I wrote the majority of this blog post about a month ago -- shortly after the shooting in Newtown, a town only 20 minutes from where I grew up in New Milford. After sending it to a few family members and getting back their comments and edits, I put it away until yesterday, not wanting to read or write anything else about the horrible tragedy that happened so close to home. I felt sick when I thought about Sandy Hook, but it also made me sick to not finish this piece, to not reckon with the sadness and grief I still feel.
Yesterday, President Obama signed 23 executive orders which the Chicago Tribune called the "biggest U.S. gun-control push in generations." In his address to the nation, the president said that he and Vice President Joe Biden will do everything in their power to enact stricter gun control, but he warned Americans that, "The only way we can change is if the American people demand it."
So, along with my story, this is my demand:
On December 14th, I stayed home from work. A little before noon, a news bulletin flashed across the TV screen: there had been a school shooting in Newtown. With the details still sparse, my immediate reaction was to downplay the violence. I did not want to believe that any children had been hurt, let alone killed en masse. Such an act was too unconscionable to fathom.
As the day progressed and I learned that so many young kids and dedicated educators had been murdered in cold blood, I could not escape an unwavering grief. As I sat with a heaviness I could not exhale, I felt sad -- deeply sad -- then guilty.
Here I was, tears in my eyes, feeling terrible for people I had never met. And I felt guilty because I knew that soon enough I would move on -- after reading and writing Facebook status updates that expressed love and despair for my community, I knew eventually I would get over it, that this would not be something I would live with forever. Not like those families, those mothers that had to bury their babies, they do not have the privilege of forgetting. With this realization, my heartache felt cheap -- I would be sad today, but in time, life would get back to normal, just as it had after all the other mass shootings.
The majority of this country, like me, has the privilege of getting over this senseless violence and many of us have a self-protective impulse to do it as quickly as possible. When confronted with something so grating on the nerves and senses, so evil and above all else unconscionable as the murder of so many innocents, the mind demands us to avert our gaze, change the channel and talk about something else. Just as I left this blog post on the shelf for almost a month -- out of sight, but never completely out of mind -- so too do many Americans yearn to stop thinking about Newtown and all those dead kids.
I wondered what it was in the human psyche that begs us to move on, to forget. In the face of such depravity, I believe I wanted -- and still want -- to rationalize this tragedy in an attempt to find closure. I want to know why, as in "Why did this happen?" If I can answer this question, I can give this irrational act a reason, something I can hold onto. In order to endow these seemingly random deaths with meaning, I feel the need to learn more about the killer: who he was, why and how he did this.
My desire to know more about the Newtown killer -- and past American mass murders, beginning with the Columbine boys -- reminded me of a quote by William Manchester, a historian of President John F. Kennedy. In 1992, in a letter to the New York Times, Manchester wrote that, in his opinion, many Americans believed that the JFK assassination conspiracy theories were true because, "[t]o use an odd metaphor...if you put the murdered President of the United States on one side of a scale and...[Lee Harvey] Oswald on the other side, it doesn't balance. You want to add something weightier to Oswald. It would invest the president's death with meaning... He would have died for something. A conspiracy would, of course, do the job nicely.
It is hard for me to understand how someone as inconsequential as the Newtown killer could do something as consequential as rob 26 families of their loved ones. In order to make myself feel better -- less upset by my lack of comprehension -- I want to know everything I can about him so that I can attempt understand why he did this. But when I answer the question of why with a conjecture (e.g. he was "crazy"), I attempt to find closure to the issue by giving the murders a false or hypothetical rationale. By making the massacre more understandable to me and thus more bearable, I have taken the first step toward moving on and allowing gun violence to continue because (following this line of logic) I do not think the system is flawed in this instance, I believe that the individual killer is the problem.
But there is no reason or set of reasons that will ever explain why someone would open fire in an elementary school. The talking heads on TV have posited -- and will continue to suggest -- unfounded answers to the question of why, which will only distract us from the real issue: gun control, or lack thereof. The only truth we know absolutely in this case is that this killer used his mother's legally purchased and registered firearms -- including a military style, semi-automatic weapon -- to kill innocent children and teachers. All of the other supposed reasons behind this atrocity are merely speculation based off of little to no facts. We should not waste our time looking for an answer to the question of why because we will never be satisfied.
I concede, there is merit in the police investigating why the killer did this in order to help ensure it will never happen again. But that is their job, let us do ours. As the debate over gun control gears up in the wake of President Obama's executive orders, I ask that we remain steadfast in our belief that the specific killer is not the problem, the loopholes and lax gun laws are. So, to use Manchester's metaphor, let's stop heaping more weight onto the killer's side of the scale -- we will never really know him or his motives. One of the few things we can do now to endow these senseless deaths with any meaning is to demand of our representatives stricter gun control legislation. That will be one of the few positives that can come out of this tragedy.
Of course, gun control legislation will not be a cure-all. There is an extent to which atrocities will occur in society, but we should still take steps to curtail them. If anything, we need to get creative in order to ensure that we are doing everything we can as a nation to keep our streets and our children safe from firearms. In response to the claim that gun control laws would not have prevented the Newtown massacre because the firearms used were legally purchased and registered, New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg said: "No piece of legislation is perfect and no piece of legislation is 100 percent effective. Think of it like a speeding limit. You may every once in a while violate the speeding limit, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't have speeding limits -- they protect people's lives."
Mayor Bloomberg is right: these new laws are necessary. I know that the prospects of real and lasting gun control legislation seem remote in the face of such tremendous, institutionalized inertia, but to quote President Obama from his speech in Newtown, "Are we really prepared to say that we're powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?" We have a duty to the victims, as the president said, to "find the strength to carry on and make our country worthy of their memory."
So, as we move forward -- and I am speaking to myself as much as anyone -- we need to reflect here in this moment, in this lack of reason, in this unconscionable act. And we cannot -- it is our moral imperative to not move on, to not rationalize why this happened and find closure. To answer, "Why did the killer kill?" is to focus on Newtown in isolation; instead, we need to see this massacre as a systemic issue -- namely, the lack of universal background checks, and the easy accessibility of weapons of war and high-capacity magazines to civilians.
The real question we need to answer is the question of how, as in "How did we let this happen again?" In the movie, Bowling for Columbine, survivor Mike Taylor said: "The kids at Columbine had to pay a penalty that day --for the nation." To that end, the people of Chicago have had to pay an enormous price for decades because of our collective inaction: in 2012 alone, Chicago had over 500 homicides, the vast majority of which caused by gun violence, and between 2003 and 2011, more people have been murdered in Chicago than in the war in Afghanistan -- over 4,265 people, most of whom killed by firearms.
We did not take the appropriate steps after Columbine to rein in the violence and we ignored the problem as the murders escalated in our inner cities. Personally, I gave pathetically little thought to the daily atrocities happening across this country due to gun violence. If I heard about a shooting death, I would be upset momentarily, but I always assumed it was that community's problem - a faraway issue that did not affect me personally. It took the death of 20 first graders in a neighboring town for me to see the connection. Rather than continue to be angry at myself for turning a blind eye to the issue for so long, I choose instead to help make sure (as best I can) that it does not happen again. Newtown has shown us that this is a national concern; the murders in our poor urban communities and the outbursts of mass violence in our rich suburbs are part of the same problem: guns and our country's often sick relationship with them.
So, where do we go from here? As the president said, we need to demand that our Congressmen and women come up with a new and impactful solution to end this violence, and we cannot move on and find closure until they do. The president's executive orders are an important first step, but as he stated, "The most important changes we can make depend on Congressional action."
That means, we as Americans need to resolve that this will be the last mass shooting, this will be the last time we accept gun violence as a given. Though the question of why this happened is a seductive one, the question of how we can prevent this from ever happening again is the only one we need answer.
Accordingly, I ask all National Rifle Association members -- many of whom I would consider to be authorities on responsible gun ownership -- if, as President Obama said, more than 70 percent of NRA cardholders want universal background checks, what else can we do to prevent gun violence? It is clear that what we have done thus far is not enough. And again, I ask in all seriousness, why would anyone need to own a semi-automatic assault rifle? It seems to me that no one needs a certain kind of rifle or ammunition the way a mother needs her child. Is there any way to compromise?
As I write this, I am reminded of a piece a professor I had in college wrote for ESPN. When talking to his grandmother about attending the PEACE tournament in Chicago (a series of basketball games organized to combat gang violence) Professor Kiese Laymon wrote:
Grandma was quiet for a while, then asked me whether the Chicago mothers and grandmothers of kids living and dead would be attending the game.
"I don't know," I told her. "Probably some will."
"Tell those folks at ESPN it would help to get the mamas and grandmamas there," she said. "And tell everybody watching them boys play ball that they need to listen to what the mamas and grandmamas have to say."
Gun violence affects every area of this country and it is a symptom of how our system, our nation, has failed. This time, let's break the cycle, turn away from the killer, his name, his motivations, the why and towards the victims, the families and the how. We have to love the victims of gun violence as deeply as we love our own families and we have to sit with them in grief and use our pain to motivate us to cultivate real, lasting change; or this will happen again and it will be our fault again. The only meaning we can take from this senseless violence will come from the changes we make and the laws we enact. So, for once, let's take some good advice and listen to the mothers.