In America we shoot people, at an alarming rate. Guns are filling the screens, worn mattresses, 16-bar rap verses and book bags of frustrated teenagers. We’ve accepted the “great equalizer” for better or worse. No matter how misguided the shooter, or how gruesome the details, the greater American public sighs and clutches their steel gods again. One hand washes blood, the other washes memories. Our amnesia as a republic punctuates itself with every grieving mother on CNN, bawling on the 24-hour news cycle and asking the universe “why?” over a bodybag. And the why is remarkably as complex as the gunmen themselves. One can agree, though, that America has ample evidence to determine why men and women put bullets into one other so profusely, but the choice of schools as their final act should be a cause for concern, as should the reality that we move on so well after the fact.
Seung-Hui Cho had the privilege of sitting among dozens of students in poet laureate Nikki Giovanni’s creative writing class in 2005. From the onset, he clashed with the gifted Giovanni. Cho would repeatedly turn in disturbing assignments instead of what was required. One of his pieces detailed how he felt that his classmates should burn in hell for eating meat. On other days, he spent the period taking leery pictures with his phone from under his desk of other students. Most who met him agreed that Cho was suffering internally. Giovanni even threatened to resign if he wasn’t removed from her lectures. Cho’s roommates warned authorities of his suicidal talk and he was evaluated at Carilion St. Albans Psychiatric Hospital. Despite the red flags, Cho returned to school. On April 16, 2007, he amassed the undivided attention of everyone by opening fire. At 7:15 a.m., he killed two students at a dormitory near where he lived. Over two hours later, he chained the doors to a campus building where classes were in session, and killed 30 more people before taking his own life. He had purchased a Walther .22-caliber pistol online in February, and a 9 mm Glock pistol from Roanoke Firearms in March. He is now remembered as the Virginia Tech Shooter.
What happened at Virginia Tech was no aberration. Schoolhouses are a part of the tragic history of shootings in the American experiment. Similar disputes have resulted in gun violence since the mid-1800s. More often than not, they revolved around students upset over disciplinary measures or petty arguments with peers. For example, Matthew Ward (Louisville, Kentucky) shot his schoolmaster dead in 1853 for what he considered to be excessive punishment of his brother the day before. In Agency, Montana in1874, Thomas Sguires killed his superintendent over a suspension by shooting him three times in the abdomen. In Honolulu, Hawaii in 1913, Manuel Fernandez used a shotgun to kill his wife, a teacher, injuring several young students in the room. In 1934, 20 students watched as a jilted suitor killed teacher Margaret Graves in a tiny classroom in Harlan, Iowa. All the above shooters eventually committed suicide.
After the 1950s, school shootings marched on at the same dripping cadence. The year 2000 ushered in a mutated type of gun violence at schools, where dozens of people would be helpless victims. Just a year before, two senior students of Columbine High School in Colorado deafened the world with a massacre only comparable with what we see on the Call of Duty: Black Ops video game. The teens equipped themselves with an Intratec TEC-DC9 (9 mm semi-automatic handgun), a Savage 311-D 12-gauge double-barrel shotgun, 10-shot Hi-Point model 995 carbine rifle, a Savage-Springfield 67H 12-gauge pump shotgun, multiple pocket knives and several homemade bombs. Twelve students and a teacher lost their lives as school cameras documented the gore. Columbine pivoted America’s hearts toward finally reining in a loosely regulated gun industry. And we pondered on the idea, for a moment. Membership to the National Rifle Association grew by nearly 1 million. Although some states like Florida mandated background checks at gun shows, most of the nation chose not to pass legislation acknowledging the crisis. The public found itself in the crosshairs of easily acquired weapons, again.
When children became victims of a deadly ambush at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut in 2012, I thought that would beckon everyone again toward increased gun regulation. Deranged and frustrated Adam Lanza first killed his mother at home, then drove to the school, shot his way into the building and opened fire into classrooms full of first-grade students, indiscriminately murdering 20 children and six school staff. Lanza was profoundly proficient with weapons and had been acclimated to guns since the age of 5. Among the weapons he took to the school was a Bushmaster Model XM15-E2S .223-caliber semiautomatic rifle. The news reports, interviews and funeral procession all spelled out a misery that would never be overcome.
And yet, to this hour, we haven’t graduated from the cognitive dissonance for gun violence, even when oases of learning are susceptible to attack. According to anti-gun violence group Everytown for Gun Safety, since Sandy Hook, there has been on average at least one school shooting per week. Stories disturbingly follow the same line: troubled gunmen plus easily obtained weapons. Yet I believe that if any voice should be echoed in the face of violent uncertainty, it should belong to those who politically parry everyday to curb catastrophe. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren implored deeper reflection into the matter, writing in her book A Fighting Chance, “We lose eight children and teenagers to gun violence every day. If a mysterious virus suddenly started killing eight of our children every day, America would mobilize teams of doctors and public health officials. We would move heaven and earth until we found a way to protect our children. But not with gun violence.”
If an unregulated gun industry is inseparable from the culture and constitutional foundation of this country, then we must also accept our inability to safeguard our most treasured spaces: learning institutions. Next year will bring presidential cage matches, new legislation and opportunities to pry into the cancers of America. Gun regulation has hemorrhaged without fail, and every century has presented its own bizarre atrocities. In June, a young man murdered nine church members during a bible study in South Carolina. We still aren’t acting. The question lingers: How many lives are worth our weapons? Apparently thousands, millions if need be. I often attempt to put myself in the shoes of students, who on autumn and spring mornings, attempt to make the very best out of the American dream. I try to imagine the horror of being under siege at school, where mothers entrust teachers with their children’s futures, where parents send their college-age kids care packages of ramen noodles and coin rolls for laundry. At a glance, it seems simple to label the killers and sociopaths, but what we are facing has deeper meanings. Silence is betrayal. Where does one find sanctuary in this land? Why do we ignore open threats to spaces that should be deemed safe? Why has the government become so indifferent? When does enough truly become enough?