I just had to explain what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. to my eight-year-old grandchildren. In the end I really did not know what to say so I just gave them a chance to speak. They did not really know what to say either.
During the 2012 Presidential election debate at Hofstra University, a member of the audience asked President Barack Obama, "What has your administration done or planned to do to limit the availability of assault weapons?" Both President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney started by stating their belief in the Second Amendment and the right on Americans to "bear arms." They also argued that the country has to enforce existing guns laws and that if "our schools are working" there would be less gun violence. Romney expressed his belief that " if we do a better job in education, we'll give people the hope and opportunity they deserve and perhaps less violence from that." In addition, he argued "We need moms and dads, helping to raise kids . . . Tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone, that's a great idea . . . If there's a two-parent family, the prospect of living in poverty goes down dramatically." The implication here was that the failings by schools and teachers as well as of parents in single-parent families was behind gun violence, not the lack of gun control laws.
The debate took place three months after twelve people were shot to death and fifty more were wounded in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. According to its website, Aurora, which is part of the greater Denver metropolitan area, is the eighth-safest city in the United States. The accused killer used a semiautomatic military rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun, and a semiautomatic pistol, all acquired legally because of the absence of effective gun control. Not only was he from an "intact" two-parent family, but he was highly educated and had recently dropped out of a doctoral program.
Colorado was also the site of the Columbine High School shootings, the fourth most deadly in United States history, in 2009. The two teen-aged perpetrators, who committed suicide at the site, also had legally acquired semi-automatic weapons. Both of the shooters were from "intact" two-parent families and they attended one of the few public high schools in Colorado to receive a "distinguished" rating from the website GreatSchools.org.
I attended an elite public high school during the 1960s where I felt pretty much like a misplaced piece of furniture. I had passed the stiff admissions test, but the school was set up for the privileged few, and the rest of us received little support or attention.
At school, I had a group of friends who could fairly be described as weird. Where possible, we sat in the back of rooms and tried to remain anonymous. During our free time we read and discussed science fiction and fantasy novels. Our particular favorite was Doc Savage and we imagined joining his band of superheroes.
For three alienating years, we listened to dark and heavy music such as the Doors, the Animals and the Stones; experimented with alcohol and hallucinogenic drugs; and dreamed of having girlfriends. At one point we organized our own mythic religion, which we called Zo'olium, and we discussed building a rocket ship in shop class and blowing up the school. We did not want to hurt anybody, but we did want to do away with a hated place that we experienced as a prison.
My friends and I were pretty serious about some of our fantasies. After graduation, two of us spent the summer searching for Bigfoot in the Pacific Northwest and the following year three of us traipsed through the Andes and along the Amazon River in South America. Our parents were deeply worried about our behavior, our sullen demeanor, and our use of drugs, but there was little they could do to change things.
Mostly they just hung on to tenuous relationships, hoping we would grow up before we hurt ourselves or ruined our lives. I have lost track of most of the guys from Zo'olium, but from what I have heard, they have generally done all right with their lives. A couple of them are engineers, one is a restaurateur, one is an astronomer, one is a postal worker and part-time author, and I am a teacher.
I think about my friends and our high school experiences whenever I hear about another new case of school or teenage violence. I suspect that many other adults have also been rethinking their pasts as a result of the shooting deaths at places like Aurora and Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. What I have tried to figure out is what was different then, and why we did not take the same destructive path.
Many commentators have called for increased vigilance by school authorities to target suspect youth before they have a chance to injure themselves or others. Sometimes this profiling would be coupled with psychological support services, but usually it just means keeping an eye on teenagers that people find "too different" because of their appearance, music, or ideas. Some have suggested that the solution to this type of violence is increased school security. They want teachers and principals to have the power to search and suspend students, metal detectors installed at entrances, and police officers assigned to buildings.
These proposals share three things in common: They are premised on the idea that alienated young people are somehow different from the rest of us and do not deserve our concern; they violate fundamental democratic rights that are cherished in our society such as freedom of speech, the right to due process, and the right to privacy; and they generally ignore why those two young men at Columbine High School were able to kill and injure so many other people and then to kill themselves.
As I think back on the past and my friends, what emerges most clearly is that our culture has changed. Today, we live in a culture that glorifies violence in sports and the movies and where the evening news celebrates the death of others through hygienic strategic bombings. It is a society that promotes the need for instant gratification and uses youthful alienation to sell products, where those who do not fit in are ignored, where schools still rank and sort out young people and brand them as failures. And we live in a country where unhappy people have easy access to plans to make bombs on the Internet and can purchase weapons of immense destructive capacity.
Although I do not absolve them of responsibility for their actions, there is more to blame for what happened in Aurora and Columbine than those young men. I can only think of two solutions that would help prevent future violent explosions like this one. As a former high school teacher, I am convinced that if these young men had had a place where they felt they belonged, where people cared about them, they might not have committed those violent acts against others.
But even more crucially, if our country had strict gun control laws, maybe no one would have died in the incidents at Aurora, Columbine and Newtown, Conn. When I was in high school, we were weird and we were alienated, but we did not have guns.
Between 1982 and 2012 over the course of three decades there were 62 mass murders in the United States using firearms. They have taken place in thirty states. The killers had in their possession 142 guns. At least three-fourths of these weapons had been obtained legally. About half of the cases involved school or workplace shootings. Shootings also took place in shopping malls, restaurants, government buildings, and military bases. Forty-three of the killers were white males. Only one was a woman. The killers also tended to be relatively young. There average age was thirty-five. In every case but two the killers acted alone.
1982, Miami, Florida: A man opened fire inside a welding shop after his wife left him. Total injured and killed: 11
1984, Dallas, Texas: A man opened fire at an upscale nightclub after a woman rejected his advances. Total injured and killed: 7
1984, San Ysidro, California: A man opened fire in a McDonald's restaurant. Total injured and killed: 41
1986 Edmond, Oklahoma: A Postal worker opened fire at a post office before committing suicide. Total injured and killed: 21
1987 Palm Bay, Florida: A retired librarian killed five people at two supermarkets.
1988, Sunnyvale, California: A former employee of ESL Incorporated killed seven people at his former workplace. Total injured and killed: 11
1989, Stockton, California: An alcoholic with a police record attacked an elementary school where many young Southeast Asian immigrants were enrolled. Total injured and killed: 35
1989, Louisville, Kentucky: A man killed eight people at his former workplace before committing suicide. Total injured and killed: 21
1990, Jacksonville, Florida: A man opened fire at a General Motors Acceptance Corporation office before committing suicide. Total injured and killed: 14
1991, Killeen, Texas: A man drove a pickup truck into a Luby's cafeteria and opened fire before committing suicide. Total injured and killed: 44
1991, Iowa City, Iowa: A former graduate student at the University of Iowa on a rampage on campus and then committed suicide. Total injured and killed: 7
1991, Royal Oak, Michigan: A laid-off postal worker opened fire at his former workplace before committing suicide. Total injured and killed: 10
1992, Olivehurst, California: A former Lindhurst High School student killed three students and a teacher. Total injured and killed: 14
1992, Watkins Glen, New York: A man killed four child-support workers in a county office building before committing suicide. Total injured and killed: 5
1993, San Francisco, CA: A failed businessman fire throughout an office building before he committed suicide. Total injured and killed: 15
1993, Fayetteville, North Carolina: An Army Sergeant opened fire inside a restaurant. Total injured and killed: 12
1993, Garden City, New York: A passenger opened fire on a Long Island Rail Road train. Total injured and killed: 25
1993, Aurora, Colorado: A recently fired Chuck E. Cheese's employee went on a rampage through his former workplace.
1994, Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington: A former airman opened fire inside a hospital at the Fairchild Air Force Base. Total injured and killed: 28
1995, Corpus Christi, Texas: A former employee opened fire at the Walter Rossler Company before committing suicide. Total injured and killed: 6
1996, Fort Lauderdale, Florida: A fired city park employee opened fire on former coworkers. He then committed suicide.
1997, Aiken, South Carolina: An employee opened fire at the R.E. Phelon Company in retaliation for being fired. Total injured and killed: 7
1997, Orange, California: A former Caltrans employee opened fire at a maintenance yard. Total injured and killed: 7
1998, Newington, Connecticut: A lottery worker gunned down four bosses before committing suicide. Total injured and killed: 6
1998, Jonesboro, Arkansas: Two students ambushed students and teachers as they left school. Total injured and killed: 15
1998, Springfield, Oregon: A high school freshman at Thurston High went on a shooting spree after being expelled from school. Total injured and killed: 29
1999, Littleton, Colorado: Two students opened fire throughout Columbine High School before committing suicide. Total injured and killed: 39
1999, Atlanta, Georgia: A day trader who had lost a large amount of money on a shooting spree at two day trading firms. Total injured and killed: 22
1999, Fort Worth, Texas: A man opened fire inside the Wedgwood Baptist Church during a prayer rally before committing suicide. Total injured and killed: 15
1999, Honolulu, Hawaii: A Xerox service technician opened fire inside an office building. Total injured and killed: 7
1999, Tampa, Florida: A hotel employee killed four coworkers. Total injured and killed: 8
2000, Wakefield, Massachusetts: An employee opened fire on coworkers at Edgewater Technology. Total injured and killed: 7
2001, Melrose Park, Illinois: A fired employee opened fire at his former Navistar workplace before committing suicide. Total injured and killed: 9
2003, Meridian, Mississippi: An assembly line worker opened fire at a Lockheed Martin plant before committing suicide. Total injured and killed: 15
2004, Columbus, Ohio: Attack launched by a former guitarist with the band Pantera. Total injured and killed: 12
2005, Brookfield, Wisconsin: A member of the Living Church of God, opened fire at a church meeting before committing suicide. Total injured and killed: 11
2005, Red Lake, Minnesota: A teenager murdered his grandfather and then killed eight more people before committing suicide. Total injured and killed: 15
2006, Goleta, California: A female former postal worker shot a former neighbor and then killed six more people at a mail processing before committing suicide. Total injured and killed: 8
2006, Seattle, Washington: A young man opened fire at a rave after-party before committing suicide. Total injured and killed: 9
2006, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania: A man killed five young girls in a one-room Amish schoolhouse. Total injured and killed: 11
2007, Salt Lake City, Utah: A teenager opened fire in a shopping center. Total injured and killed: 10
2007, Blacksburg, Virginia: A Virginia Tech student opened fire on his school's campus before committing suicide. Total injured and killed: 56
2007, Omaha, Nebraska: A teenager opened fire inside Westroads Mall before committing suicide. Total injured and killed: 13
2008, Kirkwood, Missouri: A man went on a rampage at the city hall before being shot and killed by police. Total injured and killed: 8
2008, DeKalb, Illinois: A man opened fire on the Northern Illinois University campus and then committed suicide. Total injured and killed: 27
2008, Henderson, Kentucky: An employee opened fire at an Atlantis Plastics factory and then committed suicide. Total injured and killed: 7
2009, Carthage, North Carolina: A man opened fire at a nursing home where his estranged wife worked. Total injured and killed: 11
2009, Binghamton, New York: A man opened fire at the American Civic Association center for immigrants before committing suicide. Total injured and killed: 18
2009, Texas: An Army psychiatrist opened fire on an Army base. Total injured and killed: 43
2009, Parkland, Washington: A prisoner out on bail shot four police officers at a coffee shop. Total injured and killed: 5
2010, Manchester, Connecticut: An employee opened fire at his Hartford Beer Distributor workplace after facing disciplinary issues and then committed suicide. Total injured and killed: 11
2011, Tucson, Arizona: A young man opened fire outside a Safeway during a constituent meeting with Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Total injured and killed: 19
2011, Carson City, Nevada: A man opened fire at an International House of Pancakes restaurant. Total injured and killed: 12
2011,Seal Beach, California: A man opened fire inside a hair salon. Total injured and killed: 9
2012, Atlanta, Georgia: A man returned to a spa from which he had been kicked out and killed his sisters and their husbands before committing suicide. Total injured and killed: 5
2012, Oakland, California: A former student at Oikos University opened fire in a nursing classroom. Total injured and killed: 10
2012, Seattle, Washington: A man shot patrons at a café. Total injured and killed: 7
2012, Aurora, Colorado: A former graduate student opened fire in a movie theater during the opening night of "The Dark Night Rises." Total injured and killed: 70
2012, Oak Creek, Wisconsin: An Army veteran opened fire in a Sikh gurdwara. Total injured and killed: 10
2012, Minneapolis, Minnesota: A fired employee at Accent Signage Systems killed the business owner, three employees, a UPS driver, and himself. Total injured and killed: 8
2012, Newtown, Connecticut: A young man killed 26 people including his mother and 20 children between the ages of 5 and 10 at Sandy Hook Elementary School. As of this writing, total injured and killed: 27