On a balmy November afternoon in Dallas 50 years ago, a troubled, 24-year-old gunman with a mail-order rifle fired three shots from a sixth-floor window, severely injuring Texas Governor John Connally and killing President John F. Kennedy. An entire nation mourned the President’s passing, and even today those who were old enough at the time to comprehend what had happened can still remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the devastating news. And for so many schoolchildren hearing it from their teachers and principals, it was the first time they had seen adults cry, the first time they realized the existence of true evil, the first time they comprehended the fragility of life. If a bad man could so easily kill the most powerful man in their world, would they ever be safe again?
It was a heart-wrenching, unforgettable day in our nation’s history.
Forty-nine years later, on a cold, December day in Newtown, Connecticut, a troubled, 20-year-old gunman with two handguns and a rifle entered the locked Sandy Hook Elementary school building by shooting his way through a window. In the space of ten minutes, he fired 154 shots, killing 20 precious little ones and 6 of their brave educators. The tragic brutality ravaged families, a school and a community–and our nation mourned once more. If a bad man could so easily wreak such devastation in a “safe” school building in one town–against innocent children and teachers he had never met–what could prevent another bad man from doing the same in another school–maybe in our school?
The Sandy Hook Elementary shooting is still fresh in our minds, and the feelings are still raw–but school shootings, unfortunately, are not just a recent phenomenon in the history of the United States. In fact, a Google search on school shootings revealed the earliest known school shooting took place in 1764 when four Lenape American Indians killed a schoolmaster and nine of his students. More recently, according to a Wikipedia article, in the United States there were
- 16 school shootings in the 1960s,
- 21 school shootings in the 1970s,
- 24 school shootings in the 1980s,
- 34 school shootings in the 1990s,
- 40 school shootings in the 2000s,
- and 46 school shootings in the 2010s (as of October 23, 2013–47 if you count yesterday’s shooting in Centennial, Colorado, where an 18-year-old student, who was seeking revenge against a teacher, critically injured another student before killing himself).
Surely I’m not the only one who finds these numbers alarming.
In the earlier years, these shootings were typically perpetrated by an employee seeking revenge against another employee or by a student venting his anger against an individual teacher or another student. It hasn’t been until more recent years that students have brandished guns and fired indiscriminately in an attempt to rid their own anger, pain and frustration, or outsiders have entered random school buildings looking for easy marks that couldn’t fight back. Almost all of these shootings have resulted in the deaths of students and/or teachers, the majority of them have resulted in additional injuries, and all of them have caused havoc and heartache while heightening the fears of students and communities all over the country.
I remember the first time I became aware of a school shooting. It was March 1998, and I was teaching high school English when the news broke that two young students had shot and killed four other students and a teacher in Jonesboro, Arkansas–which was just a couple hours from my school. The news was surreal; the news was unfathomable. That shooting could have just as easily happened at my school; those innocent victims could have just as easily been my students, my sons, my colleagues, or me. In our school and others, that shooting also started a dialogue about safety as educators and parents alike began to realize that schools might not be the safe havens they were once thought to be–a dialogue that grew even more intense when, just one year later, two boys killed 12 innocent fellow students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.
That dialogue on school safety continues today, and while so many security measures have been implemented since the 1990s, the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary is a reminder that so much more remains to be done.
And, obviously, schools aren’t the only location targeted by mass murderers–they just seem to be one of the most popular choices for the cowardly and the crazed. In 2009 an Army Major killed 13 and injured more than 30 in a shooting spree on a military base at Fort Hood, Texas. In 2012 a gunman killed 13 and injured 58 during a midnight screening of a Batman movie in Aurora, Colorado. And, even more recently, on Sept. 16, 2013, a gunman killed 12 and injured 3 at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.
In the months following Kennedy’s assassination–just as in the months following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary–the debate over gun control raged in the halls of Congress, at every back table in every local diner, and in the editorial columns of newspapers all over the country. In 1963 the National Rifle Association (NRA) argued that stricter gun laws would penalize honest men and protect criminals; in the 50 years since, the NRA’s argument has remained much the same, although now it also argues–perhaps rightly so–that creating gun-free school zones tells every person with a vendetta that schools are the easiest, safest targets for inflicting madness.
Would limiting the accessibility to firearms decrease the likelihood of such mass shootings occurring again? I don’t know. Maybe. Greater minds than mine need to continue that debate and come up with legitimate answers and viable solutions. If I thought it really were that simple, then I would be one of the strongest advocates for stricter laws, but as writer James Alan Fox noted in a USA Today article earlier this year, “Most mass murderers do not have criminal records that would disqualify them from purchasing a firearm from a licensed dealer,” which means, I think, that enforcing stricter gun control laws will not stop the evil or the disturbed who are hell-bent on hurting others.
The deadliest mass shooting by a single person in American history took place in April 2007 when a college student on the campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University used two semi-automatic handguns to kill 32 people and wound 17 others before taking his own life. The shooter had been previously diagnosed with a severe anxiety disorder, so not only did the Virginia Tech massacre draw attention to the gun control debate (and force the closing of some loopholes in Virginia’s laws regarding gun purchases), but it also started a much-needed debate over the lack of sufficient mental health treatments and resources in this country.
That debate also needs to continue–and that debate needs to result in change, not just more political posturing and bandying of words with no weight or funding behind them. While the widespread availability of guns may be a contributing factor in these mass shootings, I can’t help thinking the limited availability of and lack of focus on mental health care is a much bigger factor that needs a lot more attention than it has been given. Schools, parents and communities need resources and support to help them identify and treat those who are struggling. In the stunned disbelief and outrage that immediately followed the shootings at Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook, demands for mental health care reforms grew–why have those demands all but disappeared from the halls of Congress, the tables at the local diners, and the newscasts of the national media? Perhaps as days passed, and then weeks and months, those of us not directly impacted by the shootings were lulled into complacency once again. How long will it be before the next mass shooting reminds us that our sense of security is an illusion?
Unfortunately, I have only opinions and no answers. I want a world where my sons are safe on college campuses or in shopping malls, movie theaters, or anywhere else their tasks and travels take them. I want a world where schoolchildren think about this morning’s spelling test, the cute boy or girl on the back row, and the lunch in the cafeteria–not about the possibility of a gunman blasting through the classroom door. How do we create that world–and how did we ever lose it in the first place?
On this day, the one-year anniversary of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, I have nothing but a profound sadness that 26 beautiful souls left this earth much too soon and that their classmates and families still grieve for such a senseless loss. And that sadness is tinged with the knowledge that, unless someone else comes up with the right answers, other classmates and families, other communities, will most likely someday soon be facing a similar loss.
Last year at Christmas I hung a garland of 26 stars in my living room, one star for each victim at Sandy Hook Elementary. With the garland, I wanted to honor their memory, but I also wanted to be reminded each time I looked at it of how very fortunate I was to be spending my Christmas with my family intact. Today, I am hanging that garland again–and shedding a few tears–as I think about those innocent schoolchildren, the brave teachers who tried to protect them, all the other schoolchildren who witnessed the horror, and all the families who must face this day (and every day) without their loved ones.
My heart is with you, Sandy Hook, and with all the other families who have lost their loved ones to such madness. May peace be with you all.
Note: The families of the Sandy Hook victims have asked that others perform an act of kindness today in memory of their precious loved ones–such a tiny, simple request that just might make all the difference in the world.