UCLA Shooting Suspect Identified: Thoughts On Race, Violence, and Graduate Studies

Mainak Sarkar, in an undated photo. (Photo credit: UCLA)
Mainak Sarkar, in an undated photo. (Photo credit: UCLA)

Like many, when I heard that the UCLA campus was on lock-down yesterday due to an on-campus shooting, I braced myself for the worst. Many have scoffed that the spectacle of the mass shooting has become commonplace in today’s America.

Even so, I felt a growing despair as tweets began rolling in from students sheltering in place at UCLA yesterday. There is no story of mass violence that ends well: each is a gruesome spectacle of horror and tragedy, inevitably committed by a person who made the unforgivable decision to weigh their own private angst over the lives of the innocent.

But, yesterday’s events at UCLA gave me pause for extra concern. UCLA is one of the more racially diverse campuses in the United States with over one-third of its undergraduates self-identifying as Asian American or Pacific Islander. It is home to the nation’s largest Asian American Studies departments. I felt certain: a shooting at UCLA was almost certain to reverberate through the AAPI community in unpredictable ways.

I was saddened to learn this morning that — despite early reports that the shooter was a White male — Los Angeles police confirmed the identity of the shooter as former UCLA Mechanical Engineering graduate student Mainak Sarkar, a 38-year-old Bengali American scientist who received his  doctorate in 2013 and his US permanent residency in 2014. Sarkar is suspected of having killed two victims — his ex-wife, Ashley Hasti who was found dead in Hasti’s home in Minnesota, and his former graduate mentor, Prof. William Klug, who was shot in Klug’s office on the UCLA campus — before Sarkar took his own life.

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Masculinity vs. “Misogylinity”: what Asian Americans can learn from #UCSB shooting | #YesAllWomen

The wreckage of Elliot Rodger's black BMW sedan after his deadly shooting rampage Friday evening. (Photo credit: Jae C. Hong / AP)
The wreckage of Elliot Rodger’s black BMW coupe after his deadly shooting rampage Friday evening. (Photo credit: Jae C. Hong / AP)

On Friday evening in the residential neighbourhood of Isla Vista in Santa Barbara, California, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger stabbed his three young Asian American housemates – George Chen, 19 , Weihan “David” Wang, 20, and Chen Yuan “James” Hong, 20 – to death while they slept. Rodger then drove his luxury BMW coupe to the Alpha Phi sorority where he opened fire with two legally purchased handguns on three female passersby; two – Katherine Cooper, 22 and Veronica Weiss, 19 – were killed, while a third is recovering in hospital. Rodger proceeded to the nearby I.V. Deli Mart and fired randomly into the store, killing Christopher Michael-Martinez, 20. He then drove through the streets of Isla Vista, shooting randomly at pedestrians and striking two cyclists with his car; by the end of the night, he had wounded 13. A brief firefight ensued between him and sheriff deputies, which ended when Rodger crashed his car into another vehicle. Rodger was found dead in the drivers’ seat of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

By Saturday, several YouTube videos created by Rodger – including one uploaded just hours before the attack that appeared to offer a motive for the deadly shooting – were discovered, along with a 140-page autobiography-turned-hate-fueled-manifesto. These items, along with Rodger’s frequent posts on BodyBuilding.com and PUAHate.com forum boards paint a disturbing – and disturbingly detailed – portrait of a narcissistic, mentally disturbed, lonely, woman-hating man-child so deeply twisted by American racism, classism, and sexism that he found a way to rationalize mass murder. Sparked by an abundance of macabre primary source material, over two hundred thousand news articles and think-pieces have now been written about Rodger (according to Google’s latest count) and the feminist hashtag #YesAllWomen – initiated in response to Rodger’s documented misogynistic motives – remains one of the top 5 trending topics on Twitter.

I have over the last four days stayed silent on the UCSB shooting as I tried to parse my own thoughts on Friday’s violent attack. I watched some of the YouTube videos and read Rodger’s manifesto.

In the end, I couldn’t shake the same chilling reaction I felt when I first read about Friday night’s violence: I had seen Elliot Rodger’s brand of radical hatred before. I had seen it within the comments section of my own site for a decade. I had seen it from members of my own community.

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If only it didn’t take gun violence to end gun violence

Former representative Gabby Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, attending the sentencing of Jared Lee Loughner.

Earlier yesterday, Jared Lee Loughner — the mentally ill Tucson shooter who killed six people and shot former Representative Gabrielle Giffords in the head — was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to 19 counts including the attempted assassination of a sitting U.S. Congressperson. Many of the surviving victims of the January 8, 2011 shooting were in attendance, including Gabby and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly. Prosecutors spoke about each of the six victims killed by Loughner on that day, and Mark Kelly gave a statement on behalf of himself and Gabby.

Jared Lee Loughner was sentenced to seven life sentences with an addition 140 years in prison. The seven life sentences represent one for each of the six lives he took and one for the attempted assassination of Representative Gabby Giffords.

In his statement (full transcript at CNN), Kelly talks about what Loughner’s crime has cost his family. Kelly remembers Gabby’s vivaciousness, her “gift for language”, and her love of the outdoors — all of which has been taken from her after the shooting. These words ring true .

Twice, I had the opportunity to listen to Gabby speak in-person while I lived in Tucson. The first time, I was in the audience when Gabby visited the Tucson chapter of Drinking Liberally and had a chance to ask her to speak about the future of federal science and technology research funding. The second time, I was in an attendance during a combative debate between Giffords and Republican opponent Jesse Kelly in the race for her re-election months before the January 2011 shooting. In this debate, Giffords was a strong and nimble speaker, defending herself ably against both Kelly and his rambunctious supporters in the audience. The cost of the January 2011 shooting at a local Meet-and Greet held by Gabby is incredibly obvious when one contrasts her current physicality and speech patterns to the spunky Congresswoman she was before the tragedy. Most of the nation only knew Gabby after the shooting; for those of us who knew her before, it’s hard to ignore how much Gabby has changed and how much of the old Congresswoman we knew was lost.

Prior to the January 2011 shooting, Gabby was well-known for being an quick-thinking, and feisty speaker who was often praised for being approachable by her constituents.

But given this opportunity to reflect on the old Gabby also gives me pause to remember the politics of the old Gabby we knew before her January 2011 shooting. In Kelly’s statement at Loughner’s sentencing, he speaks on behalf of both himself and Gabby when he urges the nation to redirect its attention towards stronger gun laws that might prevent any further loss of innocent life through gun violence:

Your decision to commit cold-blooded mass murder also begs of us to look in the mirror. This horrific act warns us to hold our leaders and ourselves responsible for coming up short when we do, for not having the courage to act when it’s hard, even for possessing the wrong values.

We are a people who can watch a young man like you spiral into murderous rampage without choosing to intervene before it is too late.

We have a political class that is afraid to do something as simple as have a meaningful debate about our gun laws and how they are being enforced. We have representatives who look at gun violence,? not as a problem to solve, but as the white elephant in the room to ignore. As a nation we have repeatedly passed up the opportunity to address this issue. After Columbine; after Virginia Tech; after Tucson and after Aurora we have done nothing.

In this state we have elected officials so feckless in their leadership that they would say, as in the case of Governor Jan Brewer, “I don’t think it has anything to do with the size of the magazine or the caliber of the gun.” She went on and said, “Even if the shooter’s weapon had held fewer bullets, he’d have another gun, maybe. He could have three guns in his pocket” – she said this just one week after a high capacity magazine allowed you to kill six and wound 19 others, before being wrestled to the ground while attempting to reload. Or a state legislature that thought it appropriate to busy itself naming an official Arizona state gun just weeks after this tragedy occurred, instead of doing the work it was elected to do: encourage economic growth, help our returning veterans and fix our education system.

The challenges we face are so great, but the leadership in place is so often lacking.

These words are compelling. They are words I agree with. But, it’s strange to me that no one has pointed out that just over two years ago, these would not have been words that Representative Gabby Giffords would have agreed with.

In the nearly two years since the Tucson shooting, media and pundits alike have been silent on Giffords’ stance on gun laws and the Second Amendment, in part in respectful deference to the fact that Giffords had become one of the nation’s most famous political victims of gun violence.

But, while I don’t want to seem insensitive, I do think that today — two years later — it’s worth examining Giffords’ record on gun lawsI don’t do this to be crass, but because I want to make a larger point: it shouldn’t take becoming the victim of gun violence to change one’s position on guns.

Put simply: they like their guns in Arizona. Prior to her shooting, Representative Gabby Giffords was no exception to this rule. Gabby is what’s known as a “Blue Dog Democrat” — a conservative Democrat who, on many social issues, resemble the Republican party; so much so that prior to her shooting, I and others have criticized Gabby as being a Democrat in-name-only. On the topic of gun control, Gabby (like most Arizona Democrats) was as ardent a supporter of the Second Amendment as any Republican.

In the House, Gabby had a few opportunities to vote on the topic of guns, and in almost all cases, she voted in support of more gun access. She voted in favour of teaching NRA-originated gun safety classes in elementary schools in the form of the Eddie Eagle’s GunSafe program. She voted to clarify a pre-existing law in D.C. that prohibited the shooting of wild birds to guarantee residents their Second Amendment rights. She voted to allow for cross-state applicability of conceal and carry permits such that non-residents of a state carrying a government photo ID and a valid CCW permit from another state could legally carry a concealed weapon in accordance with the state they are in, a measure that was supported by Republicans and only 1/4th of Democrats.

Even Hello Kitty likes her guns.

And, perhaps most tellingly, in D.C. the Supreme Court ruled to uphold the over-turning of an assault weapons ban in the District of Columbia vs. Heller case — a ban that was popular in D.C. because of the alarmingly high rates of gun violence in the area. Shortly after the Supreme Court’s decision, Gabby issued a press statement reading:

“As a gun owner, I am a strong supporter of the Second Amendment. In February, I was proud to sign the Amicus Brief in District of Columbia v. Heller asking the Supreme Court to uphold the lower court ruling that overturned the long standing DC gun ban.

This is a common sense decision that reaffirms the Constitutional right – and Arizona tradition – of owning firearms. I commend the Court for ruling in favor of restoring our right to bear arms.”

Later, in 2008, Gabby issued another statement affirming her vote supporting the Second Amendment Rights of D.C. residents. In it, she said:

“As a long-time gun owner, I believe the right to keep and bear arms should not be dependent on the city in which you live,” said Giffords. “The provisions of the U.S. Constitution apply to all Americans, regardless of geography”


“We have a long tradition of gun ownership in the United States,” Giffords said. “It is a tradition which every law-abiding citizen should be able to enjoy.”

Gabby’s record on gun rights while not lock-and-step with hard-core Republicans was sufficiently close that in 2010 she received a “C” rating from the National Rifle Association. That doesn’t sound too great until you consider that this is among the highest rating that the NRA awarded Democrats in Arizona.

Gabby’s voting record, and her 2008 statements in support of the Second Amendment, make sense for an Arizona Democrat representing a fairly conservative-leaning district. But, one can’t help but also wonder if, prior to January 2011, these also made her, as Kelly put it, one of those “representatives who look at gun violence,? not as a problem to solve, but as the white elephant in the room to ignore.”

The bottom line is that the January 2011 shooting in Tucson claimed the lives of six innocent people, and also appears to have fundamentally changed Gabby Giffords. Not just physically, but also politically. Giffords appears to have revised her stance on gun control and gun violence, and is now adamantly in favour of stronger gun laws that limit access of guns to prevent more mass killings as occurred in Virginia Tech and Columbine.

Perhaps, now that Gabby is out of office, she feels freer to speak out in favour of stronger gun control. But, for whatever reason, the  inescapable truth is that it took surviving gun violence for Giffords to change her position on gun control. And, I find that incredibly sad.

In one of the more powerful scenes in Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” documentary, Moore takes two Columbine survivors to “K-mart” headquarters to get a refund on the bullet still lodged in one of the survivors’ bodies. The shooters at Columbine legally purchased their ammunition at a local K-mart store.

Look, I am in no way condoning or defending the shooting of Gabby or anyone else that fateful morning in January 2011, or any other mass shooting that has occurred in this country. These shootings are horrible national tragedies that should not have happened. They could have been avoided. These shootings are never a good thing. No one should have to suffer the abhorrent aftermath of gun violence. And, I think it’s time to have a real, national debate on gun control.

But, if only this debate could’ve been initiated without first having the nation witness the devastation that guns can cause before we are willing to consider the merits of more gun control. If only it didn’t take bloodshed to remember that guns are deadly weapons. If only people could have the courage to stand up against the gun lobby without having to be a survivor of gun violence to do it.

If only it didn’t take gun violence to end gun violence.