Yes, of course, when I looked at the pictures of the innocents gunned down in the high school in Santa Fe, Texas, last Friday, I felt some combination of anger and deep sadness. What kind of person could look at portraits of murdered children and not feel both those emotions welling up from deep within? And yet it’s also true that the incident itself independent of the victims—the actual scenario of a young person getting a gun somewhere, entering a school (in this case his own high school), and opening fire on whomever has the misfortune to be standing in his line of fire—the actual incident itself amazed me in precisely the opposite way: by failing to stir up the level of outrage that even I myself think any normal person should bring to his or her contemplation of an event like last week’s bloodbath at Santa Fe High. It’s just become so…so what? So routine, so almost ordinary, so weirdly and eerily banal? The sad truth is that it’s not even that easy after all these incidents for me to remember clearly which shooter attacked which school.As a result, I found myself understanding easily when I listened to that video clip featuring Paige Curry, a seventeen-year-old student at Santa Fe. “It’s been happening everywhere,” Paige said. And then she added a thought that would have once been incomprehensible other than in a horror movie as the cellos start thrumming in the background. “I’ve always kind of felt,” she said, “like it eventually was going to happen here too.” And then, just to sharpen her point, she added the almost obvious: “I wasn’t surprised,” she said. “I was just scared.”
I get it. I’m sure I’d be scared too if I was present in the same building as an unrestrained shooter. But would I be surprised? I think I personally would be. But, of course, I’m not a high school student, much less one in Texas, to whose entire lifetime these incidents have served as a kind of terrifying, if almost ordinary, background. (Today’s high school seniors were born after the Columbine massacre of April 20, 1999, not before.) I was once a high school student, of course. And there were indeed school shootings across the land during my years at Forest Hills High. But what was absent in my day was the sense of randomness that the shooting incidents of these last years seem almost invariably to feature. There were, to be precise, exactly one dozen documented school shootings during the years I was in high school, seven of which took place in high schools or junior highs. The rest took place in universities or colleges, but the salient detail is that none was random: some, like the famous Kent State incident of 1970, took place in the context of political demonstrations; others were tragic, unintentional accidents; and still others, at least half, were targeted assassinations, usually of teachers or principals by disgruntled students. In other words, in none did a young person simply appear in school with a gun and just start shooting.The earliest school shooting in the United States actually preceded the founding of the nation itself. It took place in 1764 in Greencastle, Pennsylvania, in the context of the now-long-since-forgotten war called Pontiac’s War in which native tribes banded together to protest British policies towards them. And it was thus, at least in their own minds, as an act of war that four Delaware Indians entered that town’s school building on July 26 of that year and shot to death the school’s principal, one Enoch Brown. Whether Greencastle can count as our country’s first brush with murder at school, or whether the murder of John Davis, the law professor at the University of Virginia who was murdered by one of his students on November 12, 1840, deserves to be considered the first American school shooting, seems to me at least debatable. (I believe the Greencastle incident is the only school shooting, even now, in American history that took place in the context of an actual war. But it seems odd to consider it an American event, given that the United States did not yet even exist.) But the more profound question is not which incident gets the most reasonably to be labelled our first school shooting, but whether we can stem this tide of senseless violence before it becomes even more endemic, even more a part of our national culture, even more inextricably woven into the fabric of our American ethos…and as such something that in the end simply cannot in any practical way be eradicated.
To my way of thinking, this is specifically not a Second Amendment issue and we have done ourselves no service by appearing unable to frame it any other way. Indeed, approaching the question from that vantage point—i.e., by wondering if Americans should or shouldn’t be allowed to bear arms or how that right should or shouldn’t be curtailed with respect to one or another subgroup within the citizenry—that seems to me to be the precisely least productive way to engage with this issue. Instead, this should be a considered a safety issue—and in the context of school shootings, a children’s safety issue—and the question framed, not in terms of the rights of citizens (or specific citizens) to own guns at all or specific kinds of guns, but in terms of the basic right of all citizens, most definitely including children, to be safe from harm as they go about conducting their daily affairs.We’ve managed this in other areas, after all. In a truly remarkable essay published last November, Nicholas D. Kristoff made the remarkable point that, through a combination of innovation, legislation, and increased awareness on the part of the public, we have managed to reduce the likelihood of an American dying in an automobile accident by an unbelievable 95% since 1921. (To see Kristoff’s essay, click here.) Even more to the point is that we have done so not by prohibiting the use of cars, not by making cars increasingly less powerful with each model year, not by continually raising the age at which young people can get driver’s licenses, not by requiring background checks before permitting a dealer to sell a car to anyone at all, and not by requiring people to acquire government-issued permits to purchase motorized vehicles. Instead, we allowed what we know of cars—and, no less crucially, what we know of the people who drive them—to inspire innovation after innovation intended to diminish the likelihood of an American dying in a car accident.
We all know how this has been accomplished. Seatbelts were introduced in 1950 and eventually made mandatory in all fifty states. Federal safety standards were first imposed on automobile manufacturers in 1968. The national 55 m.p.h. speed limit was imposed on most American highways in 1974. Car safety ratings, giving consumers the opportunity to purchase vehicles based on the degree to which they were considered safe to operate by unbiased experts and not merely the degree to which they were touted as such by their manufacturers, were introduced in 1993. Front-seat airbags became mandatory in 1999. We introduced mandatory reporting of defects by car manufacturers in 2000. And the result? In 1946, there were 9.35 deaths per 100 million miles driven in the United States. In 2016, there were 1.18 deaths per 100 million miles driven. That is a truly amazing statistic, one all Americans should bear in mind as they search for a way to make safe our schools and protect our children. It surely can be done. We just need to figure out how.As Mount Kilauea continues to erupt in Hawaii, there has apparently been a resurgence of interest in Madame Pele, the traditional Hawaiian goddess of destruction imagined to govern that fiery mountain and to control its lava flow. I doubt most Hawaiians take these beliefs too literally, although there are apparently those who take them very seriously indeed. (Click here to read more.) Nor is the idea of a god or goddess of destruction unfamiliar to me—the Israelites themselves used regularly to flirt with the idea of bringing some version of Mot, the Canaanite god of death and destruction, into the Israelite cult as a kind of sub-deity deemed responsible for destruction and death in the world. The prophets inveighed against that kind of potential deviation from strict monotheism, but I can certainly understand the appeal of explaining away at least some of the terrible things that happen in the world by blaming them on perverse deities intent on bringing mayhem to the world. But when it comes to the scourge of gun violence in our land (and particularly the version directed at children or teenagers in school), it feels ridiculous to blame the situation on malevolent gun gods or on our national ethos, or in describing it as the inevitable consequence of our right to bear arms.
It’s easy to be cynical. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard people say in the last little while that there simply is no solution, that if Sandy Hook wasn’t enough to rouse Americans to action than nothing ever will be. I suppose there’s something to that. But the dimensions of the problem need to rouse us to action anyway: if you include suicides, there have been more gun deaths in our nation’s history (about 1.4 million) than deaths in all the wars in which our country has participated since the Revolution itself (about 1.3 million, as Shelter Rockers who come to Yizkor all know). In most years, more Nursery-School-aged children die from gunfire than police officers risking their lives in the line of duty. We have created this situation and I simply can’t imagine that we can’t also solve it.