Remembering the Innocent and the Brave

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.


About icedteawithlemon

I have recently retired from a 30-year career in education in one of the best school districts in the world. I hope to spend my second life reading, writing, photographing, traveling, biking, cheering on my favorite baseball team (the St. Louis Cardinals), and soaking up glorious sunshine. In my spare time I enjoy playing with my pet tarantulas, trying out new flavors of chewing gum, and knitting socks for prison inmates. I'm almost positive that in a past life I was one of the Seven Dwarfs (most likely "Grumpy"), and in my next life I'm going to be either a taste tester for Hershey's or a model for Victoria's Secret's new line, "Bloomers for Boomers." I want to travel country back roads, singing Vanilla Ice songs at every karaoke bar and rating bathroom cleanliness at every truckstop. And someday I plan to own a private beach where skinny girls aren't allowed. I want to be a writer when I grow up. "Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake."--Henry David Thoreau
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8 Responses to Remembering the Innocent and the Brave

  1. RayEtta says:

    I understand everything you said and like you have no answer. I have a child in education and she had an incident herself that was unsettling to say the least and she lives pretty darn close to where you do.

    I wondered too about more regulations for firearms so I did some reading, trying to get a better idea about it. While it is probably true that some of these people have no prior record I also found some things that I had not thought about.

    There are some states, maybe six or so that have no gun regulation. I had to learn about the gun laws for the state of Arkansas, I assumed all states did have some, but it appears not. So if I had a record and could not buy a gun in my state, if I lived close enough to make a trip to another state I might be able to buy a gun there without a problem. Also they need to know about people who have had mental problems, but there again, I think unless there had been an arrest, they probably could buy a gun without a problem. The states don’t share the info they do have, so one state may know some guy is a bad dude but another state will have no idea.

    I think also they are hoping that more involved laws would help them track better when someone is stock piling weapons, and they are working on ways of catching more of the illegal guns that come in from other countries.

    Remember several years ago, The Cross, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord? That was nearly in my backyard and yours too. Little of their guns had been bought, much of theirs had been stolen but trying to locate and know of those groups is very important. They had TNT and other explosives at that compound and they had poison. They were planning to poison water supplies, and I kept thinking after this all came to light about what would have happened if they had blown up two damns. They had the guns I think because they thought they would be brave enough to fight when people came to arrest them. (Going out with their boots on.) The right laws might help some, I don’t know. I do know that I am not sure if this old heart of mine could ever stand another shooting where babies were killed like last year.

    • And what your research tells me, RayEtta, is that there is definitely room for improvement in the current system. I want to blame lawmakers for not doing more, but even so I realize that this is such a complicated issue that even they (mere humans like the rest of us) must find it difficult to know exactly what is the best thing to do.

      Through the woods, the CSA compound was less than a mile from my house. I remember driving down the road past their compound once (before they were raided) and seeing little boys carrying firearms bigger than them, patrolling the perimeters. The look in their eyes was terrifying. When the compound was raided by the FBI, my oldest son was only a few months old, and a friend of ours in law enforcement warned us of what was about to happen and advised that I take our baby and leave. We had always heard rumors of how heavily armed they were, but until the raid we really had no idea of what evil was lurking just a short walk through the woods. And you’re right–no laws prevented them from amassing their arsenal or would prevent any other group from doing the same if they so desired. It’s a scary world we live in–but a good one, too, and I don’t want to let evil win.

      • RayEtta says:

        I had a woman that lives in one of those states with almost no gun regulations tell me that she feels so safe when she walks into the grocery store and there are several people in there with guns around their waists. Evidently some places it is even no big deal to carry. I thought how strange it is, (her comment) because if I walked into the grocery and there were several armed people present I would feel very unsafe and be wanting to get the you know what- out of there. I would figure something bad was about to do down. Gee, have I been mistaken about this all along? I had always thought that if no one around me had a gun I did not have to worry about being shot.

        You brought up a very good point, and that is the mental health in this country. I have not been able to find articles that tell me much from that angle at yet. It really seems that there are more problems like that these days. Maybe that is only an illusion. I have been told that more problems are diagnosed and known about these days. On my last job, in a supervisory capacity, I had 8 people and 4 of these were diagnosed and on medication. Two were very hard to handle and one was no picnic. I have even wondered if additives and chemicals in all the processed foods we eat may have an impact. One of the comments brought to light were prescribed drugs, a real possibility. I had not really thought about that one.

        I did see one graph that, what the total number of deaths were I don’t recall, but it went something like this. The graph covered mass shootings that 12 or more people had died in. The number of total deaths that happened like this in the last 10 years, had taken 50 years to add up to that many in the past.

        I think I will do some reading about the drug aspect, if I can find it. That stuff is being handed out like candy.

        All I know for sure is that I would like to see a lot less of innocent people being killed, especially children.

        Wow girl, you were closer even than I was when that compound was taken. I headed up Hwy 126 toward Springfield and got up the road a short distance and there were cars and officers everywhere. I turned around and went home.

      • I don’t know what the answers are, RayEtta, but I do think mental health issues are a huge component–and it’s very possible that drugs, prescription and not, are a factor, too. And like you, I wish for a future in which no more innocent people are gunned down so needlessly. I will never understand the killing of children.

        We were just discussing the CSA compound again last night with neighbors. Even though the people are all gone, some of the remnants of the compound still remain, and it continues to be an eerie chapter in our local history.

  2. bronxboy55 says:

    As usual, you have taken a difficult and complex issue and put it into words that are filled with both sense and emotion. I don’t really understand what’s so difficult about making schools safe. Each building should have one entrance, with all other doors opening only from the inside. All windows should be made of bullet-proof glass. There should be two police officers at the entrance of each school — rather than out on the road issuing parking tickets or checking cars for expired inspection stickers. And there should be a signal that tells everyone to get to a safe area at the first sign of trouble. The real problem, I think, is that schoolchildren are vulnerable throughout the day. They’re outside for recess. They stand at bus stops, and have to walk from the bus to the building. And those buses run on regular schedules, which makes them easy targets.

    Mental illness is also a difficult thing to address. How does society gauge unusual behavior to the degree that it can identify potential horrors before they happen? After most of these shootings, friends and acquaintances usually express shock that the accused person would ever do such a thing. If they couldn’t see it coming, how can we?

    I guess I don’t really have any answers, either. And like you, I was surprised by those statistics on school shootings going back to the 1960s. Before Jonesboro, I don’t remember hearing about them. Now it seems inevitable that it will happen again, and soon.

    • Thank you, Charles. I think part of the reason that such common-sense measures to improve school safety haven’t been taken is that the costs are prohibitive. In the past ten years, federal and state education budgets have been slashed, and local communities have been expected to pick up the slack–but many of them can’t. I watched a news segment earlier this week about an elementary school deemed one of the safest in the country–it had just spent several million dollars upgrading its security system. Most schools, especially the small ones like mine, simply don’t have the financial resources to make those changes, no matter how much they would like to. And yes, you are right, schoolchildren are vulnerable throughout the day–we can lock those doors as soon as the school day starts, but what’s to stop a gunman from entering the building before then? And in the case of Sandy Hook, the doors were locked and the gunman shot through a window to enter the building–evil finds a way.

      And as much as I believe more emphasis needs to be placed on mental health treatment, I agree that gauging unusual behavior and identifying potential horrors can be extremely difficult and often impossible. How can anyone truly know what is in the mind of another? We have to make improvements, but those improvements won’t be foolproof, either.

      I was busy writing Friday and was unaware until later that night that another school shooting had taken place in Colorado–so not only did it happen again but it also happened sooner than I expected. But I can’t say I was surprised–saddened, but not surprised.

  3. Liliofthefield says:

    “You can no more eradicate violence than you could eradicate love or hate or laughter…. The love of violence is an aspect of our humanity. Even the weak wish to be strong primarily so they can wield the whip.” – Dan Simmons.

    …disturbing. Very disturbing.

    A dark yet very pivotal post, Karen. Many need to read your words. There are so many layers and sub-layers that exist here that coming to even several conclusions or theories proves to be, in my opinion, unattainable. That said, there is one theory in regards to the plethora of school shootings (and the Colorado cinema shootings) which has proven to be a hot point with many – the fact that a large percentage of the assailants were later known to be on prescribed pharmaceutical prescription drugs – namely anti-depressants. While I will instantly state that this factor does not lend credence to a “black and white/open and shut” case, the very fact that this is an established fact does necessitate further in-depth study. I’m not saying that the drugs were the sole impetus; only that it does raise numerous red flags which to-date are being ignored. Dangerous.

    I also believe we must, as a society, take a long and crucial look at how our sons are raised and conditioned to manifest a myriad of negative behavioral traits which are looked upon by fat too many as simply “boys will be boys”. Rubbish. This question alone would prompt me to write page after page of theories and draw up several conclusions.

    Aside from the above, one’s head simply spins at the acceleration of this heinous phenomena. Your country is, as you well know, not alone in regards to these incidents. Here in Canada, on December 6, 1989, at the École Polytechnique in Montreal. Twenty five year old Marc Lépine, armed with a legally obtained mini-14 rifle and a hunting knife, shot twenty-eight people before killing himself. He began his attack by entering a classroom at the university, where he separated the male and female students. After claiming that he was “fighting feminism” and calling the women “a bunch of feminists,” he shot all nine women in the room, killing six. He then moved through corridors, the cafeteria, and another classroom, specifically targeting women to shoot. Overall, he killed fourteen women and injured ten other women and four men in just under twenty minutes before turning the gun on himself. Lépine was the son of a French-Canadian mother and an Algerian father, and had been physically abused by his father. His suicide note claimed political motives and blamed feminists for ruining his life. The note included a list of nineteen Quebec women whom Lépine considered to be feminists and apparently wished to kill. It is not known if Marc Lépine was on prescribed anti-depressants, yet his Father’s abuse may provide a clue or two. Again, so many variables which can lead to several related and unrelated conclusions. This horrific crime still very much haunts my country.

    Another example is the Dunblane school massacre occurred at Dunblane Primary School on March 13, 1996, in Dunblane, Scotland.The gunman, 43-year-old Thomas Hamilton entered the school armed with four handguns, shooting and killing sixteen children and one adult before committing suicide. it remains one of the deadliest criminal acts involving firearms in the history of the United Kingdom. It was a shattering crime against these young children, all under the age of ten years old.

    Peace on earth, and goodwill to all its men, women and children.

    • Lillian, I’ve been preoccupied with spreading my own “peace on earth and goodwill to all,” and I just saw your comment. It is certainly a complex and widespread problem, and although I agree that no one explanation or solution is attainable, you have raised some interesting points, and I hope greater minds than mine are already investigating those points. A very interesting article in The Week, “Why Are There So Few Female Mass Murderers?” ( states that, “According to Mother Jones, 62 mass shootings — defined as a single spree that killed at least four people — have been carried out in the U.S. since 1982. Only one was perpetrated by a female.” The article goes on to explain why these crimes are almost exclusively committed by young men in our society, and, as you’ve said, should force us to take a long, hard look at how we raise our sons.

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