As we come upon the third anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, I find it unfathomable that America is still in a stalled response. In my most right-wing-NRA-toting nightmare I would never have believed that December 14, 2012 would not have been enough for Americans to demand the changes needed to halt our present school shooting epidemic.
As of 2013 there have been approximately 162 school shootings in America. School shootings. Yes, I am only discussing shootings in schools. The place where children go to learn about rivers and stars and algebra and Huck Finn. Where they and their friends eat mac and cheese in a noisy cafeteria, and still stick gum under their desks while being asked to imagine making the world a better place. Where they are encouraged to dream and explore and fail. Yes, dream and explore and even fail because it takes all three to learn sometimes. But as of late, schools are also a place where we are, “frightening our young people by planning for intentional acts of harm,” (Schlozman). A place where we practice lock-downs. Schools are now targets.
How? As in how are these shooters gaining access to our schools? Why? As in why are these killers spending their youthful afternoons holed up plotting devastation on other youths? These questions roll round and round my brain as each new shooting spree shatters headlines. As I often do, I search for answers anywhere, in the news, with my friends, in blogs, and even in literature, as I recall the first fictional killer I came across in high school.
Dostoevsky explores the mind of a murderer in his classic Crime and Punishment through the character of Raskolnikov, who believes his killing of the pawnbroker will make a difference. “…for the first time in my life an idea took shape in my mind which no one had ever thought of before me, no one! I saw clear as daylight how strange it is that not a single person living in this mad world has had the daring to go straight for it all and send it flying to the devil! I… I want to have the daring…I wanted to find out something else then and quickly whether I was a louse like everybody else or a man. Whether I can step over barriers or not, whether I dare stoop to pick up or not, whether I am a trembling creature or whether I have the right… [to kill]” (Dostoevsky). To the horror of those around him Raskolnikov justifies his murdering by equating the act with daring and seeing himself above the common “louse” by carrying it out.
Young men since Dostoevsky’s dark and conflicted character have also imagined themselves an ubermensch: have toyed with daring and murder, imagined this course of action to reveal a superior person, and with growing numbers are acting on these illusions. Malcolm Gladwell in his October article for The New Yorker, “Thresholds of Violence“, explores how this once rare phenomenon morphed into an epidemic.
…Columbine. The sociologist Ralph Larkin argues that Harris and Klebold laid down the “cultural script” for the next generation of shooters. They had a Web site. They made home movies starring themselves as hit men. They wrote lengthy manifestos. They recorded their “basement tapes.” Their motivations were spelled out with grandiose specificity: Harris said he wanted to “kick-start a revolution.” Larkin looked at the twelve major school shootings in the United States in the eight years after Columbine, and he found that in eight of those subsequent cases the shooters made explicit reference to Harris and Klebold. Of the eleven school shootings outside the United States between 1999 and 2007, Larkin says six were plainly versions of Columbine; of the eleven cases of thwarted shootings in the same period, Larkin says all were Columbine-inspired.
In the day of Eric Harris, we could try to console ourselves with the thought that there was nothing we could do, that no law or intervention or restrictions on guns could make a difference in the face of someone so evil. But the riot has now engulfed the boys who were once content to play with chemistry sets in the basement. The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.
Witnessing the riot theory come to life is beyond frightful; how to unravel this contagion would forestall even the most dedicated among us, for these young men now have sick heroes of their own to emulate. But for today, let’s focus on the issuing of firearms:
All guns used to kill people in America were purchased legally at some time, though very few of those guns are in the possession of their original owners at the time they kill. The problem that dwarfs the issue of assault rifles is that all firearms may be transferred in America without detection or accountability.
Though the sale of an automobile in America requires an official transfer of title, the sale of a firearm does not. Many, if not most, guns used to kill people in America are acquired through straw purchases — purchases made on behalf of another person. This is how the underage Columbine shooters obtained their weapons (Miller).
Gun violence, within and beyond our school walls has to end. The implementation of common-sense gun-control legislation has to be the demand we ask of our politicians, from the local level to the highest office. There can be no excuses. Decades ago the tobacco industry, who “invented the kind of special-interest lobbying that has become so characteristic of the late 20th- and earlier 21st-century American politics” and who “was known for its giant spending on political campaigns and effective lobbyists” was brought down by such common-sense demands (Kedk). Try lighting up in a city park or neighborhood bar and see how outraged people get. Isn’t it time we brought down the equally insidious NRA? The greedy gun manufacturers? And the fat politicians who protect them but not our school children?
The following was written on a social site by a dear teacher friend of mine. She does not make it a habit to post political links or controversial topics, just photos of family outings or cheery affirmations to her friends. She is the steadiest of humans. But no longer. I’m reposting her message of quiet Midwestern outrage:
Three short stories. One: The electricity went off at school and my first instinct was to close my locked classroom door. Many of my students later said fear was their first reaction too. I re-state: My STUDENTS were SCARED of violence because of a power outage. Ten years ago my students would have cheered because of the possibility of early release. Two: Suicide of a student by gun in my community. Three: Child accidentally killed cousin while playing with gun in my childhood community.
My friend is not the only teacher concerned about working within a target. Charlie Gaare, a high school English teacher in Denver wrote, “Teachers are not police officers or firemen or members of the military who are trained to deal with dangerous situations like this.” Yet, he added, “Every time incidents of school-related violence occur, my colleagues and I think of the numerous ways we might one day have to use our bodies as barricades to protect the students whom we love dearly from potential other students whom we also love so dearly… Our culture is so hell-bent on being worried about a man having the right to an item intended to kill than they are about actually upholding the protection they claim guns give them. And every single one of your children’s teachers shows up every day and is ready to try and prevent, even just a little bit, the decay that continues to eat away at us, to take a bullet from the monster we have made” (Gaare).
Teachers brave this new battle ground each morning. Leading children through the paces of lock downs and emergency procedures while still talking about dreams. And fears. But we must also ask our politicians to put their lives on the line with us. To stand up to the NRA. To demand safe schools. To demand common sense gun controls. And we must be ready to march for these rights. For our children. For our teachers.
Before another December 14th comes, and goes, let’s all agree to do something. As my dear friend wrote, with her true American resolve: I support our second amendment rights, but “gun sense” makes sense. Not “no guns.” More regulation. I’m marching.