring the more than half a million Americans who have died of COVID-19, the victims of mass shootings, and the late former vice president Walter Mondale, Biden has ordered flags lowered to half-staff six times since he was inaugurated.

Critics have attacked Biden’s half-staff proclamations as “virtue signaling” and departures from traditional flag-lowering protocol. They argue that lowering flags to half-staff should be reserved for deceased public figures, like Mondale, military casualties and national tragedies, like 9/11.

If 570,000 deaths from the coronavirus isn’t a national tragedy, what counts? If civilian gun deaths at the current pace are not a uniquely American tragedy, what is? U.S. COVID-19 deaths now outnumber combat deaths in the Civil War, and World Wars I and II combined. In 2019, U.S. gun deaths—willful, accidental and suicides reached about 40,000—surpassing that year’s 36,096 traffic fatalities.

Biden has ordered flags lowered to half-staff six times since he was inaugurated.

More Half-Staff Orders Coming

Folks who fly flags need to stay alert and should probably oil their pulleys. The senseless slaughter of ordinary people at the hands of deranged gunmen (almost always men) won’t be ending anytime soon. Nor will the more than 24,000 annual gun suicides.

How can we know these tragedies will continue unabated?


  • Thoughts and prayers will not slow the slaughter.
  • Public platitudes about the sanctity of life belie our society’s startling capacity to shrug off carnage.
  • Partisan politics are so toxic that elected officials fear louder, hardline members of their own party will primary them more than they fear general election voters will boot them out for not doing their jobs.
  • A zealous, well-funded minority asserts an “originalist” interpretation of the Second Amendment to sanction civilian ownership of weapons the founders could not imagine, like the AR-15 that places in one person’s hands the firepower of 30 musketeers.

If the slaughter of 20 Sandy Hook Elementary students and six teachers in 2012, or the high-rise sniping spree that killed 59 and injured more than 500 Las Vegas concertgoers in 2017, could not spur this country to some kind of action, what horrific future event could?

Politicizing public health

Our pandemic response demonstrates how proven public health measures to control community spread of a respiratory virus can be politicized. From its founding, the United States has struggled to balance individual liberty with the greater good. Decades of politicians preaching privatization while denigrating public goods (and the taxes that pay for them) have hurt schools, allowed infrastructure to crumble and placed health care out of reach for many. It has atomized the electorate and weakened social bonds. Scaring people with claims that the government is taking away their freedom distracts from failure to “promote the general Welfare”—a Constitutional aim set forth in the preamble.

Stoking doubt and fear twists scientifically measurable policies, such as masks, social distancing and vaccinations, into conspiracies and power grabs. As a result, the coming months will bring many additional preventable COVID-19 deaths, despite freely available, super-effective vaccines.

Second Amendment fundamentalists use the same strategy to resist every gun safety proposal, from universal background checks to red-flag laws to limiting ammunition capacity. “They’re coming for your guns,” they say. And their strategy seems to be working.

Public Opinion

A new Pew Research Center poll found that a narrow majority of Americans (53%) favor stricter gun laws overall. (Pew conducted the poll after mass shootings killed eight people in Atlanta and 10 in Boulder, Colo., but before another eight died in Indianapolis.)

When asked about specific gun policy proposals, however, more than 80% of Americans “somewhat favor” or “strongly favor” expanding background checks to private gun sales and preventing people with mental illness from buying guns. And more than 60% favor a federal database and bans on high-capacity magazines and assault-style weapons.

But as with so many issues, the partisan divide is growing. While 73% of Democrats consider gun violence a major problem, only 18% of Republicans think so. That gap is 19 points wider than in 2016. Republicans not only believe new laws wouldn’t help, 56% say that if more people owned guns, there would be less crime. Democrats feel exactly the opposite, with 55% convinced more guns will increase crime.

These figures and past experience suggest we are a long way from enacting laws that might reduce the slaughter. Too many Americans remain comfortable averting their gaze as the pile of bodies grows.

Leaving flags at half-staff indefinitely would be a daily reminder of the reality of this ongoing national trauma.

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Eric F. Frazier

Eric F. Frazier is an independent writer, editor, book reviewer and co-author of GPS Declassified: From Smart Bombs to Smartphones.