“It happened again,” was one of the first things spoken about the Valentine’s Day school massacre at a South Florida high school. Yes, it happened again. And if we don’t get this figured out, it will continue to happen, likely with even more frequency. In fact, we have experienced 18 incidents of guns fired on school property and eight school shootings resulting in injury or death since the first of the year. Please note that we aren’t even out of February yet!
It is heartbreaking to see our youth, our teachers and school personnel, as well as the first responders, law enforcement and medics going through this again, and again, and again. All of them are personally affected by this horrendous violence playing out in our society. The Washington Post, using archival information, has determined that over 150,000 students have witnessed a school shooting since Columbine in 1999. Those students may have survived immediate physical injury, but their mental wounds run deep and the long term emotional and psychological injuries may last a lifetime. Even if they don’t develop symptoms from their experience, their lives changed the minute they heard the first shot and will likely never be the same. How can you retrieve any sense of safety after it has been shattered so quickly and so needlessly? How can you ever forget seeing your classmates or teachers gunned down in front of you in your classroom or hallway? How can you ever shake that fear? Fear of what, you don’t really know, but you do know how quickly and horribly worlds and lives can change.
Having spent ten years teaching high school English and journalism, each time another school shooting occurs I feel scared-sick and wonder how I would feel, react, help, or hide. And I think of the hundreds, probably thousands, of students who passed through my classroom or I passed in the hallways and how they would cope, move forward, and what it would be like to lose some of them so senselessly. It would be devastating! I think of my former students and am so impressed with how they grew, learned, developed and became such amazing people. They are activists, advocates, teachers, lawyers, judges, accountants, artists, mental health workers and business professionals in every sector of our society. They are parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, wives, husbands, partners and if any one of them had had their life shortened by such a tragedy as a school shooting we all would have lost big time. Our world would simply not hold all the goodness it now does if any one of them had not been allowed to live their lives of enfoldment, discovery and compassion.
But when I think of the lives we have lost and all the lives altered because of this violence I wonder what accomplishments each of them may have achieved. I do know most of them had aspirations, dreams and abilities that were far beyond our imagination. We will never know what good they were going to bring to our world. What opportunities, what advancements may we now miss because these young lives were snuffed out with such cold-hearted horror? What kinds of miracles were in store for us because of them? Miracles we will never know now.
It’s not just the 17 dead in Florida that saddens me, but the myriad of lives each of those losses affect. There are parents, siblings, grandparents, friends, co-workers – hundreds, if not thousands, of lives have been permanently changed by the actions of a young man with way more weaponry than anyone outside of the military or law enforcement should ever have.
And there’s the rub. Guns are everywhere. They are way too easy to get, way too easy to carry, way too easy to use. Where else in the world are school shootings happening with the regularity and the impact in loss of life than they are here? The rate of people killed by guns in the United States is 19.5 times higher than economically similar countries in the rest of the world. What sets us apart and makes this even a possibility? Well, the number of guns, for one thing. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, there are over 310 million guns in the United States. That means there is basically one firearm for every man, woman and child. And the really sick thing about this is that gun ownership increases after school shootings. Again, according to the ATF, gun manufacturers in the United States produced nearly 11 million guns in 2013, the year after the Sandy Hook massacre. That was twice the number they made in 2010.
Oh, I can hear the gun rights advocates screaming now about how dare I want to take their guns away or challenge their constitutional rights to buy, carry, use and, yes, even misuse, their weapons. The loudest voices always come from the National Rifle Association, which if you really look into their finances and efforts has little to nothing to do with individual gun ownership. The NRA is clearly a lobbying entity for gun manufacturers. With enough guns already in existence that we each can have one, if we choose, gun makers must keep creating a demand in order to stay in business. And they have identified one of the most powerful motivators of human behavior – fear. So they manufacture fear- fear of someone “taking away their guns”, fear of encroachment on their “rights”, fear of not being able to “shoot first”, fear of “rising crime rates”, fear and more fear. And that fear creates demand so they can manufacture more guns. More guns are good for business. However, more guns are not good for the rest of us.
I wish I could end this with a foolproof way to stop this insanity, but I honestly don’t know what the answer really is, other than we need some serious gun reform. Stricter background checks; making it more difficult, if not impossible, for everyday citizens to own large capacity ammunition magazines and assault-type weapons, like the AR-15, which is the weapon of preference of most who have carried out mass shootings, are good and much needed policy changes. We can also do better identifying, assisting and treating mental illness while doing all we can to keep guns out of their hands for their own and others’ safety.
Will tougher gun laws stop mass shootings? No. Most likely not, but statistics do clearly indicate this handful of policies can drastically reduce the number that occur. And who does not want to save lives, especially the lives of our school children? All of those options require a compassionate and reasonable response from our elected officials. We need to remember who put those supposed representatives in that position and for the most part, we did. The voters put them in office, so like our parents likely told us now and then, let’s not forget we can also take them out.
We must vote in alignment with our hearts and what is best for each other. So I urge you to make sure you’re registered to vote, get everyone you know registered to vote, and then we all need to show up to actually vote. In the 2016 election only 58% of eligible voters actually voted. That’s putting control into the hands of others and I, for one, no longer trust most of that 58 % and I don’t want them making decisions for me. So vote!
Until the election, we have to keep calling, writing, emailing our present representatives in Congress. It may feel as though it’s not making an anthill of difference, but we have to keep at it. We do matter. Our children matter, our families matter, our communities matter and most of all, our schools matter. Our voices must be heard. Our future depends on it. We have to take whatever action we can think of for all the kids who have been lost, but also for all the lives that have been permanently altered by these horrendous acts of violence. We have to remain vigilant and LOUD for all the families who must go on with huge holes in their hearts and homes, for all the school personnel who now must feel they are on the front lines of a war for which they did not sign up, and for all the parents who now question when they drop their kids off at school, “Will they be safe? Will they come back home?”.
We cannot give up hope for change. We cannot become complacent regarding gun violence, and especially school shootings. Of the 18 school shootings that have occurred since the first of the year, how many of them do you remember even hearing about? Probably a few, but did you know about all of them? I didn’t and I’m a journalist and news junkie. We cannot afford to become numb to this!
We can no longer sit idly by, sending thoughts and prayers, pointing fingers at others and believing there is nothing we can do to change this ugliness in our society. I will not give up. I will not stop advocating for gun reform. There is something we can do. We can demand decent candidates and vote for representatives who truly represent us! We are the bosses of those yahoos and we need to use our power for change and for betterment! I will call every day for my fellow teachers and I will do it for every student who had to sit in my classroom throughout those years. It’s the least I can do for them. After all, that alone should be punishment enough for anyone! But I am also doing it for their children and grandchildren, who all deserve the opportunity to learn in a safe and nurturing environment.
If you want to join me in holding onto hope and in holding our elected officials responsible, you can find contact information for local, state and federal elected officials here: https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials
At some point this madness has to stop. And if no one else is going to step up, then it’s up to each of us to do whatever we can with whatever we have right where we are.
I don’t want to ever hear, “It happened again” leading the news cycle, but until we fix what is broken, the likelihood is unfortunately good that I will.