Guns, Fear, and Sandy Hook

Guns, Fear, and Sandy Hook

Armed guard outside school. (Source: Steve Liss/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image)
Armed guard outside school. (Source: Steve Liss/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image)

It’s been a month since tragedy struck Newtown, CT: a small, wealthy suburb of New York. On a clear December morning, a regular day at the local elementary school exploded in gunfire, forever transforming that community. In a few short minutes, they lost six adults and twenty children to dumbfounding violence.

Since then, there have been many reactions to this disturbing event. On a personal note, it’s given pause to many educators, myself included. We picture our beautiful children under attack while under our care. We ask ourselves: What would I do? How would I react?

In the public arena, we’ve seen a wide spectrum of responses. In Connecticut, the focus is on healing. On the national stage, the focus is on gun sales and ownership and, to a lesser extent, on mental health. It is the opinion of this author that we need more time and energy spent on healing all people affected by violence, and that if we want to focus on gun violence, we should focus on gun manufacture rather than on sales. Perhaps most importantly, we have to protect students and teachers from further militarization of schools and further standardization of the school-to-prison pipeline; a much more insidious and pervasive threat than school violence.

In Newtown, amidst a (probably unhelpful) flurry of attention, time has been spent on grief. The children (as well as the adults around them) are being treated according to the best and latest in medical research on trauma. In fact, students in schools around the area who might have been affected peripherally are receiving opportunities for counseling.

This is as it should be. No matter how busy we are, how pressing the demands of our lives seem, we need to be able to take a step back to contemplate the value of life, especially when that value is called into question.

Unfortunately, too often these opportunities are missed in the hectic schedule of test prep that many urban and rural schools are subject to. At least five times in the six years I taught at Heritage, a young person who was close with students and teachers at the school was killed. In fact, on the fifth day of my first year teaching, we lost a student to gunfire. I never knew the young man; he was known by students and staff by the name of ‘Nard. He was on our roll as a ninth grader, though I think he had been on our roll as a ninth grader the previous year as well. We as a society had failed him utterly—he had, at 15, dropped out and turned to dangerous, extra-legal sources of income. But according to students and teachers, he was a smart, funny, kind young man. He was well liked and sorely missed.

I distinctly remember a memo stating that anyone, students or staff, who wished to see the school counselors was welcome at any time. I also recall students being sent back to my class, deep in mourning, because the counselors were all overbooked and the waiting rooms were full. Students who would never speak rudely to me again in all of the next four years snapped at me. I, in my ignorance, chastised them and called their parents to say how bad they’d been, rather than to say how deeply they were hurting.

Although the tragedy in Sandy Hook is more acute, it is likely that the survivors—carefully treated early and treated well for their emotional wounds—will be better equipped to overcome than students in inner cities whose lives are infused with violence. Children are as emotionally sensitive as they are physically sensitive. Most of us would expect a healthy adult to go a few hours without food, to stand in the cold without a hat for a few minutes, to carry a heavy package a few hundred feet. We don’t ask children to do these things until we’re really sure they’re ready, (and yes, 14-year-olds are children). When children are exposed to trauma they need us to shoulder their burdens for a moment and reassure them that there is still goodness in the world, that this too shall pass.

More than twenty children under eighteen have been killed in Baltimore City in the last two years. Five of them were under two. I have not heard of a single day being taken off from school, a single period of instruction missed, to help students process these tragedies. In my first years teaching, when Ms. Lawrence was in charge of Heritage High, she tried to give us space and time to process, but we were still often made to feel that we were depriving the students of precious instructional time. Thinking back on it now, I see what a waste plowing forward truly was.

So, I have to give a great deal of credit to the people in and supporting Newtown for ensuring that counseling and security have been provided for as many people as possible, preferencing those most in need.

On a national level, however, rather than focus on healing ourselves and each other, we’ve devolved into another partisan nightmare.

We have people rabidly decreeing that preventing certain people from possessing guns is a panacea.

We have families breaking painful silences around important mental health issues, but ultimately leading us to oversimplified solutions of medication and control.

And, of course, we have the NRA offering free training for “good guys” to carry guns to school.

There has been a certain amount of distaste for this so called “politicization” from all sides. It does feel odd to talk about alternatives for prevention while the wound of Newtown is still open, but we also have to deal honestly with the facts. The problem is that many people aren’t looking at the facts at all, they’re simply pushing their party’s line.

This is obviously a broad generalization. Most people coming out to speak about these issues are doing so because they want to stop the next tragedy before it starts. Educators applying for concealed weapons permits and signing up for training classes are doing so because they desperately want to be able to protect the young lives trusted in their care. Whatever you or I believe about guns, we also know that many people do feel safer with them, even if statistically speaking, guns make the people around them less safe. And there are well meaning people right now, fantasizing about heroically being the “good guy,” effortlessly picking a gun-wielding “bad guy” out of a crowd just before he opens fire—despite the fact that none of the more than sixty mass shootings in the past thirty years has been stopped by an armed civilian.

Likewise, people circulating gun control petitions on the internet are doing so because they genuinely believe that this may help to avert future tragedies. One of these petitions became the most signed White House petition within three days of being posted, despite the fact that most of the guns used in mass murders were owned legally by the shooters, and that most of the proposed laws wouldn’t have prevented the shooters from obtaining their guns.

The problem is that both of these “solutions” are mass-media fueled knee-jerk reactions. People are horrified, and quick to give the answer they already believe: guns [will/ will not] make us safer; we must [arm the “good guys”/ stop selling arms].

The most compelling articles and posts I’ve read have been nuanced, showing care and consideration for both sides of this coin while also considering factors like race, class and gender, but they are few and far between. As the aforementioned blog points out, there are a lot of arguments to be made that, in a country with a demonstrably racist penal system, black and brown people may need protection from trigger-happy law enforcement officers. On the other hand, many guns that end up being used in crimes are originally purchased legally, and then stolen or sold onto the underground  market here and in countries like Mexico and Jamaica. (In fact, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms ran an official program called Fast and Furious in which they purchased assault rifles and sold them to Mexican Cartels, supposedly in order to track the guns further up the hierarchy of those cartels. Needless to say, those guns have been implicated in the deaths of many people including, notably, a Border Patrol Agent.)

Of course, a world where no one had guns—not military, nor law enforcement, nor civilians—would be safer than one which has them. However, we live in this world in which the number of guns owned by civilians is on the steady rise, though not faster than the number of guns in use by police and military. Why, then, is the focus so narrowly on gun sales? Why aren’t we focused at all on the gun manufacturers?

Gun lobbyists spend tens of millions of dollars a year in Washington, and more with local politicians. Although much of what they’re after is military contracts—guns sent overseas, often to kill other people’s children—they certainly attend to gun control laws here in the states. In fact, in the past ten years, major contributions from arms manufacturers have encouraged the NRA to align itself more with their desires than with those of gun owners.

Gun manufacturers have a lot to gain right now. The NRA’s official statement called for “armed security in every school.” That would mean hundreds of thousands of new orders for guns to arm those guards. And there has been a mad stirring of pro-gun fervor on the internet which has driven gun sales up exponentially in the days after the shooting.

So, why not? Why not have armed guards in all schools? Sure, it would be extremely expensive and take more money away from programming that might help kids learn, but at some point, we have to value safety above learning, right?

As previously noted in this column, the school-to-prison pipeline is a very real threat to freedom, safety, and justice in this country. How can we think that treating children like violent criminals will make them less likely to act as such? We can assume that in a wealthy, predominantly white town like Sandy Hook, even high schoolers would be treated like innocents most of the time. But we know that Black and brown teenagers, especially boys, are already feared, demonized, and treated as dangerous beasts.

The nation shook, however briefly, when Trayvon Martin was gunned down this past spring in Florida, the pack of candy in his pocket a testament to his childlike innocence. But there was considerably less media attention when another 17-year-old Black male was killed fewer than ten months later in the same state. Jordan Davis and friends were listening to music in their SUV while filling up at a gas station when 45-year-old, white Michael Dunn asked them to turn the music down. After some argument, Dunn fired 8 shots into the SUV and fled the scene. When caught, he told police he’d seen a shotgun in the SUV, though no bystanders, medics, or police saw any weapon at all in the possession of the young people.

A similar scene is not hard to imagine in a school: there are a group of teens who are identified by many in the school as being “thugs.” There is an armed guard (or several armed guards) who are “keeping their eyes on them.” One of the guards wakes up with an ominous feeling one morning, and carries it with them to the school. A few hours pass, but the guard’s hand stays near the butt of the gun.

Just before lunch, one of these “known troublemakers” sneaks out of class and is slinking around in back hallways, trying to get out to get a burger during their lunch period. The guard hears something and springs into action:  tracking the kid and catching them just as they turn around a corner. The kid fishes in their hoodie pocket for the phoney hall pass they wrote, but the guard is sure they’re going for a gun.

“Put your hands where I can see them!”
“I’m trying, my hand is stuck in the cord of my headphones!”
“I’m going to count to three!”

Two counts later, the child’s hand begins to emerge, clutching a matte black shape. The well-trained guard fires one deadly shot into the head of this rotten kid they never liked anyway. Got them before they could get me. Wonder what kind of gun that is.

But, of course, it’s a music-player. Who would have thought, the one time they were telling the truth...

This scenario may seem unlikely, and it is, but the circumstances surrounding the deaths of both of those boys in Florida last year were also extremely unlikely. Yet, those boys are gone.

So if armed guards at schools isn’t the solution, but we don’t want more repressive, selectively-enforced restrictions on who-can-carry-what—which invariably leads to metal detectors, stop-and-frisk, and profiling—what about mental health screening? Do we force everyone to sit for compulsory psychiatric exams and red-flag everyone we think might be dangerous? Will that make people more likely to be honest about their insecurities, their built-up angers? While we desperately need better access to mental health services in this country, forced medication and forced hospitalization are not the solutions we need. Nor is it helpful to associate mental illness with violent acts like this, when there is no concrete evidence that Adam Lanza had any mental health issues.

Do we take violent video games and shoot-em-up movies off the shelves and burn them in a pyre, welcoming in the new age of tranquility? Unfortunately, as long as the US Army is relying on video game-like computer programs to operate drone attacks, many of which kill children, this isn’t a very strong argument.

Or do we have to go to the incredible trouble of learning to see each other as equals? This will take time and energy, and there aren’t many ways that companies can profit from it directly. However, one of the surest ways to avoid violent crimes is to ensure that everyone has enough to eat, a safe place to sleep, and the assurance they and the people they love will continue to have such things. Taking time to imagine the plights of others makes us less likely to demonize them, and more likely to reach out.

Just this past week, a student brought a gun to school in California, determined to shoot two of his classmates. Instead of shooting at him, a teacher and a counselor engaged him in conversation and convinced him to put the gun down. One student was wounded, but is currently in stable condition. If the first person on the scene had been an armed guard, the angry, confused young man who brought his brother’s (legally owned) gun to school might be dead. The shooter’s neighbor rightly hoped "maybe people will learn not to bully people.” I would add to that prayer, maybe people will learn to see each other.

I’m not so naive as to think this will come to pass in the 2013 Legislative Session. But I’m sure that continuing to work only within the realm of possibilities presented to us by lobbyists, politicians, and corporations will not solve our problems.

In Amazing Grace, Jonathan Kozol’s haunting portrait of life in the South Bronx in the '90s, he quotes a priest in the neighbourhood who tells him, "You have to remember that for this little boy whom you have met, his life is just as important, to him, as your life is to you. No matter how insufficient or how shabby it may seem to some, it is the only one he has." As a nation, and a global community, we need to decide that we are going to prioritize the sanctity of life and of freedom, set aside our party lines and quick fixes, and get down to the business of re-humanizing our world.

Iris Kirsch

Iris Kirsch is a Baltimore City Public School teacher and a worker-owner of the Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse. A native New Yorker, ze has been living in Baltimore for the past 13 years and loves it. Ze is a voracious reader, an amateur costumer, and a perennial joke-player. Some of zer articles are partially ghost-written by zer cat, Cat Jones.