Photo by Rodolfo Gonazalez, Associated Press
*This is the first part of a longer essay I am writing on school shootings. I’ve attached citations below in case you care further any of your own reading.
I grew up in the state of Colorado. It’s known for cowboys, mountains, skiing, the Broncos, (and now) the legalization of marijuana, but also—school shootings. Since the shooting at Seattle Pacific University in the beginning of June my connection to mass murder and school shootings has become all-too-familiar. My younger brother is a freshman at Seattle Pacific University where a 26 year old with a shotgun recently killed one and injured three others in the latest school shooting. My brother is finishing up his first year of school as a music major before moving to Santa Cruz in the summer to work as Christian summer camp counselor. While untouched by the damage to the shooter, another young man on the same dorm floor as him, Paul Lee, was not so fortunate. He was taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead (three other wounded victims survived). Though the body count was considerably less than recent events at Santa Barbara, its timing mirrors the increasing normality with which such shootings are now taking place.
My brother and I grew up with guns in the town of Bailey, Colorado. It’s a small mountain town about an hour southwest of Denver. It’s a mere forty minutes away from the suburb of Littleton and Columbine High, the now infamous site of the first mass school shooting that really rocked the American psyche. One of the families who lost a son in the Columbine shootings attended our church for a couple years. Then there was the Aurora movie theater shootings where a man by the name of James Holmes killed 12 people at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises. I used to go to Aurora in high school to watch movies in one of the state’s last drive-in theaters.
Bailey is a strange mixture of rednecks, conservative Christians, new age folks, commuters, hippies, outdoor enthusiasts, and undeniably proud gun owners. My dad was a hunter and kept a rifle beneath his bed (which he made out of Aspen trees he chopped, stripped, and stained himself.) Every October he would take a week off work and go into the mountains with some friends to go hunt. He’d usually come back with a deer or elk and our family would stock our freezer full of fresh deer and elk. My dad was never a huge hunter—I think more than anything he liked getting out into the woods and hanging out with a group of guys in the fresh mountain air.
Growing up I never had a problem with guns. They were a tool. Like a knife or a hatchet. We had an old antique gun that hung above the doorframe to the right of our black woodstove. People are proud of the second amendment right in Bailey. A lot of them hunters. A common refrain heard around town (in the case of shootings) is that if only more people had guns we could curb the gun violence done by others. The only thing that stops a bad person with a gun is a good person with a gun. People would say that in countries where more guns exist there are less acts of violence. People would say that mass shooting are sensationalized by the media and other homicides, involving knives or other objects, are never mentioned. These were the ideas I was grew up with. As I was to find out later though, the facts of gun control were increasingly more convoluted than perhaps either “side” would like to believe.
In 2006 a drifter by the name of Duane Morrison walked into our local high school (Platte Canyon High) and barricaded six girls into a classroom. He sexually harassed some of them before a SWAT team arrived and entered into negotiations with Morrison, enabling five of the six girls to escape unharmed (at least physically). Morrison shot the other girl, then himself. Her name was Emily Keyes. Same grade as my sister. The SWAT team, by all accounts, did a terrific job. My sister, as God or luck would have it, was coincidentally not there but on a filed trip, although one of her best friends ended up in the same barricaded room as Keyes. I was in college. My little brother was evacuated from the adjacent middle school.
I’d like to think that I am the only one with a brother or loved one who has witnessed multiple shootings, but I doubt it. In fact, I bet my connections to multiple school shootings are weaker than most. Still the question remains: if we as thinking, feeling human beings wish to seek life and prosperity of our brothers and sisters (both literal and figurative) what are we to do?
The issue retains complexity without a doubt. Gun violence is in the triptych of American controversy along with abortion and gay marriage. Some regulation? Probably. Yet it seems the results are mixed in Australia where since 1996 the country has enforced a strict gun control policy, as well as a buyback program, to curb gun violence. However, there’s still gun violence—armed robberies and such. Even so there has not been a mass shooting in Australia since 1996. Part of the problem could be with just how big America is, interlacing the rural with the urban, the federal with the state.
Mental illness? For sure. Quite some years ago Ronald Reagan implemented a proposal to move the mentally ill residents of infirmaries from cruel and unfair treatment asylums (think One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) to more community based care support services. The idea was fine. The implementation—not so much. The community based care services were attempted but never fully followed through with, transitioning America (with the help of the Vietnam War) from a place with a few drunks on the street to cities overflowing with veterans and sufferers of mental illness—the now homeless. Couple poor mental health policy with little gun regulation and you have a serious problem.
Currently guns account for 67.8% of all homicides, as reported by the “Crime in the U.S.” section of the F.B.I.’s website (knives or other cutting instruments account for 13%, personal weapons (like fists) 5%, blunt objects 3% and “other” dangerous weapons 9%. Many gun related homicides are gang related (though less than what some claim, perhaps 12% of homicides) and 60% are suicides. In general, violent crime by guns is down and, perhaps even more disturbing, most of the guns obtained by perpetrators of mass shootings obtained their weapons legally.
Mass shootings are undeniably a tragedy but they do make up a relatively small percentage of over all gun deaths. Cities such as L.A., Chicago, Long Beach, and Newark all have high homicide rates and gang deaths, but we don’t hear about these as often. They are the norm, as with, say, wars in the Middle East. It seems as if death by mass shootings is simply becoming the new norm. The Onion, after the Santa Barbara shootings, offered the chilling headline which read, “‘No Way to Prevent This’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens,” succinctly commenting on a sense of American apathy with just what the hell to do about school shootings. What are the answers? More guns? Less guns? Mental health policy?
Unfortunately, there will always be murder. Guns just allow us to engage in murder more efficiently. But does this mean we should accept mass shootings as the new norm? Are such events now so common place that we shrug our shoulders with mere apathy? As if shootings were as unavoidable as death by old age? Though I think it’s unfair to focus on the killings of one or two people at public schools lest we forget the murder rates of Chicago and L.A. (or even somewhere globally like Syria, where over 160,000 people have been killed in three years) I believe mass shootings rock our collective American psyche for a reason. Because they are random and at their heart—the definition of terrorism, in so far as they are all about fear, chaos, and a mass civilian body count. Mass shootings are an affront to our modern sensibilities and I might even go so far to say, to our inherent racism or prejudice against others. It could be a sad reality that the death of a black kid in Chicago in a gang shooting resonates less with white America than the death of a white kid in a school shooting. Or perhaps it makes sense to us when gang members or Middle Easterners kill others. There’s a precedent of territorial dispute and long standing rivalry. “It’s not the guns, it’s the people,” we say. “And thank God we are not like them, those psychos.”
An article in the Washington Post looking at findings by Everytown (a gun control advocacy group) recently pointed out that there have been 74 school shootings since Newton. However, as some folks were quick to point out, many of these were not active school shootings situations but included disputes, suicides, etc. Even so, mass shootings (often done at schools) are clearly on the rise . The six deadliest shootings in American history have happened since 2007.Thus begging the question: are school/mass shootings the new form of modern death? Is this merely the modern reincarnation of death by war or tribe or gang? Do schools now join the infamous ranks of Compton, Chicago, Syria, Vietnam etc. Is this merely the new face of death and mass murder?
Seattle sticks out to me because of my brother, but also because it was so close to the previous Santa Barbara shooting, June 5th (13 days to be exact.) Yet only five days later there was another shooting in Troutdale, Oregon on June 10th, making it the fourth multiple shooting event in six days. Both have already made less headlines (and for understandable reasons). However, it will undoubtedly be THE headline of students, parents, and family members involved for the next few months and probably years, hell, the rest of their life.
Mass shootings seem to be a decidedly modern, Western, and even more so, American problem. Or perhaps one could say, mass shootings at the hands of America males with a history of psychosis and access to guns. However you want to define it, gun deaths are a sordid issue rooted in complexity. Unlike what many political pundits or talking heads might say there are always multiple issues at hand, a combination of factors that leave the loved ones to grieve the dead and the rest of us debate.