The New Normal?
I grew up in the state of Colorado. It’s known for cowboys, mountains, skiing, smoking pot, the Broncos, but also — mass school shootings. Since the recent shooting at Seattle Pacific University my connection to mass murder and school shootings has become all too familiar.
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My younger brother is a freshman at Seattle Pacific University where a 26-year-old with a shotgun recently killed one and injured three others in the latest school shooting. My brother is finishing up his first year of school as a music major before moving to Santa Cruz in the summer to work as Christian summer camp counselor. While untouched by the damage to the shooter, another young man on the same dorm floor as him, Paul Lee, was not so fortunate. He was taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead (three other wounded victims survived). Though the body count was considerably less than recent events at Santa Barbara, its timing mirrors the increasing normality with which such shootings are now taking place. Sadly, a tragedy such as this merely becomes fodder for political bickering and ideological advancement.
My brother and I grew up with guns in the town of Bailey, Colo. Bailey is a strange mixture of rednecks, conservative Christians, new age folks, commuters, hippies, outdoor enthusiasts, and undeniably proud gun owners. My dad was a hunter and kept a rifle beneath his bed, which was made out of Aspen trees he chopped, stripped, and stained himself. Every October he would take a week off work and go into the mountains with some friends to go hunt. He’d usually come back with a deer or elk and our family would stock our freezer full of meat. I think more than anything, he liked getting out into the woods and hanging out with friends.
Growing up I had no problem with guns. They were a tool. Like a knife or hatchet. People are proud of the second amendment right in Bailey, a lot of them hunters. A common refrain heard around town (in the case of shootings) is that if only more people had guns we could curb the gun violence done by “psychopaths.” Fight back so to speak. People say that in countries where more guns exist, there are fewer acts of violence. People say that mass shooting are sensationalized by the media and other homicides, involving knives or other objects, are never mentioned. In both cases the facts become murky fast.
Bailey is a small mountain town about an hour southwest of Denver. It’s a mere 40 minutes away from the suburb of Littleton and Columbine High, the now infamous site of perhaps the first mass shooting that really rocked the American psyche. One of the families who lost a son in the shootings attended our church for a couple of years. Then there was the Aurora movie theater shootings. I used to go to Aurora in high school to watch movies in one of the state’s last drive-in theaters.
In 2006 a drifter by the name of Duane Morrison walked into our local high school (Platte Canyon High) and barricaded six girls into a classroom. He sexually harassed some of them before a SWAT team arrived and entered into negotiations with Morrison, enabling five of the six girls to escape unharmed (at least physically). He shot the other girl, then himself. Her name was Emily Keyes. Same grade as my sister. My sister, as God or luck would have it, was coincidentally not there, although one of her best friends ended up in the same barricaded room as Keyes (I was in college).
I’d like to think that I am the only one with a brother or loved one who has witnessed multiple shootings, but I doubt it. In fact, I bet my connections to multiple school shootings are weaker than most. Still the question remains: If we as thinking, feeling human beings wish to seek life and prosperity of our brothers and sisters (both literal and figurative) what are we to do? The issue retains complexity without a doubt. Some regulation? Probably. In Australia — where since 1996 the country has enforced a strict gun control policy, as well as a buyback program, to curb gun violence — there has not been a mass shooting since 1996. Part of the problem is just how big America is, interlacing the rural with the urban, the federal with the state.
Currently guns account for 67.9 percent of all homicides, as reported by the “Crime in the U.S.” section of the F.B.I.’s website (knives or other cutting instruments account for 13 percent, personal weapons (like fists) 5 percent, blunt objects 3 percent and “other” dangerous weapons 9 percent. Many gun related homicides are gang related and 60 percent are suicides. In general, violent crime by guns is down, and, perhaps even more disturbing, most of the guns obtained by perpetrators of mass shootings obtained their weapons legally.
Mass shootings are undeniably tragedies, but they do make up a relatively small percentage of over all gun deaths. Cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Long Beach, and Newark all have high homicide rates and gang deaths, but we don’t hear about these as often. It seems as if death by mass shootings is simply becoming the new norm. Even The Onion recently offered the chilling headline, “‘No Way to Prevent This’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens,” succinctly commenting on our collective apathy. What are the answers? More guns? Less guns? Hit it at the core of mental illness?
Unfortunately there will always be murder. Guns just allow us to engage in murder more efficiently. But does this mean we should accept mass shootings as the new norm? Are such events now so commonplace that we shrug our shoulders with mere apathy? As if shootings were as unavoidable as death by old age? Although I think it’s unfair to focus on the killings of one or two people at public schools lest we forget the murder rates of Chicago and Los Angeles (or even somewhere like Syria, where more than 160,000 people have been killed in three years), I believe mass shootings rock our collective psyche for a reason. They are random and at their heart — the definition of terrorism. They are an affront to our modern sensibilities, and I might even go so far to say, to our inherent racism or prejudice against others. It makes sense when gang members or “psychos” kill others. “It’s not the guns, it’s the people,” we say. “And thank God we are not like them.”
Seattle sticks out because it was so close to the Santa Barbara shootings, (yet while writing this there was yet another shooting in Portland). But it’s already making fewer headlines. An article in the Washington Post recently pointed out that there have been 74 school shootings since Newton. Perhaps shootings will become so common that we won’t even hear about them on the news anymore, just like gang deaths or Syrian casualties. The faces of the dead are just withering into numbers and talking points.
Levi Rogers is a writer and coffee roaster out of Salt Lake City, Utah. He graduated from the University of Utah with degree in English and likes to write poetry and creative non-fiction. He currently attends Missio Dei Community.
Image: Bullets with crayons. Via TFoxFoto/Shutterstock.