“It’s been a while since we’ve had a school shooting.”
That thought went through my head a few weeks ago as I drove past one of our local schools. My next thought was, “Well, of course. Schools have been out all summer.”
The matter-of-factness of this internal conversation disturbs me to no end. But what disturbs me even more is why those thoughts come so naturally.
I can’t say I was shocked when I saw the news yesterday of the school shooting outside of Spokane, Washington. I wish I could say I was surprised that a student walked into his high school with a bag of firearms and shot four of his fellow students in cold blood. I want to be surprised at these things. I should be.
I was saddened, angered, dismayed, and frustrated—but shocked or surprised? No.
It’s almost rote at this point. Now is the time we talk about how many students were shot and how many were killed (four and one). Now is where I think about whether the word “killed” or “murdered” is more appropriate. Now is when we shake our heads and cry over the families of the victims. Now is when we discuss the failures in the system or the upbringing of the shooter that led to this tragedy.
The routine is horrific and familiar.
The only thing different this time is that it hit close to home. I grew up in Spokane and now live 80 minutes away from Freeman High School, where the shooting took place. I think about the small, safe town where I live, and imagine that every parent and student at that school had the same thoughts about where they lived up until yesterday.
Now is when we recognize that none of our children are safe. Now is the time we talk about how it can happen everywhere.
Except it doesn’t.
Regularly occurring mass school shootings are a uniquely American phenomenon. They happen here as frequently as the change of seasons and feel almost as predictable. Other countries have them occasionally, of course, but none comes even close to comparing to the U.S.
The numbers are staggering. Between November 1, 1991, and July 16, 2013, the U.S. had 55 school shootings with one or more fatalities and more than one intended victim. During that same time frame, no other country in the world had more than 3 such shootings.
Research from The Academy for Critical Incident Analysis at John Jay College found that between 2000 and 2010, the U.S. had one fewer school shooting with multiple victims than 38 other developed nations combined. (It’s also worth noting that the combined population of those countries was more than ten times the population of the U.S.)
And that’s just shootings with multiple victims. When you remove any filters and include all shootings within a school, the numbers are much, much higher. The Freeman High School shooting was the 31st school shooting in the U.S. this year.
Now is when the debates start. Now is when we battle over how much this has to do with guns and how much it has to do with mental illness or bad parenting. Now is the time when we pull out competing statistics and talk about how making guns harder to get only affects the responsible gun owners and how criminals will get them anyway.
Now is when we talk about the Second Amendment and argue over what the founding fathers meant by “arms” and “infringed” and “well-regulated militia.” Now is when the comments section gets ugly.
Now is when we say that now is not the time to talk about gun control. Now is when we talk about how even though our number of school shootings in comparison with other nations is mind-boggling, our kids’ chances of being killed in a school shooting is still statistically very small. Now is when we downplay the reality.
Now is when we pretend that America doesn’t have a gun problem despite the fact that it clearly has a school shooting problem.
Now is when our lawmakers don’t even attempt to do anything about it. Again.
I’ve done all the research and I know this is a complex issue that no one knows how to adequately solve. I understand the arguments about how gun control laws wouldn’t prevent these kinds of shootings from happening. And maybe that’s true. Maybe the U.S. has so many guns that it’s impossible to keep them out of the wrong hands. Maybe it happens so often here because the media unintentionally glorifies the shooters. Maybe it’s a failure of our mental health system as much as it is a failure of our country’s gun culture.
But even if all of those things are true, we still need reasonable, responsible gun legislation. And now is exactly the right time to talk about it.
For me, it’s as much a matter of principle as of practicality. What does it say about us as a people that we keep doing nothing in the face of the numbers above and the stories of terror they represent? How can we keep seeing kid after kid shoot up their classmates and not at least try to make it less likely that even one troubled youth gets hold of a bag of guns? How can we keep looking into the mirror as a nation when we can’t stop our kids from walking into school and shooting one another?
How can we keep pretending that we don’t have a serious problem on our hands?
Either America has a gun problem or we have a people problem, and I’m not sure which is worse. Many Americans like to say that guns don’t kill people, people do—but it sure looks like our people like to kill people with guns. A friend of mine remarked that America’s love affair with guns makes us look “&@*#ing bonkers” to the rest of the world, and I have to agree. It looks &@*#ing bonkers to me, too.
Now is the time when we brush off that nonsense and talk about how great America is. Now is when politicians play patriotic games while padding their pockets. Now is when we become resigned to the fact that nothing’s going to change. Now is the point where we begin to start forgetting again.
Now is when we notice it’s been a while and start wondering when and where the next school shooting will take place.
Now is when we pray it won’t be our town.
Now is when we pray it won’t be our children.