Scanning the headlines one morning recently, I came across the sad and disturbing story of a man who was fatally shot in a Florida movie theater while arguing with a retired police officer over texting during the previews – the previews! After reading the account in The Times, I was curious to see how other news outlets were covering the story. So, not recalling the city where the shooting took place, I typed into Google search “Florida man shot.” But before I could finish typing “in movie theater,” Google’s helpful autocomplete feature, which tries to predict what you might really be looking for, offered some surprising suggestions:
Google autocomplete has often been criticized (or praised) as a window into the collective unconscious of the Internet – a semi-secret algorithm based on a given search query’s popularity, the searcher’s location, online activity, and only Google knows what else. But who would have guessed that a significant number of people were searching for news about a man shot by his dog, let alone that such a thing was even possible? More than that, the small yet unexpected variations in the repetition of “Florida man shot” search results had a profoundly unsettling effect on me; I had opened a door to a tableaux of misery and absurdity for which I was completely unprepared.
So I decided to conduct an experiment: I searched for other states with the suffix “man shot” to see what Google autocomplete would recommend. It turns out that Florida isn’t the only place where dogs are packing.
And then there’s this:
As a proud dog owner (mine is a 5-year-old vizsla named Jasper), let me just say that to be shot by your “own” dog, not some stray or the ornery mutt of a jilted ex lover or business partner, seems especially humiliating. (Mitt Romney was very wise to disarm Seamus before strapping him to the car roof.)
A tour through several other states revealed other bizarre incidents that sparked the curiosity of Google searchers, like the last suggestion in this series in Oklahoma:
Or the sad irony in the last result in Montana:
And even when I searched in some sparsely populated states, hoping to find some relief, a popular search turned out to be for a resident who had been shot someplace else — someplace all too familiar:
But as I searched state after state, what little dark humor there was began to fade, replaced instead by the unrelenting litany of gun violence. In every state, in every major city, someone was shooting or getting shot – by the police, at the police, in the head, in the face, in the back, in the back by the police (in California), by a boss, by a burglar, on a porch, after a car accident, asking for directions, in a hospital, at a Taco Bell, while hunting, while sleeping, at a mall, in a carjacking, over an iPad, his baby, his daughter, his son, his wife, a prostitute, a pastor, an autistic man, himself, 10 times, 41 times, 50 times, 60 times — and Google was there to help us search for it all.
None of this is surprising, of course. We are a nation drowning in guns and in the blood of gun violence, though we can’t agree on whether the problem is too many guns or too few. For a moment it seemed as though the slaughter of children at Sandy Hook would spur political leaders and activists on both sides of the debate to have a sensible dialogue — or at the very least shake even the most hardened gun rights advocates into realizing that something needed to change.
Instead, the arguments have become even more shrill, with no meaningful progress anywhere. Perhaps this too is to be expected, as both sides retreat to the extremes. Still, it seems inconceivable that we cannot find a way to protect the rights of gun owners, the vast majority of whom are (thankfully) law abiding citizens, without violating the rights of everyone else. Even more puzzling is why more people are not outraged and disgusted with the lethal consequences of the current state of our gun laws — and the lethal consequences of our inaction.
Perhaps we should blame the usual suspect, The Media, which for the most part covers this ever unfolding story as isolated, disconnected incidents. And as we read each individual account, we, too, tend to see these shootings as flashes of violence all happening someplace else and to somebody else far away, like watching lightning strike in the distance, rather than a bloody, nation-wide pandemic that is all around us. Fortunately, we have Google to help make us aware that a pandemic is precisely what it is.
I didn’t have the stomach to expand my exploration to include “[STATE] woman shot,” “child shot,” and other variations, though I probably will get around to it eventually. Instead, I paged through my initial searches looking for something, anything hopeful. But all I could find was the penultimate search suggestion for Iowa:
Clicking on the link, I learned that an Iowa man had killed a one-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever, named Wrigley, who had strayed into his yard while playing in the snow with another dog. The 56-year-old shooter, who said he felt afraid after Wrigley growled at him, claimed self-defense. It took a jury just 30 minutes to convict him of animal abuse, though he received a suspended sentence. It seemed an outrageously lenient slap on the wrists, given the senseless cruelty of the crime.
What do we do about this sort of thing, about any of it? The solution, at least in this case, is obvious, and I’m sure the N.R.A. would agree: We need to follow the example of states like Utah and Florida and allow more dogs to carry guns.