I don’t want to write this piece. And you might be asking: “Why not write something else?” Because I have to write this piece. I’m in such a white-hot rage that I can’t think of anything else to do. So there will be frayed edges and loose ends and subjects I pick up and drop. But this is not a moment for orderly thoughts. It’s a moment for us to collectively admit that the current state of affairs, school shooting after school shooting, needs to change.
Part of me wonders if I’ll come off as shrill. But the rest of me is past caring.
I have to write this piece because the list of mass shootings keeps getting longer and longer. Because as I’m writing it, there’s news about another one in the “What’s Happening” section on my Twitter page. And as we were editing it, an alert popped up on my phone about a child taken into custody. Over another school shooting threat. And the time elapsed between them gets shorter and shorter. I had hoped I’d only write one piece ever about gun violence. The one I wrote last summer on the fifth anniversary of the Pulse massacre here in Orlando. And in it I said, “Five years later. Gun violence still plagues our country.” In the year since I wrote that article the number of shootings has only grown.
The First School Shooting I Remember Already Hit “Close to Home.”
And it seems like the episodes are only getting closer and closer. In 1997, when the Heath High School shooting happened in Paducah, Kentucky, that kind of event was beyond comprehension. Even though I had a friend who was an alumni of that very high school. Who knew people who had been there when it happened. When we heard the news out of Paducah, we experienced a kind of collective sort of shock that seems so different from the kind of response we experience now.
Now it seems like the response is almost a routine experience. Where we follow the breaking news as it happens, followed by the national media descent on the place along with a visit from the President. And accompanied by a short burst of voices advocating for changes in gun laws. And even louder threats by people like Randy Fine who tweeted: “I have news for the embarrassment that claims to be our President — try to take our guns and you’ll learn why the Second Amendment was written in the first place.” The jackass said this on Wednesday. The day after twenty-one people had been slaughtered at an elementary school in Texas.
Protect and Serve
I have to write this piece because we need things to be different this time. Not that we haven’t needed that after each and every previous mass shooting. But in this case, where each and every day comes with more and more news about how law enforcement who are responsible for protecting the community, who are the ones we are told to trust with our safety in these situations, fouled up the response over and over and over again. How it took Border Patrol agents, against the word of the person in charge, to go in and put an end to the murdering. We as a nation have developed a tradition for mourning these kinds of events. How has law enforcement not developed protocol and plans for how to intervene? Or if they have, how is their follow-through so mediocre?
They have had more than twenty years. And when we look at the number of untruths we’ve been told as information unfolds… What is it that they aren’t telling us in all of the other situations where national eyes aren’t on them?
Not All of us Live in a Gun Culture. And Not All of us that Do are Comfortable with It
I grew up in a part of the US where the rate of gun ownership is a lot lower than the place I live now. I had to think very hard about what to teach my own kids about guns. Knowing that the chances of them encountering one as children was much greater than mine had been. (They were taught if they ever encountered an unsecured gun that they were to stop, put their hands on their head and find an adult. Giving them a specific action–in this case, hands on head, since not all clothes have pockets, meant one less step to think about, one less temptation, one less chance to pick one up and accidentally do something terrible.)
I’ve spent most of my adult life in places where guns were a typical part of life. It took some time for me to get used to hearing friends talk about guns around me; who owned them, who grew up around them. The truth is, I’ve never gotten entirely comfortable with it.
Mass Shootings and Parenthood
But teaching my kids about guns is really hard. Yes, I can give them practical instructions about what to do when they see one. I can instill a balance of fear and responsibility when it comes to what happens when they see guns. But even that didn’t prepare me for the day I was sitting in Dunkin’ Donuts/Baskin Robbins with them. Having a treat. A couple of local officers walked in. And my oldest noticed the gun on his waist, looked at me with big eyes and started to put hands on head. How do you teach a healthy balance? Between knowing the police aren’t always the good guys and knowing that sometimes you do need them?
Mass Shootings and the People Most at Risk
I can’t sit here and say nothing though. Not when gun violence has touched so many communities that I’m a part of. It’s hit me as a parent. As a Jew. As a queer person. And as an Orlando resident. Not when my kid has emailed our senators and been ignored. Not when the same thing happens again and again. And the response isn’t tangible change, but only “thoughts and prayers.” Well my deepest sympathies to our legislators, but I’m done.
The Constitutional Angle
I know the US Constitution has a second amendment that says “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” But this is a document that was written 235 years ago, in 1787. Warren Berger, who was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (and appointed by Richard Nixon,) said during an interview in the 1990s that if he were writing the Bill of Rights the Second Amendment wouldn’t be in it. He called it “fraud.”
The arms they were talking about in 1787 are not the kinds of things that we are facing now. Musket balls weren’t capable of inflicting the kinds of damage that modern day bullets and high powered weapons with large clips can. And a “well regulated militia” is not the same as a person being able to walk into a store and buy a gun after a perfunctory background check. I’ve heard people say that it’s important that we allow largely unrestricted gun ownership so that people can stand up to the government in case of tyranny. That argument has never made sense to me–even without the other resources at hand, the firepower of the government alone is far beyond the capacity of what an individual or even a small group of renegades might have access to.
In 2021, only three countries (the US, Guatemala and Mexico) have the right to bear arms in their constitutions. And Texas seems more concerned with regulating sex toys than guns.
School Shootings and the Weight of Repetition
How can people see the same thing happening again and again and not respond differently? How can the people we choose as our voices fail over and over again to listen to the desires of the people who elected them? More and more Americans want some kind of gun control. Whether it’s increased background checks, a new assault weapons ban, or other measures that will limit access to guns. Even though they know it won’t end gun violence. We are clamoring for anything that will make an impact. And yet Congress seems to be immune to these desires, pandering instead to a small group of pro-gun lobbyists.
Instead of directing their attention towards actual measures that might help reduce violence, our legislators have been more focused on regulating books, discussions about racism, queer people, and medical decisions (namely health care for transgender kids and the contents of someone’s womb). Meanwhile guns, which actually do pose a danger to people, go effectively unregulated.
It doesn’t make any sense to me. In Texas (and a bunch of other states,) you need to show ID to buy dextromethorphan (over the counter cough medicine.) That’s one of the active ingredients in things like NyQuil or Robitussin or Theraflu. I have to show my ID to buy Sudafed or to buy certain allergy medications. Those things are far less likely to cause harm to other people. (At least in the quantity that people are typically buying them in.) It’s onerous to try and treat a cough, cold or allergies at home. The same can’t be said for purchasing a weapon.
School Security: The Illusion of Safety
So many things were on my mind when making decisions about where to send my kids to school. I admit. I was far more concerned with things like curriculum and instruction, and the kinds of people they would be around than the security. Not that I didn’t notice those things. The preschool options we looked at had a wide range of security measures. And the one they went to had the least stringent security when it came to accessing the building. But it felt like the warmest and most loving environment out of our choices. And the same went for the elementary school search. My kids ended up attending a fabulous magnet school. I looked far more at the environment and the curriculum than at the security.
Still, I felt comfortable and confident when my oldest began school that the environment was a safe one. Secure, but not so much so that it would be frightening to a five year old.
“Lock Down, Lie Down” Drills
Until the day they told me about a “Lock Down, Lie Down” drill. With the classroom lights out, huddled into a corner or a closet, on the floor, as quiet as possible. It was during our usual chatter about the school day, on the way home from school. While the kids nibbled on their after school snack in the back seat. And in the front seat, as I carefully maneuvered my way through traffic, I choked back vomit and tears. At least enough so that they didn’t know how sick I felt when we arrived home and they could see my face again.
The Illusion of Security Changes the Face of School
The elementary school my kids attended underwent major renovations during the 2017-18 school year. For that year, instead of our regular building, the kids were temporarily housed in an older building. One that had been built originally in 1943. All of the classroom doors opened to the outside. The kids had to walk outdoors to go from classroom to classroom, or to places they might regularly visit. The cafeteria. Bathroom. Office. And one of the concerns raised by parents was how to keep the kids safe when they were out in the open like that.
I think more people were focused on the idea of a stranger wandering onto campus than an active shooter situation. While even elementary school parents can’t completely banish the idea of an active shooter at school, we still want our kids to be able to go outdoors, to enjoy playing on the playground and to have outdoor activities and PE whenever they can. In fact, the idea of being outdoors on the playing field wasn’t really ever mentioned as a concern at the usual school building, which has a heavy metal fence surrounding the campus and where access to the building is limited. The school was able to reassure us enough that our kids would be safe that year. That they would find ways to limit access to our kids by strangers.
With Every School Shooting, Parents and Children Can See through the Illusion
And then in February of 2018, the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas shooting happened. I wept for hours and hours that day. For the students, for the teachers, for every child who can’t grow up and feel safe in their school where they spent so much time. For the duck and cover drills I did when I was their age. I remember the helpless, hopeless, frightening futility of them. And what it felt like knowing that you were doing something so absolutely useless against a grave threat.
What do you say to comfort or reassure your kid when the school shooters have undergone the same active shooter training that your kids have? And know all of the rules about “Lock Down, Lie Down,” and hiding under the desk and every other detail? And how do you make yourself believe it, much less the kids?
Sure. Let’s Arm Teachers. Why Not?
We’re living in an era where people don’t trust teachers to teach. Where they don’t trust librarians to select appropriate books for their school (and sometimes public) libraries. We’ve got people trying to silence teachers when they talk about social issues like the impact of race and racism in our society. Or about the inherent worth and dignity of all people including LGBTQ people. But we want to trust them with guns. In classrooms with our children. In incredibly high stress situations where even well trained police have trouble handling things sometimes. Where’s the logic here?
Social-Emotional Learning… Gone
And what about social-emotional learning? There’s been so much talk about it. Here in Florida, it was heavily implemented after the shooting in Parkland in 2018. And now, it’s been slashed, with Governor DeSantis claiming that the social-emotional development of children is a responsibility that rests with parents, not with schools. And having worked with schools and with youths for years, I can’t wrap my head around this. It’s a statement unfounded in psychology. Because every group that someone participates in whether it’s school, a sports team, an art class, a religious organization or something else, plays a role in their social-emotional development. Social-emotional learning is another name for what I call “learning how to human.” It’s how we learn to be good people.
Politicians blame mental illness and then cut funding for programs to support mental health. And object to including social-emotional learning in schools. And object to single parents. To immigrants. To video games. Music. A lack of religion. And all kinds of other things. They blame the fucking doors. They add layers of security theatre to our schools, just like they did to our airports after 9/11. Airports where we now all have to show ID. Undergo invasive screening at security checkpoints. Take off our shoes at security because someone once tried to put one bomb in one shoe. But in our schools it seems they’ll come up with any excuse possible to avoid doing the real work of ensuring that our schools are safer.
Commonsense Gun Information, both Gathering and Distributing: Hanging on by a Thread or Absent Entirely
In Florida, when my children were very young, our pediatrician would ask us about guns in the house. And in 2011, the “Docs vs Glocks” bill was passed which essentially forbade health care providers including mental health professionals from asking families about guns in the home. Instead of using that captive moment to provide information about gun safety (which could be done in value neutral way–if you do have guns in the house, here are the thing like trigger locks and secure storage that you can do to promote safety,) health care providers were, in most situations, forced to ignore one of the leading causes of death and injury to children. (Thankfully this was challenged in the courts and changes to law were forced by a federal appeals court in 2017.)
For years, the Centers for Disease Control were all but forbidden to do research on gun violence by the Dickey Amendment. Which shifted the funds previously allocated for that research to traumatic brain injury research (also an important cause), and stated: “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” This was a radical reversal of the 1980s, when gun violence was treated by the CDC as a public health issue. It took the 2018 Parkland massacre to force clarification to the Dickey Amendment that would clarify the amendment to define more clearly the lines between “research” and “advocating or promoting gun control.” We can’t study them, but there are more guns than there are people or cars in the US.
What to do After
I struggle to find words to express the agony over the fact that we have a protocol for what to do after this kind of school shooting. That the state senator representing this part of Texas has already been in contact with the federal government about the resources the community needs. Money to raze and rebuild the school. A grant of up to forty five million dollars exists to do that. So that the kids don’t have to go back to the same school where their trauma happened. Not an emergency authorization. Not a “what can we pull together from here and there.” A grant.
A grant like that means two things. That this has happened enough times that people began to plan ahead for the next time. And that we’ve done it so many times before that we know what we need to do about it when it happens. The post-shooting protocol has been normalized. And that’s just unconscionable.
Money for mental health support. In this part of rural Texas there’s one psychiatrist for 16,000 people. And few therapists. And Governor Abbott of Texas has not yet responded to Senator Gutierrez’s request for two million dollars to bring in additional mental health professionals; who will be able to provide face to face therapy instead of through less-effective telemedicine.
And I’m sitting here fairly certain that Peter Arredondo, the Uvalde police chief and incident commander responsible for coordinating the Uvalde school shooting response, is holed up somewhere during the investigation. Protected by better security than these schoolchildren had when there was a teenager with a legally obtained gun. Not just any gun but one that was designed to explode bodies–a weapon of war, rampaging through their school
Restricting Abortions vs. Restricting Guns
The anti choice movement has used a backdoor way to impose burdensome regulations on abortion providers and legislate them out of existence. State legislatures forced medical facilities, even ones that only provided medication abortions to meet the same standards as full ambulatory surgery centers with hospital admitting privileges. Many places couldn’t do that and were forced to close. We have “drug free school zones” and other restrictions about the kids of businesses that can be located near schools.
Why aren’t we doing the same things for guns? Increasingly strict regulations on where gun sellers can be located and on the conditions they must fulfill to be open. Making private firearms sales difficult or impossible. Let’s make it so difficult to open or maintain a gun shop that we make it harder to buy weapons instead of being able to buy groceries, guns and tires all in one place on a Saturday afternoon.
Is this Time Different? Or Wishful Thinking?
Is it going to take what appears to be a tremendously botched response to school violence to change the views on access to weapons? Is it going to take the fact that a member of law enforcement who was supposed to be responsible for reacting to this massacre lost a child to make changes? That children were making calls to 911 during the event? Or will it matter less because the faces of these children are brown and not white?
Can we finally lay to rest the idea that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun? Because the response from the supposed good guys in this case was such a mess that I don’t even know who the good guys are supposed to be anymore.
The Wisdom to Get us Through is There. We Just need to Seize It.
In ancient times Thucydidies wrote about the massacre of school children in the History of the Peloponnesian War. And thousands of years later I’m still sitting here reading about school children being massacred. Have we learned nothing? Will we actually have to get to the year in which Anakin Skywalker massacres a class of Padawans to finally do something?
How can I keep holding onto what the Talmud says “The world survives on the breath of schoolchildren,” when all around me the people with the actual power to make change, keep failing those children and every person who loves and cares about them?
I’m just so angry. I write a lot of angry pieces. That’s not new. But I always try to find some nuggets of hope in what I write. Something to help me keep looking ahead towards ways of making things better. Something to help keep you, who are reading this, going, and maybe even taking action you haven’t before in order to help make things better. But this time, I’m just feeling lost. I’m lost, sad and angry. I can’t give up–there’s too much at stake here to do that, but dammit, it’s getting a lot harder to keep going.
Arredondo, the Police Chief who ordered his officers to make a perimeter around the school while the gunman inside did his work, and while the children kept making calls to inform the police that they were still in the line of fire, was set to take his seat on the town council today (Tuesday, May 31, 2022). 126 votes were cast in his favor out of a town of 15,000. The swearing-in ceremony has been postponed for a few days, because of the shooting. And, perhaps, the optics.
Mayor McLaughlin did have the quietest support for the Chief’s council position that I have ever heard: “There’s nothing that I can do to change that,” McLaughlin said. “Not that I want to. I mean, he was duly elected, and that’s something Pete and, I’m sure, the people in his district will come to terms with.”
We now also read that the Uvalde Police Department and the Uvalde School District Police Department (two separate organizations) have both stopped complying with a state-level investigation into their handling of the school shooting. A local police department is not the same as the sum total of every police department in the country. Nevertheless, while reading these words, it’s hard not to think about the multiple times when police have shot and killed unarmed suspects and cited “non-compliance” as the reason. (Ed.)