“Bang, bang from the closet walls,
The schoolhouse halls,
The shotgun’s loaded.
Push me and I’ll push back.
I’m done asking, I demand.” – Rise Against, from “Make It Stop”
“I’m not afraid of machines. I don’t think the robots are taking over. I think the men who play with toys have taken over. And if we don’t take the toys out of their hands, we’re fools.” – Ray Bradbury
When I was in grad school, I usually stopped in Paducah, KY as a halfway point between my parents’ home in North Carolina, and my own home in Iowa. The first time I stopped in Paducah, it was late afternoon, and I asked the woman who checked me into my hotel for suggestions of things to do. It was a blustery late December day, the type that didn’t make me want to do things outside – except for the fact I’d been stuck in my car for the previous 10 hours.
“Have you been to Paducah before?”
“Everyone remembers Columbine,” she said. “But we were the site of the first school shooting.”
Well, that’s a weird comment, I thought. I felt a bit less like I wanted to wander around town, imagining the population of a horror novel.
“You could go to the quilt museum,” she said brightly.
I nodded at this, and began edging away from the desk.
“Or go walk along the river. Here, let me show you the route.” She pulled a poorly constructed map from underneath the counter, and proceeded to explain the way. When I told her I could figure it out, she told me to have a good evening, and to be sure to let the front desk know if I needed anything further.
Ha, I thought. Not a chance.
I wound up heading to the river, and walking along it for half a mile, glancing over my shoulder nervously at every sound. I don’t carry a gun, and have never wanted one. A man I dated for a time kept a loaded pistol propped on his bedside table and a loaded rifle under his bed. This scared me, because I didn’t know what he was so scared of – a white, middle class man who didn’t often even keep cash on him, living in a safe neighborhood.
He, like many others in my life, told me I should carry a gun. “To keep you safe, Betts,” he said.
I told him, more than once, guns make me feel anything but safe.
The woman at the Paducah hotel was right, in part. I didn’t remember hearing about the Heath High School shooting, in West Paducah, on December 1st, 1997. I would have been in 5th grade at the time. Paducah certainly wasn’t the massacre that characterized the school shooting in Littleton, Colorado on April 20, 1999 – what makes Columbine such a memorable school shooting. And it was far from the first school shooting. America has a history of school shootings dating back to the 1700s.
Yep. The 1700s. You read that right.
The first school shooting I remember wasn’t Columbine. It was Jonesboro, which occurred only a few months after the Paducah shooting. I don’t know what made it more memorable – perhaps because the younger shooter was just a year older than me. Perhaps because it occurred at a middle school, where I was headed in just a few months. Perhaps because more people died.
In some ways, though, it still didn’t seem real. It seemed like a fluke, a couple of boys who didn’t really understand what they were doing. I couldn’t imagine the boys I knew doing anything like that.
But, Columbine. I can tell you where I was, exactly, when the news broke. I sat in my seventh grade language arts class, working on a paper about Timothy of the Cay. Mrs. Savage, my teacher, always played classical NPR music during class. The symphony, whatever it may have been, was interrupted for the news. We put down our pencils and listened. A few minutes later, we listened as the principal came over the PA and announced our school was entering lockdown. If we needed to go to the bathroom, we’d need an escort. During class changes, all teachers were expected to be in the hallways. We would not be allowed to go to our lockers. We would not speak during class changes.
As reports about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold spilled out over the coming days and weeks, I realized I knew people who could become school shooters, if school shooters always looked like them. People who were angry or violent or bullied. I knew people who carried guns to school.
I imagined what I’d do if I was faced with a similar situation to the students at Columbine High.
I never came up with scenarios that I was happy with. People still died in the scenarios I conjured. But because I was afraid, I kept imagining these scenarios, replaying them again and again. Changing the players, changing the locations. For about a month, at the end of seventh grade, I tried to believe in God.
And at some point, I stopped imaging the scenarios. At some point, the idea that a school shooting could happen at my school moved from front-of-the-mind dread to low-grade tension.
And the bodies piled up, single digits by single digits, in more school shootings for a decade, and still we didn’t talk about gun control. We didn’t talk about why the kids are killing each other. Why we’re all killing each other.
On April 2, 2007, when 32 people were murdered at Virginia Tech, I had a talk with my best friend at the time about gun control.
He blamed the victims – said if he’d been there, things would be different. He was trained as a sniper in the military. Maybe this is true.
But it sounded armchair heroics.
When I tried to steer the conversation toward gun control, my friend countered with that line we’ve all heard too often: Guns don’t kill people, people with guns kill people.
The same way cars don’t kill people. Or airplanes. Or bombs.
It reminds me of the arguments that elementary school children have, where they get hung up on the technicalities of language. Where they try to remove themselves from responsibility by finding and dissecting any possible fallacy.
My conversation with my best friend more or less mirrored the national dialogue. We, as a nation, didn’t talk about guns in schools or responsible gun control. We hush the issue, or are complicit in its silencing, again and again. We are all guilty. And this is not a royal “we.” I’m counting myself among those. I’ve done nothing, except armchair activism, to prevent the continued proliferation of firearms in the United States or elsewhere.
What then, do we say about the 27 victims in the Sandy Hook shooting? About the classroom’s worth of young children who died?
We give our condolences. Or I do, or would, except I’m at a loss at what for say to the people who were affected. I’m sorry for your loss loses its meaning in the wake of a tragedy like this one. I don’t pray or believe in god. I don’t hold much faith in the power of positive thinking. I hope they each have someone, hopefully many someones, to hold them through the dark night of their souls that has already begun, and which is sure to continue for a long time. I wish them strength. I hope the kids who can be all right will be all right. I apologize for whatever hurt reading these words brings to the families who were affected, and to the families for whom this tragedy was just another reminder of how nothing about gun control has changed in this country.
I can’t speak about the victims of Sandy Hook, because I don’t know them. But I can say this: When I heard about Sandy Hook, I’d just spent the past week substitute teaching in schools in a city halfway across the country. I thought of the parents and grandparents in elementary schools across America who’d sent their children to school with PB&J and a “have a good day.” I thought about the parents and grandparents in Sandy Hook doing some variation of the same.
I thought about the holiday presents already bought. I thought about how there’s no mistaking the sound of a gun in close range. I thought about the parents who learned through the process of elimination that they’d never see their children again.
Because I couldn’t picture the children of Sandy Hook, I thought of the students at the elementary schools I’d subbed at, the kindness with which they’d treated the special needs kids I worked with. I thought of elementary schoolers I’d worked with in a year as an educator at a hands-on children’s science museum. I tried to imagine them flooding out of their schools with the help of their teachers. I tried to imagine some brightly lit classroom with the alphabet on the wall, and cubbies and tiny chairs. I tried to add to this pooled blood. I tried to imagine what the scene must have looked like to the last child to die.
And I can’t. I have nothing in my experience that compares.
I wondered what type of adult kills a classroom’s worth of children.
Those details will come. Based on past experience, we’ll make a bigger deal out of whatever mental illness—real or perceived—the shooter had than we will out of the massacre of these students. We’ll blame the man, not the culture that supports mass shooting after mass shooting.
- Chardon, OH: 3
- Oakland, CA: 7
- Tulsa, OK: 3
- Seattle, WA: 5
- Aurora, CO: 12
- Oak Creek, WI: 6
- Minneapolis, MN: 6
- Brookfield, WI: 3
- Netwon, CT: 27
After each of these shootings, gun-rights activists have silenced conversation about responsible gun control. They have claimed that their individual right to bear arms is more important than the rights of these victims. Some have argued, in much the same way that my ex did, that if only they’d been there (if only conceal carry was legal, if only more people locked up their guns, etc.) that none of this would have happened. They push us to believe that it is not the right time, that it is never the right time, to politicize the death of the victims.
We cannot continue to accept this. If you’re reading this, you probably already agree with me. So here’s what I’m asking of myself and what I’ll ask of you. We need to start holding our elected officials accountable. We need to start demanding a conversation about gun rights in our personal lives and from our leaders. We need to stop talking about partisanship in the gun-control debate. We need to protest. We need to stage guerrilla theater in the upcoming legislative sessions that begin in January. On this, there isn’t a middle ground. People are continuing to die, and not just during home invasions. In theaters. On the streets. In schools. Again and again, each year.
School shootings especially concern me. Schools, where we send our children to learn. What lessons are we teaching them?
I’ve grown up around hunters and responsible gun owners. I’ve heard the arguments about guns for self-defense, and some have tried to impose this mentality on me. That’s part of the bargain in growing up surrounded by a culture that embraces guns as a means of getting winter’s meat, and also part of having friends who are former military. It’s also, and this is less flattering, part of growing up in America where we fear everything, where we’re afraid to get to know our neighbors.
But I want to know: How often have you needed a gun for self-defense in your home or on the street? Go ahead. Raise your hand. You’re in the comfort of your own living room (office, cubicle). For those of you who raised your hands, how many of you needed a semi-automatic or an automatic weapon? And by needed, I mean “absolutely imperative, nothing else could have worked. Nothing at all. Nothing.”
I’m guessing most of you don’t have your hands up any more.
But still, all discussions about gun control are shut down.
The incidents that spark discussions about gun control, fade from our memories. We have the rest of our lives to go about. At this time of year, we’re in the throes of the holiday season and the shopping, cooking, and entertaining the holidays entail. This will prove a nice distraction. We will put on whatever it is we like to sing along to, and we will sing along. These are the ways we will start the process of forgetting.
And we’re all implicated in this. It isn’t enough to simply post and re-post sympathies for the families on Facebook and to Tweet outrage in 140 characters. Tweet outrage. Come on. Think about how that sounds.
When I heard about Sandy Hook, I was about to facilitate an early literacy program at the place where I work. Parents and grandparents of toddlers waited at the double-glass doors of the room I’d helped transform into a tactile learning environment full of brightly colored tunnels and magnetic letters, puppets and felt board dinosaurs, books and a tumbling mat. Their children giggled at each other or sat looking at the infants in the group or clung to their adult’s leg and peaked around at me. The children ranged in age from 7 weeks to four years old.
I kept the door closed long enough to compose myself. I thought of a former co-worker’s daughter, age five, who has large eyes and smooth skin and who smiled shyly whenever she drew me a picture and I asked her to sign her art. I thought about how she’d grab my hand when she wanted to show me something she’d learned or discovered, and how she’d danced down the hallway at the office, practicing for her role as a fairy in a spring dance recital.
I couldn’t, and can’t, imagine her the way too many people in Sandy Hook have had to imagine children they care about.
I tried to imagine the adults, then, who died in Sandy Hook. Mass adult death by gun is something I can at least begin to wrap my mind around. I haven’t yet figured out what this says about me, about America.
I took a deep breath.
I opened the doors.
 Though even to define a mass shooting is difficult – no one, or only a few, killed but a lot injured should also count, because this is a tragedy as well. But, for the purpose of this essay, I’m not counting shooting sin which only the shooter’s family died. I’m also only counting shootings in which 3 or more people were killed, not including the shooter. I chose the number 3 to help push this essay away from all-to-common street violence. Approximately 10,000 people each year are killed as a result of gun violence.