Tragedy strikes and everyone asks the same question: Why?

Why, after Knightdale High School was dismissed Thursday afternoon and students were bused back to their respective suburban homes, did 15-year-old Austin Thompson, a baby-faced sophomore, allegedly shoot and kill his own brother in his home in Hedingham before walking outside to slaughter four neighbors?

Why did Thompson supposedly wear all camouflage while carrying out the massacre, which occurred on his terrifying path along a popular walking trail that twists through the golf courses that span the typically quiet, peaceful neighborhood?

Why, after an hours-long manhunt and standoff with police, did Thompson end up in critical condition, with life-threatening injuries, from which he still remains hospitalized?

Why did any of this have to happen?

It didn’t. And the only answer that matters is the simplest.

It happened because he had guns.

“We must stop this mindless violence in America. We must address gun violence,” Raleigh mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin said in a press conference just hours after the mass shooting, her face stricken with grief and anguish. “We have much to do, and tonight we have much to mourn.”

This week, the Raleigh community continued to reel from last week’s massacre, which left five residents dead, including an off-duty police officer, and two more injured. The victims range in age from 16 to 52.

James Roger Thompson, a junior at Knightdale High School, was found dead inside the family’s modest 1,200-square-foot home. Two doors down, Nicole Connors was shot on her front porch and found by her husband, who’d gone out to buy light bulbs and returned to find his wife and their beloved dog Sami shot dead at her feet. A five-day report from Raleigh police indicated that Connors died at the hospital. Raleigh police officer Gabriel Torres was on his way to work when he was shot. He died at the hospital, too, according to the report. Ultramarathoner and mother of three Susan Karnatz was running along the greenway when she was shot and killed. Mary Marshall was on the phone with her fiancé when she heard gunshots and went chasing after her dog who’d slipped out of its collar, when she encountered the gunman.

Why did any of them have to die?

That’s the questionThe News & Observer posed to readers Sunday, publishing a front page honoring the victims whose names were spelled out in white over a background inked in solid black, a single word hanging above the names of the dead: Why?

There was no reporting on the front page, but the inside pages of the nationally owned print newspaper contained detailed coverage from journalists that spent the weekend tirelessly reporting the massacre as it unfolded and the devastation left in its wake. Heartbreaking stories revealed the lives of the victims and the unspeakable grief of loved ones left behind. Editorials called out how routine such massacres have become in the United States.

The United States has more guns than anywhere else in the world. There are more guns than there are people: 393 million guns in a country of 330 million people, according to Bloomberg News. That’s a little over 120 guns per every 100 people, by far the largest ratio in the world (the second is Yemen, which has about 53 guns for every 100 people). Since the pandemic, gun ownership has been on the rise. In 2020, background checks for firearm purchases jumped 40 percent from the previous year.

In 2022 so far, there have been 35,424 deaths due to gun violence (as of Tuesday at noon) according to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive, a national database dedicated to tracking gun violence in the United States. There have been 545 mass shootings. In North Carolina, from 2014 through 2022, there have been 5,325 gun deaths and 112 mass shootings. On Sunday, a two-year-old in Benson shot himself with his father’s handgun and died. Again this weekend, Hedingham was set on edge when police responded to shots fired inside another residence in the neighborhood.

Every day there are more shootings, more dead, more families left mourning, and more communities devastated. But of course, no article or editorial from the past few days comes close to answering the all-consuming question of “Why?”

By nine p.m., city officials confirmed the gunman was “contained but not in custody.” Shortly thereafter, Austin Thompson, who police radio traffic indicated was located in a barn about a mile northeast of where the shooting started, would be taken to the hospital. WRAL reports that the suspect had a second firearm in addition to a shotgun, according to radio traffic. (The five-day report clarified Thursday that the suspect was found with a handgun in his waistband and a shotgun with multiple shells.) The threat was over, but it would be hours before the flashing red and blue lights of police cruisers and sounds of helicopter blades circling overhead would leave the neighborhood.

Latecia Morse lives across the street from the shooter and can see the yellow police tape that still ropes off the Thompson home from her front doorstep.

Morse steps out onto the porch with me while her granddaughter paws at the screen door from inside. The day is idyllic, warm, and sunny, the leaves on the trees still a vivacious green.

“This is the first time I’ve been outside since it happened,” Morse says. “I just wanted to make sure it was safe. When something like this happens it makes you nervous about going out.”

She’s not alone. A few houses away, Michelle Cole says she now looks up and down the street on the way to check her mailbox.

“Everybody seems like they are trying to get back to life as usual, but the energy is off,” Cole says.

Morse says she remembers seeing the Thompson boys often, but no one memory stands out. She never spoke directly to them but recalled they’d ride bicycles in circles in the driveway but never wander beyond the boundaries of the property.

“They didn’t come out of the driveway …. They were confined to the area,” Morse says. “They seemed pretty normal.”

For two days, I knock on doors and interview shell-shocked neighbors while reporting for national news outlets, trying to gather any detail I can about the shooter, the main priority for the national publications. Few are to be found.

Tracey Howard, Connors’s widower, who lives just two doors down from the Thompsons, says the boy was quiet and described antisocial behavior. Lavarius Thompson (no relation), another resident six houses down, says he noticed “something disturbing” about the teenager but didn’t go into detail about what exactly.

Most neighbors never spoke to the boys. The most intimate glimpse into their lives was a peek inside the front door to the Thompson home left briefly ajar by officers investigating. Three photos hang on the wall next to the door, containing the dark silhouettes of what appear to be two children. In all likelihood, two boys.

Two photos of the accused teen killer have been circulating online. One is a photo taken on the front porch of the home, where Austin Thompson stands next to his brother James, who is just a year older but several inches taller. Both boys are wearing black athletic T-shirts. James flashes a forced half smile, while Austin’s mouth is clamped shut, his brow slightly furrowed above beady eyes.

The other photo is Austin Thompson’s yearbook photo. His dark eyes stare ominously at the camera, lips slightly pursed.

Do those lips contain the answers we seek? What would they tell us? What would we ask?

Was Austin Thompson the victim of bullying? Was he radicalized on the internet? What kind of music did he listen to? What video games did he play?

Did anyone think to ask him,

“Are you OK?”

Mental health and violence in the media are important discussions to have—and ones we should keep having—but do not mistake them for why.

Is “Why?” even a relevant question anymore?

Austin Thompson’s parents have not spoken to the media since the horrific killing spree. One reporter told me the father, Alan Thompson, answered a phone call but promptly hung up. Howard told me Alan Thompson was a friendly face in the neighborhood, eager to say hi or chat about sports.

According to the North Carolina State Board of Elections, Alan Thompson is a registered Republican and has voted in the last five Republican primaries, including the most recent one in May.

Early voting for the November election begins this week. At the top of the ballot, for a U.S. Senate seat, residents will be faced with one of the state’s most competitive and impactful races, which pits Republican congressman and gun shop owner Ted Budd against former chief justice of the state supreme court Cheri Beasley, proponent of measures that would curb gun violence.

After the shooting, Beasley tweeted to her 62,000 followers, “We all have a responsibility to prevent avoidable tragedies like last night from happening in other communities.”

Budd tweeted that he was “praying” for the victims and police officers, before quickly pivoting to the topic of “#Bidenflation.”

Polling puts Beasley and Budd neck and neck in a race that may determine what party controls the U.S. Senate: the party pushing for gun control or the one fighting it tooth and nail.

By Monday, the national press had mostly moved on. News vans no longer scoured the neighborhood. About 150 people attended a vigil for the victims, lighting candles and shedding tears.

Back in Hedingham, yellow police tape is still wrapped around the Thompson residence. It’s quiet, as residents say it usually is. On the golf course just a few hundred feet away from the home where the rampage began, a group of men are teeing off. Down the street, a couple walks their pug and pushes a baby stroller. A heart-shaped balloon dances in the wind at the bricked entrance to the neighborhood, surrounded by the many flowers and candles left by mourners to honor the dead.

Wake County district attorney Lorrin Freeman says she plans to charge Austin Thompson as an adult—that is, if he survives. Thompson was still clinging to life from a hospital bed Tuesday when this paper went to print.

Police are expected to release a five-day report Thursday. It will have a detailed narrative of events but likely few answers to satisfy our national obsession with “Why?”

Why are we even asking anymore?

We know why.

It’s because of all the guns.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with clarifications from the Raleigh police department’s five-day report. 

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