In high school, I was worried about a lot. I was worried about getting good grades, getting into college, finding new and inventive ways to make myself known to my crushes. I was worried about track meets and my performance in them; I was worried about an upcoming test. I was worried that my shirt was too wrinkled and that I had forgotten to do my homework. I was worried about the ending of the Mayan Calendar on December 21, 2012.
I was not worried about getting shot.
The mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012 took place during my senior year of high school. It was the first time I realized danger could be breathing down your neck, completely unbeknownst to you. But, like a lot of people I think, we believed – prayed, hoped against hope – that this was an anomaly. That what happened in Sandy Hook could not – would not – happen again. I remember President Barack Obama reading out the names of the victims, his voice steadily breaking down but remaining holy and baritone.
Unfortunately, as the years have passed, what happened in Sandy Hook was not an anomaly. It was one chapter in a book of alarming trends – lone gunmen with semiautomatic assault rifles wreaking havoc, death and terror upon unsuspecting communities. I remember the massacre in Pulse Nightclub in Orlando – the then-largest massacre in modern United States history with 49 people, many queer and of Latinx descent, dead. That number was surpassed on October 1, 2017 with the Las Vegas massacre, leaving 59 dead.
Every time, it followed the same pattern. Horror as the event and aftermath unfolded. Offerings of “thoughts and prayers” sent out by legislators. Calls from civilians and Democrats alike to change gun control laws, met by claims of “politicizing tragedy.” If I go to my grave never hearing “politicizing the tragedy” again, it will be too soon. And eventually, we move on – whether at the hands of another tragedy or another political scandal or time and space from the blast.
“Thoughts and prayers” sticks nauseatingly in my ears as it becomes more and more clear that lawmakers will do nothing to change gun control laws. They will twist the request, claiming that it is an affront and an attack on law-abiding citizens. They will cite the Second Amendment, they will say that the answer is more guns, more weaponizing. The lines in the sand will become deeper and deeper, carving up innocent people along the way.
Even as I’m writing this, the survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida are being attacked and derided on social media for calling for gun control. Commentators like Tomi Lahren and politicians like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio falsely claim that the survivors do not want gun control, only to be flatly disproved by the actual survivors.
If this were a bombing, the response would be different. It’s gruesome to say, but it’s true. If the shooter were Muslim, or a person of color, the response would be different. But there is something about this particular combination – white, young, male; semiautomatic weapon – that does not elicit the appropriate response. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that there will never be the appropriate response.
And why is that? Why is it that when teens started eating Tide Pods, there was a response within the month? That we have to take off our shoes at airports because of one man tried to ignite explosives hidden in his shoes? Why is it that the party that holds such strong beliefs, often on marriage rights, freedom of speech, abortion and personal property, has such a lax response?
It is because, in part, the National Rifle Association has a chokehold on the Republican politicians in power. It’s easy enough to look up which politicians have accepted funds and donation from the NRA, and to see how they respond and react to these tragedies.
Those donations, however great or small, are worth more, we’ve seen, than people’s lives. Because Sandy Hook was not enough. Orlando was not enough. Las Vegas was not enough. It has not been enough to incite action.
Despite it all, I have to hope against hope that this time will be different. It will be different, in part, because of the #MeToo movement. Because we are in a period of change, where the voices of the disenfranchised and oppressed are forceful enough to make change. Because the mighty totems of power that once held the status quo in check have begun to topple. Because we are getting tired of the cloying sympathies that evaporate within seconds.
This goes beyond party lines; this goes beyond those grooves drawn in the sand. There are ways to limit and curtail the purchase and possession of semiautomatic weapons without infringing upon the rights of law-abiding citizens.
It cannot, and should not, be up to citizens to prevent these tragedies. It is not, as President Trump said, the fault of bystanders to proactively recognize and stop shooters – something even the FBI failed to do. This conversation should not be about the red herring of mental health, as it so often becomes. It should not be about fear-mongering or the blame game. It should be, and must be, about active reform.
Kids should not be worried about getting shot during class. They should not, as the Washington Post reported, have to bring bullet-proof vests “just in case.” They should be allowed to be kids; they should not have to die, should not have to bury peers, should not have to leave parents and friends and goals behind.
This will not get better; this will not diminish. This trend will continue. This does not end until we change how we react.
For everyone affected in Parkland, Florida, I’m sorry that you’re going through this. I am so sorry that we did not do enough. But we will. Because we have to.