Twenty-five years ago this week at Jamaica Station in Queens, Colin Ferguson boarded an evening Long Island Rail Road train headed from Penn Station to Hicksville. As the train approached the Merillon Avenue Station in Garden City Park, Ferguson pulled out a pistol, a 9 mm semiautomatic holding 15 rounds, and opened fire. When Ferguson’s magazine was empty, he replaced it with one of his three backups and resumed firing. Six people were killed. Nineteen were seriously injured. Long Island was shattered. And the nation was shaken by the shooting in a way it no longer is.
In the 11 years before the LIRR shootings, there were 16 incidents of mass murder in the United States in which at least four people were killed in attacks. In the four years following Ferguson’s spree, there were five.
But in the four years following the murders of 27 schoolchildren and adults in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, there were 16 such incidents — more than three times as many. And in the 3 1⁄2 years since Dylann Roof killed nine African-American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, there have been 20 such incidents of mass murder.
The United States averaged one mass murder by gunfire every 200 days between 1982 and 2011, and about one every 60 days since.
Without an internet search, how many of us can name the last three mass murders in the United States? How about just the most recent one? These days it takes a particularly high number of fatalities, like the 58 killed last year in Las Vegas, or a particularly notable setting, like the synagogue in Pittsburgh where 11 died in October, to stick in our memory.
But what Colin Ferguson did on Dec. 7, 1993, stunned New Yorkers and the nation for years. It was a heartbreaking and sensational tragedy.
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Ferguson, now serving a 315-year sentence upstate, was 35 when he launched his attack. His privileged childhood had devolved into an adulthood of failures. He came to the United States in 1982 and married an American woman in 1986, but the marriage quickly faltered. Ferguson bounced from one low-paying job to another and attended Nassau Community College and Adelphi University, causing trouble at both. He blamed his problems on racism. He hated white people. He was scary and offensive and erratic. And early in 1993, while in California for a few months, he paid $400 for a pistol he applied for using a recently acquired California driver’s license, and got his gun after a 15-day waiting period. Then he came back to New York, and wreaked havoc.
The trial was bizarre, with Ferguson representing himself after firing famed lawyers William Kunstler and Ron Kuby. They wanted to claim he was temporarily insane, consumed with “black rage.” His own deluded defense was that his gun was stolen after he brought it on the train by someone who then did the shooting.
The killings helped usher in some changes in gun laws that, unfortunately, didn’t last. In 1994, spurred partly by the LIRR killings, Congress outlawed magazines holding more than 10 rounds, and assault weapons. But that law expired in 2004.
Carolyn McCarthy, elected to Congress from Mineola on a gun-control platform in 1996 after Ferguson killed her husband and wounded her son, retired in 2015 with federal gun laws much the same as when she arrived. News stories and opinion pieces on gun violence today are often distressingly similar to those from the 1990s. They feature debates on the proper definition of an assault weapon or oversized magazine, arguments on when bullets or accessories are too deadly, and fights over the National Rifle Association.
The conversations about cause and prevention haven’t changed much, either, from the need for more mental health services to the deterioration of the family to the easy availability of weapons garnered legally or illegally.
Newsday’s pages featured the story of Ferguson for years. In 1995, The Washington Post was still editorializing about LIRR survivors coming to Congress to fight for gun control. Barbra Streisand made a televison movie about the shooting and McCarthy’s crusade five years after the tragedy.
Most mass killings in the United States today have become as forgettable as individual mile markers on an endless highway. We’ve internalized the lesson that there are no public spaces safe from slaughter. We’ve seen exceptionally shocking events like the school shootings in Newtown and Parkland, Florida, spark hopeful movements that, soon enough, seem to fade away.
But that cannot be. Our dwindling shock in response to these massacres must itself be a call to action. We have in the past been a nation with far fewer mass murders and more reasonable gun restrictions, that placed a higher value on human life. We can become a nation with better diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, and more of the social connections that prevent murderous alienation and hatred, and detect them.
Future anniversaries must be marked by better news.