There they were in the Breaking News live-shot, terrified American teenagers lined up like criminals on the sprawling green lawn of their high school, following the commands of law enforcement by emptying the contents of their backpacks then doing the perp walk, single file, arms raised high, fingers spread wide, demonstrating their innocence.
Another school shooting. Santa Fe, Texas.
As a New York Times reporter wrote, this is what school looks like now. “Lockdown drills, active shooter drills. It’s a procedure they have learned, and what you are seeing is a kind of horrible field trip, a deadly exam. You send your kids to school, and one of the things they learn is how not to die.”
This summer I will go to my 35 year high school reunion, and it occurs to me that these are the things I worried about from 1979 to 1983: Will I ever get more than a C in Mr. Wittenborn’s science class? How many lunches can I afford this week? What if I don’t make the basketball team and, if I do, how will I get home from practice? Will Shawn ask me to the homecoming dance? Can I fake my mom’s signature on a “this is why she’s late” note? Will John’s Corner Grocery give me a job before I turn 16 so I can save $800 to buy an old green Gremlin?
What I did not worry about, what none of us could fathom back then, was getting gunned down in art class.
“It’s not the guns,” we insist, banking upon our memories of the past. We say things like, “I grew up with guns,” or “we never locked up our guns,” or “I was bullied but I never shot anybody,” or “I drove to school with guns in my truck.”
We cannot fathom getting gunned down in art class because we grew up before April 20, 1999. We grew up before Columbine.
Columbine (and every mass shooting for two decades after) made the unthinkable thinkable. You can do something about the bullies, about feeling like a nobody; you can teach that girl who embarrassed you a lesson; you can put those smug, arrogant jocks in their place; you can gun down the mean teacher. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people, and by-God you’re a boy with easy access to weapons and you know how to use them. You could be famous. And what is more quintessentially American in 2018 than our beloved 2nd Amendment paired with the fantasy of eternal fame?
Columbine was our Stage I cancer, and it keeps metastasizing and killing us because we have made a choice to wrap ourselves in the constitution and do nothing.
After the mass shooting in Santa Fe, when asked if she was surprised it happened at her school, one little girl said heartbreakingly no, “It’s been happening everywhere. I’ve always kind of felt like eventually it was going to happen here too.”
As if on cue, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick then said, “There are too many entrances and too many exits to our over 8,000 campuses …maybe we need to look at limiting the entrances and exits to our schools.”
When I heard this, I imagined the horrified reaction of my friend Kim, a retired fire chief. Kim, who scared me into rarely lighting candles and warned about the dangers of portable propane. What would he say about a thousand kids and teachers locked in a giant building with only one or two ways out?
On Sunday, Lt. Gov. Patrick told CNN, “We stand strong together on the rock of faith and the rock of our constitution. We believe in our freedom and our liberties and our 2nd Amendment.”
And yet, mass shootings are as all-American as baseball. Is this freedom? Our kids are afraid to go to school, and we are afraid to send them. We are willing to consider arming teachers, limiting the number of doors, putting more police officers on campus, retrofitting entrances and exits, clear backpacks, kevlar backpacks, metal detectors, bulletproof glass, and new and improved lockdown drills.
We are willing to consider turning our schools into prisons. We are willing to consider everything. Everything but guns.