Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Mass Shootings in the Marketplace: A Plague Upon Our Houses

Time magazine’s cover story, “How the Gun Won,” (6 Aug 2012) by Joe Klein startled me with the statement that mass shootings occur almost 20 times each year.

Incredible that I live in a world, in a time when almost 20 mass shootings occur annually. Since the 1970s, in the U. S., nearly 20 mass shootings occur annually. Among the thousands killed by guns in each calendar year, about 100 of them die in a mass shooting. For the families of those 100, the world must seem dangerous indeed.

As for me, I find it hard to take in the fact that 20 mass shootings occur annually. I wonder why I don't already know that, and I don’t like the most likely answer: I have become so immune to shock about mass shootings that they don’t even register. If that’s true, and I must confess it seems to be true, then I’m not proud of the person looking back at me in the mirror.

When the news broke that at least twelve people in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater had become the victims of a mass shooting, I thought about a brief visit to Aurora in the late 1960s and my friend who now lives in New York City. I thought about the thread of violence that now ties those two places together in my mind.

I read about Alex Teves, Matt McQuinn, and Jon Blunk, the men who used their bodies as armor against bullets, and I thought about the crisis training that my school designed for its teachers after Columbine, remembering the implied duty that a teacher should put her body between her students and bullets. I also remember that the police emphasized how we could avoid becoming a victim ourselves, demonstrating for us the behaviors and postures that we should adopt so that police, in smoky, uncertain surroundings, recreated by smoke canisters and flashing emergency lights, would not mistake one of us for one of the bad guys. I remember feeling fear and its sharp taste in my mouth.

I thought about the irony of death. One Aurora victim, John Larimer, signed on to put his life on the line for his country, but he was not aboard a Navy vessel when he lost his life. He was in a place where he thought he could let down his guard.

I remembered another victim, Jessica Ghawi, who had survived a Toronto shoot-out, only to die one month later in Aurora. Such stories torture us with what ifs and if onlys. Imagine how such questions plague the families.

I remember April 19, the date that a madman, Timothy McVeigh, used fertilizer instead of guns, to kill 167 and forever alter the lives of so many more. Many of my students had relatives involved, either as first responders or one among the victims. I remember the uncertainty as students waited to hear that their parent who worked downtown was unharmed, and I remember the confusion we all felt when one student reported that he’d heard that a plane flew into a building in New York City.

Raise that uncertainty and confusion to an exponent of ten or one hundred. Even then, I doubt that we can walk in the shoes of those husbands, wives, children, and parents waiting to hear from Edmond, OK where the first postal massacre took place; Oak Creek, WI where a white supremacist slaughtered peaceful Sikhs; rural Pennsylvania where a grown man, the parent of three, took revenge upon Amish school girls, killing five; Blacksburg, VA, home to Virginia Tech; and Tuscon, AZ where former Representative Gabby Gifford was trying to talk about what mattered to her constituents.

So many lives cut short. So much innocence lost. Not just the blood of those who had done little more than carry mail, worship freely, attend class, or gather peaceably, but the innocent blood of a nation. Have we become so inured, even calloused, to gun violence and mass killing that it hardly registers upon our souls? Surely not. Surely we can and will awaken from our malaise, surely we shall overcome ennui to take reasonable steps to reduce this number of annual mass shootings: 20, leaving 100 dead.