On days like last Wednesday, I tend to think back to March 24, 1998 (wow, almost 20 years now). On that day, Andrew Golden and Mitchell Johnson, using guns from the home of Golden’s grandfather, ambushed students and teachers at Westside Middle School outside Jonesboro, Ark. Like in Parkland, Fla., an alarm was pulled so that students and teachers could more easily be shot.
I was a clerk on the newspaper’s city desk at that time, and the first reports I heard said only that the shooting was at a school in Jonesboro, where I’d gone to college, but didn’t name the school. A friend’s son was in the Jonesboro school system then, and I worried that it was his school. It turned out not to be, but the sense of relief I had quickly dissipated when I learned that in addition to the four children killed, Shannon Wright, a teacher at the school, died protecting students. Shannon had been my biology lab partner early in my college years, and was nothing but kind. And if I remember correctly, she was a pretty mean square-dancer (a close friend was in the Square Dance Club with her).
Many of us probably have similar stories, especially in the past 20 years as mass shootings at schools and colleges—and just about everywhere else—seem to have escalated. Many of us have some sort of personal connection to someone injured or killed. And many of us are past being tired of this being the norm.
The kids in schools today have never known a world where they weren’t bombarded with news of what seems like shooting after shooting. They’ve grown up in the post-Columbine era; last week the Washington Post, in an ongoing analysis, reported that “more than 150,000 students attending at least 170 primary or secondary schools have experienced a shooting on campus since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.”
With both sides of the gun debate locked into their positions, we get nowhere, especially with the misleading information put out by special-interest groups. Everytown for Gun Safety, for example, has claimed the school shooting in Florida was the 18th so far this year, but it includes in its count accidental discharges and incidents that just happened to have occurred near a school. The Post found only seven intentional shootings during school hours since the beginning of the year.
Gun advocates are no better, using fake quotes from the founders, claiming the Second Amendment has no limitations (it does, according to, among others, no less than the late Justice Antonin Scalia), and claiming that Americans oppose tighter gun regulation (multiple polls—even GOP-skewed Rasmussen—show majorities endorse it).
After every mass shooting we hear that it’s not the time to talk about gun regulation. Translation: It’s never the time to talk about gun regulation because “they” want to grab all our guns. For eight years, we heard that President Obama was going to take away all our guns, yet that didn’t happen (and gun sales went way up). For decades, many have tried to get sensible gun regulations put into place, and most failed (in the case of the assault-weapons ban passed during the Clinton administration, it had a sunset and was allowed to lapse during George W. Bush’s term).
David Hogg, one of the survivors of last Wednesday’s shooting, probably said it best when he told CNN, “We are children. You guys are the adults. Work together, come over your politics, and get something done.”
Hogg, a student journalist, interviewed some of his classmates, several of them on video, while the shooting was still going on. A female student told him, “I don’t really think there’s anything new to say, but there shouldn’t have to be. Because if you looked around this closet and saw everyone just hiding together, you would know that this shouldn’t be happening anymore, and that it doesn’t deserve to happen to anyone.”
Here we have a new media-savvy generation, high school students in that sweet spot of when many kids start to become politically active, and they’re not afraid to talk about what’s happening.
So why are we?
At the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, survivor Emma Gonzalez told an assembled crowd Saturday:
“We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks. Not because we’re going to be another statistic about mass shooting in America … we are going to be the last mass shooting. Just like Tinker v. Des Moines, we are going to change the law. That’s going to be Marjory Stoneman Douglas in that textbook and it’s going to be due to the tireless effort of the school board, the faculty members, the family members and most of all the students. The students who are dead, the students still in the hospital, the students now suffering PTSD, the students who had panic attacks during the vigil because the helicopters would not leave us alone, hovering over the school for 24 hours a day.
“… The people in the government who were voted into power are lying to us. And us kids seem to be the only ones who notice, and our parents, to call BS. Companies trying to make caricatures of the teenagers these days, saying that we all are self-involved and trend-obsessed and they hush us into submission when our message doesn’t reach the ears of the nation, we are prepared to call BS. Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have been done to prevent this, we call BS. They say tougher guns laws do not decrease gun violence. We call BS. They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun. We call BS. They say guns are just tools like knives and are as dangerous as cars. We call BS. They say no laws could have prevented the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred. We call BS. That us kids don’t know what we’re talking about, that we’re too young to understand how the government works. We call BS.”
Many of the students, like Gonzalez, are putting their words into action, planning marches, rallies and activism in hopes they can make changes others couldn’t. Would that we all had the courage and drive they do.
Of course, as usual whenever there’s a shooting like this, conspiracy theories burst forth, though most are recycled, it seems. The student survivors aren’t students, but instead “crisis actors” who travel to mass shooting sites to agitate against guns … or FBI plants … or puppets of George Soros (because he always has to show up … I even saw one that went further and said Obama gave him citizenship so he could destabilize the U.S. … except Soros earned his citizenship in 1961, the year Obama was born) and others. And where would be be without Alex Jones and his “false flag” accusations?
A lot happier, I think, and certainly less disgusted by our fellow man.
I have no suggestions for our gun problem that haven’t already been put forth (many of which if utilized could have a positive effect, such as enhanced background checks and raising the age when someone can buy any type of gun other than traditional single-shot hunting rifles), but the saw that new laws won’t do anything to prevent these tragedies because criminals don’t follow laws is hackneyed. And doing nothing is not an option. Sooner or later, we’ll all have to agree that mental illness is not the primary cause of these shootings; too-easy access, on the other hand …
In so many of these shootings, including the Florida one, the guns were obtained legally under existing regulations. Who’s to say that an enhanced background check wouldn’t have prevented at least one of them?
As far as I can see, so much of this comes down to our priorities and, unfortunately, the safety of our people, and especially our children, doesn’t rank as highly as guns. I guess if guns ever gain sentience and are able to say “I love you,” there’ll be no need for people.
It isn’t too soon to talk about reasonable gun laws, and these students can help lead the way. Let’s just hope it’s not too late.