I was a high school senior when the massacre took place. When I arrived home from school that day, I dragged my overstuffed backpack to the living room, flopped down on the couch and turned on the TV, searching for a rerun of Beverly Hills 90210 to provide background noise for my homework. But my regularly scheduled programming was nowhere to be found. Instead, I was accosted by helicopter footage of teenagers who were dangling from classroom windows and hunching over as they scurried away from their school, panicked parents searching for answers about the safety of their children and shell-shocked news anchors asking confused questions.
I don’t know how long it took me to understand what was happening on the television—that someone was killing kids at Columbine High School. Probably no more than thirty seconds. I do know I continued to stare at the screen for the next three hours, until my mom arrived home from work and convinced me to take a break from the coverage.
But I couldn’t unsee what I had seen, and I couldn’t shake the sick feeling in my gut or the unnerving anxiety buzzing from my head down into my fingers. Even after the screen went dark, I still saw kids my own age running for their lives, moaning and keening about their friends and teachers being shot before their eyes, clinging to their parents for dear life instead of pushing them away out of embarrassment. I saw a school in Colorado that reminded me of the one I attended in Minnesota. I saw terrified kids who dressed and talked a lot like my friends and classmates.
Before that day, I didn’t know the town of Littleton, Colorado, existed. I’d never considered the possibility I might be murdered in math class. I was unaware of just how much some people love and cherish their guns. I had no idea that mass murders in churches, shopping malls, and schools would become the norm in the United States.
More than sixteen years have passed since two teenage boys with a lot of anger and easy access to firearms terrorized this country. Since that day, a lot has changed. We elected our first African American president. We mapped the human genome. We figured out how to watch TV without commercials. But we still can’t manage to keep our kids safe at school.
I first learned of last week’s disturbing shooting rampage at Umpqua Community College in Oregon from my Facebook feed, when a friend posted something about “another school shooting.” I wish I could say I reacted with shock and disbelief, but I didn’t. In 2015, mass shootings in the U.S. are no longer a shock. Instead, I gave a tired sigh and a helpless shake of my head.
For the first few days after hearing the Umpqua news, my usual feelings of outrage, frustration and fear overrode everything else. Outrage at the NRA and the politicians who accept the group’s money and endorsements; frustration at the insulting, overly simplistic theory that mental illness is the reason children in this country are dying, as well as the suggestion that arming teachers is a solution to gun violence (thank you very much, Vince Vaughn and Donald Trump); fear that my kids might be targeted next.
In the past, those feelings have lasted anywhere between a few days and a few weeks for me after a mass killing spree; then I usually let them go in order to maintain my sanity.
But something about the Umpqua rampage feels different to me. The shooting itself was largely the same as those that preceded it: A young White man legally purchased an absurd number of guns and unleashed his frustration in a building full of innocent victims. No, the difference is not in the rampage itself, but in our reaction to it. Call me naïve, but a tiny, guileless part of me believes our outrage might actually stick this time.
What could possibly give me that sliver of hope?
It started with the reaction of President Obama. Our leader is wearing his fury like a stark white t-shirt fresh out of the package. He has voiced his rage with politicians who bend to the will of the NRA, and with reporters who ask inane questions like, “Can you use your bully pulpit to talk some sense into the young men of this country?” He has stated that he is no longer afraid of “politicizing” mass shootings; in fact, he recommends voting against any candidates who oppose gun control, regardless of their opinions on other issues. His anger helps me feel justified in my own.
I also feel hope because those close to the Umpqua rampage have reacted differently than some have in the past. The chief of police investigating the incident followed a recent trend by refusing to release the shooter’s name to the public, stating he would not “give him the credit he probably sought prior to this horrific and cowardly act.” The father of the gunman has spoken publicly on his feelings regarding gun control, telling reporters that it was too easy for his son to compile an arsenal of fourteen guns. While it’s entirely possible the shooter’s father has made poor parenting choices in the past, I take heart in his willingness to state that opinion, rather than hiding from the press all together.
But my hope over the last week has been sustained most by the reaction of everyday people. Even in my famously passive-aggressive home state of Minnesota, gun control supporters are no longer keeping their thoughts and opinions to themselves. Instead, I’ve seen and heard about strong-minded people standing up for the safety of our children, lobbying their elected officials, sharing statistics about gun violence, and begging Second Amendment supporters to act rationally.
I’m not naïve enough to believe that Umpqua will be the final straw in the gun control battle. I don’t expect that children will stop dying violent deaths tomorrow. I know the fight to keep them safe is nowhere near over.
That just means we have to stay angry.
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